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Joy today: What the rainforest can teach us about product development

This week in my biomimicry program, I got to study patterns in tropical rainforests and apply them to products as if I were a product development consultant (which is what I’m planning to do with my degree when I finish my program.) It was such a blast and I got a lot of supportive feedback on my ideas from my classmates so I thought I would share them with you as well.

My audience is a set of product developers who have been tasked with making their products and systems more sustainable and less toxic.

What are the three most compelling patterns in life’s strategies in the rainforest that you want to bring to the table?

1.) The rainforest produces vibrant colors without toxic chemicals.

2.) Leaves of plants close to the rainforest floor under the dense canopy have structures that collect and focus light.

3.) Animals in the rainforest have adaptations to help them regulate their body temperature.


Articulate simple design principles for each of the three patterns.

Pattern: Color creation

Biology model:
The blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) are magicians of color. Luckily for us, science demystifies their powers and teaches us how they get their trademark iridescent blue color. Its secrets lie in the architecture of its wings. Imagine this beautiful butterfly with an 8-inch wingspan flitting from flower to flower in the Colombian rainforest’s sunshine. The light hits its wings and rather than absorb and reflect back light as most objects do, the morpho’s wings diffract and interfere with the light. When we look closely, a morpho’s wings aren’t smooth. They have peaks and valleys that overlap, similar to roof tiles. The space between the overlapping scales and the height of the ridges of those scales on its wings have a direct impact on the color. In the case of the morpho, the spaces between the scales are exactly half the size of the wavelength of blue light. This is what causes the intense, iridescent blue of its wings.

Pattern: Focus light

Biological model:
Clubbed begonia (Begonia cucullata) grow along the floor of the rainforests in Asia. Because the canopy of a rainforest is dense, plants on the lower levels need to develop adaptations to collect as much light as they can to perform photosynthesis. Begonia leaves have a set of cells on the surface that focus light, similar in function to glass lenses. This allows them to collect and concentrate diffuse (indirect) light. Then it directs that light to the grains of chlorophyll in the leaves.

Pattern: Regulate body temperature

Biological model:
The common toucan (Ramphastos toco) lives in the canopy layer of the rainforests of South and Central America. In an environment where the temperature ranges between 70 and 85 degrees and the humidity is 77% – 88% year-round, the toucan has to expertly regulate its body temperature. The genius adaptation it uses is its beak—the largest beak (and therefore surface area) relative to body size in the animal kingdom. By regulating the blood flow to its beak, it controls its thermal radiation and therefore its body temperature. This adaptation is seen in a number of other animals structures such as the large ears of elephants and jackrabbits, and the skin of iguanas.

What simple application ideas, inspired by your design principles, would you use to help this group of designers understand some possibilities of ‘emulating nature’s designs’?

Color creation:
1.) Cosmetics that use the same microstructures rather than toxic chemicals to create color.

2.) Clothing / textile colors that use surface textures rather than toxic dyes.

3.) Paint that contains microstructures to produce vibrant colors without the use of toxins.

4.) Food coloring with microstructures rather than toxic colorants.

Light collection and focus:

1.) Solar cells that mimic the structures of begonia cells to collect and focus light, even during overcast days.

2.) Glass for building, home, and greenhouse windows that allow it to regulate light on cloudy days in order to reduce the need for artificial indoor lighting.

3.) Glass for cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions that allow for brighter displays outdoors without having to brighten display and use the battery or electricity unnecessarily. (The brightness of screens is one of the biggest drains on energy of electronic devices.)

Regulate temperature:

1.) Building architecture that uses recycled water systems below the outside surface to help regulate temperatures.

2.) The use of recycled water systems just below the surface of sidewalks, roadways, and bridges to regulate temperature (prevent overheating and freezing).

3.) Using recycled water systems to regulate the temperatures of vehicles—cars, boats, buses, planes, etc.

About Christa Avampato

The short of it: Writer. Health, education, and art advocate. Theater and film producer. Visual artist. Product geek. Proud alumnae of the University of Pennsylvania (BA) and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia (MBA). Inspired by ancient wisdom & modern tech. Proliferator of goodness. Opener of doors. Friend to animals. Fan of creative work in all its wondrous forms. I use my business skills to create passion projects that build a better world. I’ve been called the happiest New Yorker, and I try hard to live up to that title every day. The long of it: My career has stretched across Capitol Hill, Broadway theatre, education, nonprofit fundraising, health and wellness, and Fortune 500 companies in retail, media, entertainment, technology, and financial services. I’ve been a product developer and product manager, theater manager, strategic consultant, marketer, voice over artist, , teacher, and fundraiser. I use my business and storytelling to support and sustain passion projects that build a better world. In every experience, I’ve used my sense of and respect for elegant design to develop meaningful products, services, programs, and events. While building a business career, I also built a strong portfolio as a journalist, novelist, freelance writer, interviewer, presenter, and public speaker. My writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, PBS.org, Boston.com, Royal Media Partners publications, and The Motley Fool on a wide range of topics including business, technology, science, health, education, culture, and lifestyle. I have also been an invited speaker at SXSW, Teach for America, Avon headquarters, Games for Change, NYU, Columbia University, Hunter College, and the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. The first book in my young adult book series, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, was acquired by a publisher and launched in November 2017. I’m currently working on the second book in the series. A recovering multi-tasker, I’m equally at home in front of my Mac, on my yoga mat, walking my rescue dog, Phineas, traveling with a purpose, or practicing the high-art of people watching. I also cut up small bits of paper and put them back together as a collage artist. My company: I’m bringing together all of my business and creative career paths as the Founder of Double or Nothing Media: • I craft products, programs, and projects that make a difference; • I build the business plans that make what I craft financially sustainable; • I tell the stories that matter about the people, places, and products that inspire me. Follow my adventures on Twitter at https://twitter.com/christanyc and Instagram at https://instagram.com/christarosenyc.

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