What’s a biologist to do (to be good at design)?

Biology, of course, is essential to biologically inspired design. It is the source of basic principles, solutions, if you will, that are used to generate a product or process. Ideally, the different ways that natural vs. human-designed products accomplish function is what makes biological knowledge both necessary and valuable. But, developing a product is an engineering pursuit that depends on the application of knowledge, which is not necessarily what biologists do. So, does one really need biological expertise for biologically inspired design? If so, what sort of biological training or experience is most helpful?

Biologists contribute several essential elements to Deep Biologically Inspired Design. First, biologists have knowledge pertaining to the ways that organisms or natural systems accomplish functions that are the objective of a particular design. Second, biologists are invaluable for identifying the most potentially robust or useful set of principles that are relevant for achieving a particular design goal. Third, biologists have deep subject knowledge that can be required for assessing the suitability or practicality of a given set of mechanisms that might provide a solution when transferred to a human product. Finally, the deep knowledge possessed by a biologist is enormously helpful in identifying essential gaps in our understanding that might inhibit our ability to successfully translate a given principle into human technology. In theory, the availability of fundamental biological knowledge contained in countless papers and research products would seem to suggest biological expertise is not necessary. In reality, the sheer volume of information and the difficulty of extracting meaning from this literature makes Deep Biologically Inspired Design extremely inefficient, if not impossible, without a biologist at the design table.

Identifying and ranking the importance of particular biological principles as potential solutions is, of course, essentially a search problem, but it is an enormously difficult one. Biologists “speak” a different language than engineers and designers; “stress” to a physiologist means something different than it does to a mechanical engineer. Biologists also have a different view of function than engineers. Biologists think of how organismal properties confer survival advantages, whereas engineers describe systems in terms of fundamental physical principles. For instance a biologist would discuss how shell strength offers protection from predators or the environment. Although physical principles underlie these functions, it would be enormously difficult for those without a biological background to phrase search queries in a way that corresponds to the biological focus. Moreover, because the design of a biological organism is the result of an unintentional evolutionary process, an evolutionary perspective helps to assess the quality of potential solutions. Organisms share features because of relatedness. Thus, a widely seen solution might or might not be the best solution-it might simply reflect a search process that results in picking a set of creatures close enough on the tree of life to share the same property. A basic working knowledge of evolutionary processes helps to conduct exhaustive and thorough searches across environments and animal groups. Biologists, then, can act as both a thesaurus linking organismal properties to engineering concepts and a lens for focusing on the right biological strategies or principles.

As subject matter experts, biologists have deep insights necessary not only for finding design solutions, but assessing them as well. Again, the background knowledge required to fully comprehend biological processes, and the discipline specific language of biology means that deep understanding of a biological system is difficult for those outside the field. Moreover, even a simple biological system is enormously complex, and may not be fully described. Or such descriptions may be found in difficult to identify places. A biologist with a firm grasp of what is known (and not known) is in a better position to determine whether sufficient knowledge exists to apply a potential solution, compared to someone from outside the field.

The potential contributions that a biologist brings to the design process help us to identify what biological expertise is useful. First, a working knowledge of evolutionary relationships is requisite for the ability to find robust principles that do not simply reflect taxonomy. Moreover, fundamental grounding in evolutionary biology can help identify systems where subtle variations across different organismal groups define design patterns (i.e. variations on a theme), and how to fine tune the design to a very specific set of circumstances. Because of the need to initially conduct broad surveys, biologists familiar with the comparative method (examining biological properties in light of specific environmental or other constraints) generally are more comfortable and efficient at finding and screening potentially useful biological models. Though deep subject knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient. A biologist without a broad based understanding of important biological processes at all levels has too narrow a platform.  If necessary, a biologist with broad training can identify experts with sufficiently deep knowledge regarding a specific biological process; this often is required at the end stages of deep biologically inspired design where ideation gives way to translation. Beyond biological knowledge, the requirement for translating concepts across domains means the biologist must be able to understand, at least on a basic level, engineering frameworks used to describe or predict functionality.

Biologically inspired design is an emerging field at the intersection of several disciplines, As such, the required body of knowledge is still being defined, and biologists are not trained specifically for this role. Broad training tends to be more prevalent in areas of biology with a more organismal focus, and biologists in these fields have a long history of investigating biological phenomena with engineering tools. Biological areas focused on cellular and molecular mechanisms tend to emphasize depth. The sheer volume of highly technical literature here means scientists in these areas often specialize in a particular system or process, and this rarely provides an opportunity for familiarity with processes at other levels. Variation in the emphasis of breadth to depth may account for the relative success of biologically inspired designs in the area of materials, mechanics and sensing, which have a tradition of comparative research. Still, although individuals in the more organismal areas may be pre-adapted for biologically inspired design, the defining characteristics relate as much to intellectual style as subject area. A well trained biologist in any field can have the required skills and perspective, or if willing, can be rapidly brought up to speed by biologists familiar with the deep biologically inspired design process.

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