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Why Sprint turned to biomimicry for packaging design

<p>What happens when a telecom company looks to the armadillo and other critters for packaging innovation?</p>

You can learn a lot from an armadillo. That’s what we found, despite watching new products and packaging launch every day, some with thousands of hours invested in research and development, many with significant sustainability improvements.

We wanted to go further, so we turned to bio-inspiration to help solve our packaging challenges. Studying nature helped us think out of the box about packaging and took us down a path -- without fully understanding where it might lead.

At Sprint, we’ve invested considerable time and resources into creating greener packaging solutions. For the millions of customers who purchase wireless devices each year, the packaging that encases mobile phones is a material issue in our industry. It’s also an area where small changes can make a big impact -- from brand recognition to environmental footprint to the bottom line.

To truly understand the improvements we’ve made over the last few years, we conducted an LCA where we learned we’d reduced our environmental impact by 55 percent (between 2009 and 2012). And while we made good progress, we wanted to think beyond unbleached kraft paper, soy inks and eco-friendly adhesives. We believe the science behind our packaging needs to be more than just protecting the device and making more sustainable packaging choices.

The concept of bio-inspiration or biomimicry is actually a simple concept: To use biological systems and processes to draw analogies that imitate nature’s design for the purpose of developing creative solutions to human challenges. That’s a mouthful but still fairly simple to grasp when you think about corn stalks that can withstand thunderstorms, porcupine quills or tortoise shells as a “built-in” defense. These examples are but a few best understood by the San Diego Zoo at its renowned Centre for Bioinspiration -- and why Sprint approached the center in November 2012. 

It was there that Sprint began working with the center and collaborators who support Sprint’s goal of sustainable packaging innovation. It was there that the Sprint team, our design and packaging partners along with the center’s experts, shared inspiration gleaned from the tortoise along with other first-hand observations of plants, animals and artifacts at the zoo. After intense brainstorm sessions, the team – armed with new learnings of biomimicry, science and nature -- was on its way to embarking on a breakthrough project designed to drive the next generation of sustainable packaging.

Companies that use biomimicry to inspire innovation and look to nature as their very own R&D lab are few, yet growing rapidly. Sprint joins leaders such as Nike and P&G as they look to nature to innovate. The Fast Company article The Booming Business Of Biomimicry states “... a study to quantify the impact of biomimicry in the U.S. shows an eleven-fold increase in the incidence of biomimicry in the research pipeline since 2000.”

By working with the center, the Sprint team learned how to embed biomimicry into the design process through a series of workshops that spanned three primary phases: opportunity identification and research, ideation and development. As part of the process, a project challenge statement was defined: Identify solutions for printed and packaging materials that are innovative, sustainable and cost-effective for retail and consumer channels. The team also considered specific features that were both necessary requirements for product packaging (such as heat, cold and humidity resistant) and relevant to Sprint’s sustainability goals for packaging (recyclability, locally sourced and plant-based biodegradable).

As the team delved deeper into the development phase, several categories were identified to brainstorm against including structural color, natural dyes, materials, manufacturing processes and thematic design. Two of these categories proved to be the most robust for further exploration: materials and thematic design. These categories became the foundation of a two-day development workshop led by the Centre for Bioinspiration's director of corporate programs, Claire Wathen, and Dr. Gabriel Miller, director of research and development.

The workshop sessions were both invigorating and critical, as the team’s collective inspiration and translation of bioinspired opportunities were identified as "pathways" to guide the development of sustainable packaging concepts for Sprint. It was at those sessions where the team’s diverse backgrounds and expertise -- and true collaboration -- came into play.

Admittedly, I enjoyed watching these unexpected pairings of talent and passions for sustainability and biomimicry play out. Watching Ken Gilliam, sustainability strategist at Deutch Design Works, and the center’s horticultural manager, Dan Simpson, was like watching two adult men let loose in a zoo -- oh, wait, we were in a zoo. Ken shared this with me: “Driven by a wildly curious mind, Dan’s passion for teaching the naturally inspired wisdom behind biomimicry made it easy for me to draw more meaningful connections for what is possible by blending science and design.”

The resulting "pathways" were plentiful, bio-inspired and more important, mapped back to Sprint's business opportunity outlined in the original project statement: innovation, cost-effectiveness and sustainability. Tortoise shells, birds’ nests and twine were enough material for on-the-spot prototyping for one path, illustrating the benefits of a hard outer surface with proper cushioning. Strategic weakness, a pattern found in many natural plants and animals, inspired another new solution. Leaves and the hexagonal shapes found on the shell of a happy tortoise led to an idea that provided potential long-term cost efficiencies.

With these pathways -- and "seeds" of inspiration -- Sprint and our design partners are well positioned to continue to innovate our sustainable packaging, and are happy as a well-fed tortoise to tell the story next week in Austin at the 2013 SXSW Eco Conference in the session “Telecom & the Armadillo: A Biomimicry Story.”

Image of armadillo via Flickr

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