Blending the Virtual with the Physical in Green Conference Hopping

The Biomimicry Column

Blending the Virtual with the Physical in Green Conference Hopping

California Academy of Sciences exhibit - / CC BY-SA 2.0

This has been an educational month for me. I tuned into the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference via their new digital forum, toured the California Academy of Sciences with Janine Benyus, and attended two days of the Turning the Tide conference.

I learned a lot from these experiences, not the least being what new ideas can be generated from diverse sources. Indeed, I think aspiring innovators should plan to mix it up in different venues and compare both the messages and the delivery. One of the exciting aspects of our times is that there is an explosion in ways to do just that.

Take, for instance, the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. The conference offered a free digital attendance for first-time attendees this year; if you couldn't afford the hotel and travel, the electrons could come to you. Bill McDonough, Vinod Khosla and Yvon Chouinard, among others, discussed the current trends and challenges of green business.

I would describe the theme of the conference as “Profit and Progress,” and it seemed that most speakers believed that the private sector is the best hope for a green and lasting change. However, business will have to change its approach to achieve this, according to McDonough. We will have to capsize our usual practice of moving from metrics to strategies to goals to principles and finally ending up with resultant values. Instead, the starting point should be values, and the rest should flow from that. According to one panel, the emerging issues that will shape those values are climate change as it intersects all enterprises, the availability of water and the drive toward efficiency.

It is this last point that seems to offer the most compelling case for those in business. It's pretty difficult to argue with saving money while saving the planet, and it seems that the argument that one can do both is being won by heroes like Ray Anderson of Interface, and embraced by giants like Walmart and Ford Motors, which were both represented at the event.

Of course new initiatives, by their nature, take drive and smarts. As Chouinard noted, “Living an examined life in business can be a pain in the ass.” There are rich opportunities as well, however. Transportation, energy storage, water, building materials and education were all mentioned as trillion-dollar industry transformations that we will be witnessing in the years ahead.

The trends of increased emphasis on durability and of moving from providing products to providing services were also mentioned. Scott Griffith, chairman and CEO of Zipcar, provided a perfect example. Zipcar's business is not to sell cars, but to provide transportation, and the company has recently enjoyed a 25 percent annual growth doing just that.

Members locate one of 6,500 cars online, punch an access code to get in and drive away with a vehicle filled with gas and covered by insurance. When they are done, they leave the car for another of the company's 360,000 members.

The average U.S. household spends 19 percent of its income on transportation, typically for car ownership, according to Griffith, but uses the car only 10 percent of the time, and this is where Zipcar scoops the change off the floor. The customer also benefits from this efficient system; the average Zipcar household spends only 5 percent of their income on transportation and can devote the saved 14 percent to other things. The green byproduct is less air pollution from more selective use and fewer manufactured cars.

I traveled from the world of business to the world of research and public education on my trip to the California Academy of Sciences. Many thanks to Janine Benyus' Biomimicry Institute for the invitation and to our gracious host, John McCosker, of the Aquatic Biology Department at the Academy.

The Academy houses one of the world's largest research collections, with over 26 million specimens of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, insects and other invertebrates since 1853. As McCosker explained, “We do the nouns,” meaning they're collecting, identifying and cataloguing the world's species, so that others can investigate further. Expeditions go out from the Academy to the far reaches of the world, including Madagascar and the Galapagos.

Traditional institutions like the Academy are a great resource for design innovation, and they are also poised for greater contributions as access to their collections is opened up.

For instance, Brian Fisher of the Academy's Entomology Department has been working for seven years to digitize images of the 30,000-species ant collection and post it on the Antweb website. Benyus' visit was itself an example of new alliances being formed to make better use of these stunning informational resources. She is keenly interested in making this type of material available to designers of all sorts.

The Biomimicry Institute's groundbreaking site is a sterling example of biological information arranged functionally for the professional problem-solver (that means you). In the future you can expect to see more sophisticated access platforms to taxonomic data in all industries, particularly of the augmented reality type pioneered by Sean White of Columbia University.

It was a great treat to tag along in the specimen stacks with Janine, and the knowledgeable and accomplished research scientists at the Academy. It was a reminder that, despite our digital progress, sometimes there is no substitute for the real thing: Running your hand over the mouth plate of a remora, or feeling the strong lightness of a Venus flower basket, for example, and asking an expert about it. Most striking was the rich and innovative conversation that arises when different professional backgrounds converge around a common value. As Janine said, it was “nerd-a-licious.”

My next stop during the week was at Professor Paz Gutierrez' “Pneumatic Networks” architectural studio class at Cal, where students were presenting their designs for deployable structures for shelters in flood-prone coastal zones. This was indeed a window into the future of design and the people who will be practicing it, and it was an honor to take part.

Complexity and the study and design of systems solutions is a given in this course, as is the looking to nature for inspiration for those systems. Gutierrez is an example of an architect who has gotten up from her workstation and gone and talked to scientists about materials and methods. She has an exciting collaboration with Luke Lee of the Bioengineering Department of which I will write at a later date.

My final event of the week was the Turning the Tide conference, now in its second year. This is an exceptionally well-run sustainability forum in a spectacular national park setting that was made possible by innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors. The Institute at the Golden Gate, the forum's sponsor, is a program of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a private partner with the National Park Service.

This year's theme was connecting personal and planetary health. The speaker's roster included Nobel Prize winner Stephen Schneider, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Alice Waters. It also included a diverse group of speakers from the financial, business, nonprofit, media and academic sectors. What struck me about this group was their passion for their subjects, which many of them had personally invented. If there was a group that represented Paul Hawken's observation of Blessed Unrest, this was it.

This was a different crowd from the Fortune conference, but both groups shared some characteristics and attendance at both events. Chief among them was this recasting of themselves, this reframing of the mission. For example, it was surprising to consider that IBM was in the business of watershed conservation and desalination through its software and services, or that eBay's business was actually material re-use, or that a windows manufacturer like Serious Materials' real mission was conservation.

Secondly, in order to reframe their mission, many had to step outside their expected area of expertise and influence. Doctors getting involved in park land planning in the interest of public health, business executives stepping in to leverage social justice for the sake of the bottom line, and corporate marketers turning to political activism were examples that I heard.

All in all, a very rich week, and I look forward to writing more about some of the people I met and the interesting work that they are doing.

Tom McKeag teaches bio-inspired design 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.

California Academy of Sciences exhibit - / CC BY-SA 2.0