What’s in a name?

Bio-utilization, biomimetics, biologically inspired design. What’s the difference? Why should we care? These terms all convey the use of biology to solve human challenges, and the relationships between biology and human technical problems. Yet, each term is subtly different and emphasizes a different type of relationship. These shifts in emphasis change the role of biology as a source of innovation, and require shifts in the methods and resources we employ to engage with biology for design.

Unpacking these terms carefully reveals the important dissimilarities in how biology contributes to problem solving in each case. Bio-utilization corresponds to direct usage of a biological system, an organism, or its parts, to solve a problem. Bio-plastics are an excellent example, where bacteria act as manufacturing centers to make polymers from simple sugars. As a term, biomimetics literally means to copy life. It invokes duplicating some aspect of biology, often form or shape, as a problem solving method. We see this often in the search for novel forms in architecture. The Bird’s Nest stadium that housed the 2008 Beijing Olympics is biomimetic in form as it resembles houses that birds build. Biologically-inspired design implies that biology may act as a model or source of principle for addressing a challenge in a particular way. Velcro was the result of using disordered masses of fibers and small hooks to join things together, in the same way as seeds stick to fur. But it does not depend on copying the properties of fur and seeds (biomimetics), or using them directly (bio-utilization).

We may order these different terms with respect to how literal the translation is from biology to design. Bio-utilization is the most literal, directly using organisms, components and systems from nature, usually modified for human purposes. Biologically inspired design is the least literal (or the most analogical), since the natural systems represent a model, or a set of principles or guidelines, that can be more generally applied to solve a problem. Biomimetics is somewhere in the middle, copying elements of nature directly into the design. In this case, nature is neither used directly, nor used as a model or analogy. (I distinguish between the term biomimicry used here, and the organization and movement Biomimicry (capital B).  The movement includes practioners who employ all of these methods.  Biomimicry 3.8, perhaps the flagship representative of this group, advocates and advances the practices of bio-utilization, biomimicry and bio-inspired design.)

These differences matter because each method has strengths and weaknesses, and requires different techniques and resources to employ. Each is best at solving particular challenges. Bio-utilization is suited to cases where the organism achieves a function that is precisely what we may need; our designs inherit many of the same strengths and weaknesses of the organism itself. We may be able to engineer some changes, but bacteria are bacteria and we must accept these limitations if they are used directly. Biomimicry (small B) is often quick and straightforward to implement, and produces innovative forms and shapes with natural, biophilic appeal. This does not assure different or novel functionality. Moreover, organisms achieve functions in a specific biological context that often may not match the circumstance or requirements of the human problem. We are limited in that we cannot copy solutions to human-context problems that do not exist in the evolutionary storehouse of biological wisdom. Perhaps more importantly, biomimetic designs cannot reproduce an entire system, only certain features, and the simplest ones at that. Often, the innovative and desirable features in biological solutions cannot be achieved by copies because we cannot engineer at the same scale and level of complexity as does Nature.

Using organisms as models or sources of principle currently offers the best chance of innovation. Biologically-inspired design emphasizes understanding (often, deeply technical understanding) of the biological mechanisms or processes that produce innovation when mapped onto a human challenge. Where copying may not be achievable, and where context matters, these principles may be transferred to find a solution workable within the constraints of human technology. Although this method of problem solving remains subject to technological constraints, identifying principles often allows us to implement them in a new way. The current breed of agile robots does not depend on our ability to copy muscle and bone, only to achieve balance and stability in the same way used by animals, and is a considerable departure from our previous implementations. Bio-inspired design also recognizes that organisms may not solve exactly the same problems required in our own processes or devices. There is no organism (at least in so far as I am aware!) that makes a strong adhesive for joining tissue a wet environment, but that degrades over time. Yet, combining principles from different organisms, each of which has solved a piece of the problem, has allowed us to do just that.

The emphasis on identifying useful general principles and determining how to abstract and transfer them is at the heart of bio-inspired design. This presents numerous intellectual challenges, particularly for those not used to thinking in an interdisciplinary way. As is often true, however, success in this endeavor is not a matter of having the bio-inspired gene, or some mysterious capacity for creativity that cannot be understood. Biologically-inspired designers come from careful training based on the requirements of the field. Where there is a will, there is a way.

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