S’AVANT Issue 02: A Primer on Biodesign

Welcome to S’AVANT, a series bridging design and tech innovations with branding strategies. Focused on the most relevant insights across the design industry and the latest emerging trends to help you stay updated and future-proof your strategies. In this second issue, the Mayumi Collective & ALAN ARONICA Design Studio will share their insights on biodesign and the business impact it has on evolving consumer preferences.

The Anthropocene

The pressing global challenges that we are currently facing, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating climate emergency, have created a dramatic situation which has rendered Biodesign indispensable for our future. Therefore, it has become crucial for a broader audience to be aware of what Biodesign actually is, why it has become so relevant nowadays and most importantly, why we need it.

To give our readers a primer on Biodesign, let’s begin with the concept of Anthropocene. Despite not being officially recognized, the Anthropocene has been proposed, for well over a century now, as a geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems. The term stands for a powerful concept: acknowledging the increasing power of humanity’s actions upon the planet's systems, as well as their consequences. Although we can’t seem to agree on the start date of this important epoch, what is incontrovertible is the powerful message that it carries. Our collective behaviour and present technologies, have now an impact on our planet of such magnitude that they can permanently alter its condition. The rapid evolution of our technological capabilities over the last century has not yet been matched by the ability to forecast all the possible consequences and ramifications of our actions. This asymmetry has brought a worrisome imbalance that we can all experience to some degree in our daily routines, from heat waves and unlikely seasonal weather to the sudden floods that have recently struck all of Europe.

The shortsighted and mindless approach that we have applied over the last century to feed our consumerist culture is the main cause that led us to the current crisis. Making it even more of an imperative to bring positive changes and mend the damages that we have caused. Fundamentally, this is the purpose of Biodesign.   

Biomimicry, Biophilia and Bio-Collaboration

Biodesign is a relatively recent branch of design. It started only a few decades ago, when urged by scientists, designers all over the world started to research new, more sustainable ways of producing goods. In this brief arch of time, the field of Biodesign has rapidly evolved and in this article we will touch on three key points that represent some of its core concepts, to better understand where it comes from and in which direction it is developing.

It all started with the profound and analytical observation of Nature, as humankind realized that Nature is indeed the best designer. Over millions of years of evolution, through an unforgiving process of selection, Nature has perfected the most efficient and elegant designs. Our first core concept, Biomimicry, is the practice of learning from and mimicking the strategies that Nature has adopted, to solve human design challenges. Biomimicry was perhaps one of the first tangible applications of Biodesign and a very explicative example is the case of the Japanese "bullet" trains [1].

Bullet trains in Japan traveled so fast that, when entering into a tunnel, the pressure wave buildup was so great that they were generating sonic booms. To solve this problem, engineer Eiji Nakatsu redesigned a reduced cross-sectional area of the train's nose by drawing inspiration from the Kingfisher, a species of birds that thanks to the shape of their beak can dive at really high speeds from air to water without creating any splashes to avoid losing eye-contact with their prey.

Bullet Train Japan Eiji Nakatsu

Fig. 1 & 2 Dr. Eiji Nakatsu next to 500 Series Shinkansen train; Bullet train sketches inspired by the kingfisher (Source: Give Design A Chance)

 

Moving towards our next core concept, designers took a step further and started to observe not just the effects that our designs have on the environment but also how our environment affects us in return.

The concept of Biophilia was introduced and popularized by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, with it the American biologist suggested the idea that humans have a deeply ingrained affinity for Nature and other life forms. 

Biophilic Design, which derived from this idea, introduced the notion that our wellness, both physiological and psychological, is deeply entangled with our surroundings, and that therefore we should design our spaces to positively affect us. We all have a strong, natural inclination towards environments that link us in an ancestral way to our past. We always, inevitably search for a connection with other life forms, favouring scenery that appear to be verdant and fertile. As this notion started to be incorporated more and more into Biodesign, the discipline became not just about mimicking nature but also about encompassing it, making it an actual part of our designs.

Finally, we can start thinking about Biodesign and its future direction; Enter our last core concept, Bio-Collaboration. Over the last few years Biodesign has matured to a new level: We understood that, not only do we need to create by looking at Nature, mimicking it in its efficiency and sustainability, but that we also need to design for Nature.

That means no longer designing solely in an anthropocentric way, but instead creating in a manner that is also meaningful for other lifeforms. 

We need to take full responsibility for our powers and bring prosperity to other lifeforms, as their wellbeing is entangled with ours. The best example of such a new and visionary way of designing is the Silk Pavilion project of Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Labs [2]. In the creative process of the Silk Pavilion, humans have collaborated with silkworms to create an architectural design. While humans have created the initial scaffolding, guiding the project towards an intended direction, it was the silkworms who have completed the project in their autonomy, spinning their silk and effectively creating the final design.  

It's important to notice that this happened in a way that could have not been predicted prior to the work being completed: the key here was the lack of obsessive control over the project, knowing that Nature can do a better job if we let it run its course. In the end, through this successful collaboration, humans achieved a stunningly beautiful, functional and sustainable architecture, while the silkworms got to prosper and go about their life cycle undisturbed in a welcoming environment designed to support them. 

Silk Pavilion MIT Mediated Matter​​

Fig. 3 & 4 The Silk Pavilion - Research and design by the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Prof. Fiorenzo Omenetto (TUFTS University) and Dr. James Weaver (WYSS Institute, Harvard University).

 

Biodesign and Brand Architecture

With nature as the focal point of Biodesign, what does it have to do with branding? From a branding perspective, companies are beginning to listen and take steps towards a more proactive stance when it comes to their sustainable practices. As a new wave of consumers emerges along with the prominence of social activism towards causes that matter - there is a strong business case to incorporate the aforementioned concepts into the product design process and brand positioning. People are looking for brands that align with their values. A 2019 survey revealed that 47% of online users worldwide ditched products and services from a brand that violated their personal values. Protecting the environment topped that list. Brands like Patagonia are setting the industry standards of the future with their strong stance against fast fashion and even go as far as discouraging its patrons from purchasing too many of its products. In 2019, they were awarded the Champions of the Earth award by the UN for their entrepreneurial vision that places sustainability at the heart of their brand's purpose [3]. 

Blueprint for an effective brand strategy

Whether you’re building an emerging brand or finding ways to remain relevant as an established one, here are key aspects to establish and elevate your brand’s strategy. 

What’s the vision behind the mission? 

Uncover the reason why you want to pursue sustainable practices. How can you use this to inspire employees, consumers and the community to pursue that vision with you? 

Connect the dots

Drive that vision home by addressing your consumers' needs around shared values centered on sustainability. This strengthens that sense of community and allows your consumers to become drivers of social change by simply supporting your product. 

Find your niche

Saving the world is a multi-enterprise project. While you can’t address all aspects of the climate crisis, focus on areas that are imperative to your business operations. For example, if you’re a furniture designer, establish sustainable sourcing methods for your materials or allot funds to support the preservation of forest in your region. By excelling in this area, you are able to communicate these successes as evidence to support your ongoing vision for the business. 

Conclusion

Looking at the future we will hopefully see Biodesign's core concepts integrated more and more across all industries and not just in university campuses, until it becomes the new normal and we can simply call it good design. Even if you're not a product designer, the values behind Biodesign can be integrated into your brand's architecture as well. Its purpose acts as a focal point for building compelling brands that resonate with future generations hoping to ensure the continuity of this planet through effective business practices and positive change at scale. 

 

References

[1] Visionary who used nature to redesign Japan’s bullet train to speak at CSUCI - California State University Channel Islands. https://www.csuci.edu/news/releases/2017-bullettrain.htm 


[2] Silk Pavilion | MIT Mediated Matter.
https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/silk-pavilion/overview/ https://oxman.com/projects/silk-pavilion-i  


[3] Entrepreneurial Vision | Champions of the Earth - UNEP. https://www.unep.org/championsofearth/award/entrepreneurial-vision 

 

About Mayumi Collective:

Founded by Ysabella Louise, Mayumi Collective is an online platform featuring emerging design creatives, while also exploring global design trends and offering consultative market insights on branding and content incubation.

About ALAN ARONICA Design Studio:

ALAN ARONICA Design Studio operates at the convergence of Ars & Technē, exploring emerging innovations as a medium to bring the future closer.

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