Designer’s Toolkit: From Planned Obsolescence to Design for Environment (DfE) – I: Biomimicry

DESIGN – the sole realm of the creative minds thus far, has moved beyond the select few to being an integral part of the business strategy of a company.

One of the ways this is reflected is in the idea of Planned Obsolescence, that designers have been forced to adopt by the well known companies but vehemently need to drop – where a product is designed to last only for a planned period of time – by either making it break quickly or deliberately making it go out of fashion – thereby eliciting multiple purchases thus stimulating higher demand. No designer would want to make something like that–  that is not the right thing to do – however, the reversal has begun.

So, what happens when it breaks or we no longer need it? We throw it away – well, it so turns out that there is no longer a place called ‘away’.

That ‘away’ is nothing but the landfills that dot the suburban city landscapes – out of sight, out of mind!

The Sustainable Product

No product is 100% green or sustainable – every product pollutes the environment in some way or the other. Even, using recycled content or making a product recyclable is not necessarily eco-friendly as the process it self may be highly carbon intensive. The so-called green products still use energy either in the production phase or in the operational phase.

The real Sustainable Product is the one that restores the nature – in other words, gives back to the nature more than it takes from it!

Diving straight into the toolkit of a designer, we find out what companies are up to – what tools they are using to develop competitive low impact sustainable design.

What we see are 3 distinct tools that enable designers to focus their energies at the End-of-Life (ELV) of a product right at the start of a process rather than focusing on the end-of-pipe solutions, as traditionally has been the case – salvaging the damage already done.

In first of the three series posts, let’s focus on the first tool – Biomimicry

Biomimicry: Inspired by nature

Biomimicry is taking ideas and design principles from the 3.8 billion years of time tested R&D and learning from life’s principles of self assembly, cross-pollination, optimization, adaptability and life-friendly materials to create products and process that can co-exist with nature – quite the opposite of how man makes things – in carve-down fashion resulting in 96% waste. Janine Benyus, the founder ofBiomimicry Institute 3.8 and an authority on this subject, refers biomimicry as the “fertile crescent between biology, engineering and design,” where biologists are being called upon to sit at the design tables of wide spectrum of industries to solve their design challenges. Much of design has is already been inspired by nature, but not in biological ways that we will witness in future.

  • Mimicking photosynthesis of a Leaf to develop Solar cells
  • Mimicking Shark friction and its skin to develop the famous Speedo swim suits
  • Mimicking a Lotus leaf to develop self-cleaning (because of its bumpy and waxy nature) Building façade paints and surfaces are designed so that they self-clean.
  • Mimicking Locusts to develop Crash Avoidance Systems in cars (based on excellent navigation by Locusts in crowds without crashing into each other)
  • Gecko inspired tape adhesives– replacement of glue (using how a Gecko naturally sticks on surfaces)
  • Brittle star inspired Calcite Optical Lenses used by Lucent Technologies
  • Kevlar – the strongest cloth like material developed by man that can stop a bullet – but using boiling sulfuric acid in a highly energy intensive process. Spiders spin webs and make silk that is much stronger than Kevlar in a more natural and benign fashion.
  • Creating paints without chemicals and dyes – by mimicking Nano- scale structures in butterflies
  • Mimicking moth’s eye nano structures to create anti-reflective coatings
  • Developing displays inspired by the micro structures on the butterfly’s wings
  • Mimicking the tree trunks that reduce their tendency to bend in wind due to torsional flexibility is inspiring a new generation of building materials

These and some 2100 other strategies are laid out in the Ask Nature website – a Biomimicry Institute’s free, open source project, built by the community and for the community.  According to Janine Benyus, this is “a starter culture of ideas—biological blueprints and strategies, bio-inspired products and design sketches, and biomimics you can talk to and collaborate with.”

Biomimicry is not simply copying the aesthetics of the nature – as we so often see in styling of our products. In essence, Biomimicry emerges from the biology of nature into the man made technology. Nature not only makes things that can literally last forever, but also uses the path of least resistance. It is replicating the functionality of the solutions that nature has to offer in abundance into the design of our products.

While the discipline is still emerging, a lot of companies still don’t find a good enough business case to ahead and look for solutions in the nature. This is especially true of the core engineering firms that can’t imagine their logic driven engineers to go out studying nature – they still want to look for solutions from within their known traditional boundaries. Design for Environment strategies have to be looked in right from the start of the design process and not something that can be styled later on.

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