5 ways exploring biology drives creativity

5 ways exploring biology drives creativity

Everywhere Jay Harman looks, he sees the same thing. In galaxies, whirlpools, nautilus shells, the anatomy of the inner ear, human skin pores, tornados, the structure of DNA, firestorm flares, even in the spacing and arrangement of our teeth, he sees a deep, deep pattern - the mathematics of spirals. “Every living thing goes through a liquid phase in its development, so it takes on the geometry of turbulence. Every living thing on Earth has this [spiral] geometry built into it,” says Harman.

Harman and his team of mathematicians and physicists at PAX Scientific are constantly working to adapt this algorithm to the industrial world where fluid dynamics is the key challenge, including wind turbines, fans, and impellers. The Lily Impeller is a particularly shining example that outperforms its competitors at churning water stored in enormous tanks by about 30 percent on average with a fraction of the machinery. It’s the geometry of the shape that does the trick, not the force applied.

These creative industrial product ideas were born from geometry that Harman was initially struck by and continued to observe in nature. It was the creative insight that the natural world had to offer that drove Harman to explore its potential in improving human designs. This approach to ideation is taken by creatives like Harmon from all over the world in all industries. They leverage the creative spark that learning from nature offers them for design, business, education… you name it.

1. It broadens the solution space

Life appeared on earth 3.8 billion years ago. By contrast, our species Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for about 50,000 years. That amounts to about 3,750,000 years of evolution before humans even appeared on the scene. The more than 30 million species that share this planet with us today are the result of what is essentially an epic research and development process.

"Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. Failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival," says Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

2. You start to see nature as the measure of success

Let's face it: The natural world is the only model of real sustainability that we have. There are many principles for the way life works but if it could all be boiled down to a single principle, it would be this: Life creates conditions conducive to life. This is the ultimate measurement of success for our designs, our businesses, our educational models, etc. if we want to thrive the way we have seen is possible in wild places.

Reimagining our work to produce this outcome is visionary thinking. Rapidly iterating to get closer and closer to creating conditions conducive to life is the work of biomimics. Introduction to Biomimicry is a short online course offered by Biomimicry 3.8 to present what working towards this goal looks and feels like.

3. You get a change of scenery

One of the easiest ways to get creatively inspired is to back away slowly from the computer and go outside. Don't worry, you're still working. You're just outside. And the more time you spend out there, the better you will become at observing. Deep patterns, like the one that Harman saw, will start to emerge. You will start to see the natural world through a new lens of function. A key component to the curriculums of both biomimicry certification programs offered by Biomimicry 3.8 is going outside and learning how to interpret what is observed as being applicable to design challenges of all kinds. It's a profoundly satisfying experience to find creative solutions to complex challenges by taking a thoughtful walk outside.

Need help getting started? Take along a professional in the art of curiosity for the first few times. They are usually under the age of 12 and are incredibly talented at helping you quiet your cleverness -- and rediscovering the capacity for awe without an ounce of cynicism.

4. It requires that you discover what youre really trying to accomplish

Approaching biology for solutions requires asking the right kind of question. For example, it will be very hard to find inspiring examples in nature if Harman's question had been "How does nature make a better iPhone?" Not only that, but by framing a project challenge in those terms pigeonholes the possible outcomes to incremental improvements to the existing model.

Using biology as a source of creative ideas means changing the problem statement that you're dealing with from "This is what I want to design" to "This is what I want my design to do." Having a brainstorming session about all the things that you want your design to do results in what we like to call a vision of verbs from which even a light exploration into the world of biology can commence. AskNature.org is what Benyus has called the "e-harmony for biologists and designers." Enter your brainstorming keywords into the search engine and the result will be organisms that do what you want to do with descriptions of their strategies. Brilliant!

5. It's impossible to not cross traditional boundaries

In the natural world, sex drives all new ideas and mutations of what existed before. Two sets of DNA are mixed and the result is something the world has never seen before. When a team gets a creative spark from nature's genius, it invites new expertise to make a contribution to the project whether it's a biologist to help with the exploration, a designer to help distill the real project challenge, or a businessperson to build on the idea's potential. Nature as a source of creative inspiration is not only catalyzed by, but in fact requires multi-disciplinary teams and invites new ideas through crossing boundaries of professional expertise.

Image of Pax Scientific mixer courtesy of AskNature.org