Framing Our Design Challenges: Introducing the Bio Design Cube

Framing Our Design Challenges: Introducing the Bio Design Cube

If we're going to effectively look to nature as a “model, measure and mentor” as Janine Benyus wrote in her groundbreaking book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," then we might want to have a framework for that search. This framework ought to be complete, useful, instructive and provocative. In other words, it should map out a reasonable universe of possibilities to investigate, be directly helpful in starting a search, inform further study and provoke thought about the study itself.

The field of bio-inspired design can be characterized by emerging and fast-changing developments, scattered sources in specialized subjects, and seemingly limitless scope. This is not reassuring to a generalist designer looking for an easy protocol for inquiry. Often proposed integrations of biological inspiration and technological application look more like collisions.

There are, of course, designers who follow a rational path to their bio-solution, and there is also an excellent search resource available at, where you can track solutions by several criteria and categories.

Many designers, however, don't seem to know how to begin their quest or how their inquiry fits into the larger scheme of things. Unfortunately they often become lost in anecdotes of amazing creatures and lose sight of their ultimate goal: To solve a problem.

My solution is the Bio Design Cube. Like all cubes, this one has three dimensions, and, therefore, three axes. Each axis represents a major characteristic divided into three parts. Since my intent is to provide a “search frame” for designers to organize their bio-design inquiry, I've kept the number of cells to a minimum, but the cube is expandable.

First axis: “What is it?” The three phenomena of Form, Process and System seem to cover the possibilities in this universe, and indeed, these divisions are often used in biological investigation.

Boin Design Cube

Second Axis: “What is its key parameter?” For this I have chosen Information, Energy and Structure as the factors that might drive a particular phenomenon. We will see later that there are other parameters that could be considered. We will also see how shifting emphasis from one to the other can have an impact on our built world.

Third axis: “Where can it be applied?” The most general categories of human endeavor that I can think of are Discovery, Creation and Production, but I suppose that a more utilitarian version would list the professional domains of Science, Design and Business as the divisions of this axis (Business is used here as a general term that includes the “business” of government). My friend and colleague Norbert Hoeller offers these three terms to unite mine: understanding, exploring, and making.     

Theoretically, your solution should be contained in one of the 27 cells of the cube, each a combination of one of the three factors: phenomena, key parameters and areas of endeavor.

As is typical in bio-inspired design, you can use the cube to approach your problem either from the problem end - “I need a process that is most determined by information that I can use in the business arena” - or from the biological mentor end - “This self-cleaning lotus leaf is most distinctly a form, the most salient parameter seems to be structure and I think I could best use it in a design application.”

Naturally, many occurrences in our world do not fit neatly or exclusively into these cells. It may be evident to you also that there are multi-directional flows of information possible within the cube. Choosing one cell or axis as a starting point will determine a unique pathway in your design approach and there is a two-way flow of influence implied for all the walls of each cell, much like a natural membrane. The relationships between the cells (and the relative emphasis given to each), therefore, become as important as the substantive content discovered in their space. In short, despite its reductionist appearance, this search frame can be extended into a more systemic tool.

Extended or not, the cube is useful for visualizing how a change in emphasis in the key parameter can be a path to innovation. In “Natural Capitalism,” authors Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins cite a number of cases in which a change of emphasis can lead to improvements. One is of an engineer who, questioning dogma, realized that enlarging the diameter of the pipes in his building and designing a more direct layout would reduce his need for more powerful pumps, saving energy, space and money. Translated to the cube, he de-emphasized the energy parameter (bigger pumps), and emphasized structure (wiser layout of bigger pipes). As Janine Benyus has pointed out, nature offers a treasure trove of these “track-jumping” innovation ideas.

Julian Vincent has spent decades unearthing some of these ideas. He is a professor of Biomimetics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, and the director of the Biomimetic and Natural Technologies group there. He is also the associate chief editor of the Journal of Bionic Engineering. He and his colleagues have taken a serious look at six parameters germane to problem solving: Information, energy, structure, time, space and substance. Their purpose was to compare the use of each in technological versus biological problem-solving across a range of sizes.

Their conclusions should be of interest to designers who aspire to create innovative solutions. Vincent points out “… in technology the manipulation of energy can account for up to 70% of the solution to technical problems, whereas in biology, energy never figures more than 5% of the time.” The article concludes that the biological solutions tended to emphasize information and structure, were more hierarchical and systems-based and therefore more applicable to a wide range of sizes. Technological solutions, by contrast, tended to be more narrowly focused and less scalable and sometimes problematic at a different scale.

In other words, according to Vincent, our standard “go to” solution, energy, isn't nature's primary choice at all. As a matter of fact, it wasn't always ours either. Professor Vincent makes the case that our current “heat, beat and treat” methods can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and our ability to tap fossil fuels (first coal and then oil) for a cheap and abundant energy source. Unlike nature, we now beat the embedded information and structure out of a substance with huge amounts of energy, reform it and, with even more energy, put some selective information back in.

I would add that the Industrial Revolution itself could be defined as the newfound ability to capture, store and concentrate energy for work. The so-called Information Age can be seen as the capability to similarly process information for the same purpose. Our next historical advance may be the Biological Revolution, where concepts and methodologies based on information, structure, energy and substance in natural systems will provide compelling alternatives to our current practices. Will it come about? I don't know, but taking your biological mentor through the Bio Design Cube for some unthought-of ideas might help.

Tom McKeag teaches bio-inspired design to at the California College of the Arts and University of California, Berkeley. He is the founder and president of BioDreamMachine, a nonprofit educational institute that brings bio-inspired design and science education to K12 schools.

Cubes - CC license by jared and f_mafra