This is what a failed product development experiment looks like. I’m sharing this because I think it’s important to talk more about failure, especially in science.
I spoke to Michael DeLoach & NYC Water about the #FatbergFreeNYCinitiative. As a grad student at The Biomimicry Center I’m learning to use biomimicry principles and my experience in product development to invent a flushable wipe to eliminate fatbergs.
This was my green chemistry solution and my finished product. My dachshund, Phineas, is my lab assistant. He’s a bit like Beaker so I guess that makes me Bunsen Honeydew. We listened to the podcasts Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Ologies Podcast, and The Story Collider to stay inspired as we did our research.
This was only the 1st attempt. It failed. And that’s okay. I stand by the green chemistry solution. I just need to find a sturdier delivery material that quickly biodegrades. Trial #2 is already underway.
And given that it’s May Day, a day when we celebrate those who work, toil, tinker, and invent, here’s 3 cheers for all of you working to solve our world’s toughest challenges and make this a better planet for all beings.
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
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
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
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’?
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.)
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.
“The wilderness holds answers to questions that we have not yet learned to ask.” ~Nancy Newhall
I’m pretty jazzed that my final assignment for one of my biomimicry classes is giving me the opportunity to lay down the very first tracks for the invention company I’d like to build with biomimicry when I finish my graduate degree. At first, I was so excited about this prospect that I was actually afraid of it. This felt like a big commitment to make to myself. And once I put these dreams and hopes out into the world, I couldn’t take them back. Once I had to admitted what kind of business I really wanted to build in this field, I could unsee it. Sure, it could morph, but there would be no denying my dream. There would only be choosing to do the work to make it happen, or not. And so, I went for it.
The assignment was to imagine my career in biomimicry 25 years from now and the business I would build with a sustainable framework. Here is what I came up with. What do you think?
25 years ago in the winter of 2019, I took my first class in biomimicry. At the time it was a burgeoning field and in many ways felt like the Wild West, a new frontier. Every day there was a new discovery, a new way of seeing and being in the world.
At the time, our planet was racked with difficulty—climate change deniers, enormous and growing islands of plastic in our oceans, rampant habitat loss, and painful species extinctions. This is not to say that we don’t still face difficulties today; it’s just that now in 2044 there is no denying our role as the chief contributors to climate change. We wore out the planet’s welcome and her resiliency; now it is common place for most people to consider the environmental consequences of their actions and purchases. We simply don’t have a choice to ignore our responsibility now as we so often did in 2019.
After graduating from my Master of Science in biomimicry program at Arizona State University, I put together my 20-year career in product development with my passion for science and started The Green Atelier, an invention shop that reimagines, patents, produces, and commercializes sustainable products, systems, and solutions that mimic the deep design principles found in the processes and structures of nature. We work with for-profit, nonprofit, and local and international government agencies. We are a small and mighty team with skill sets in product development, business, science, design, and engineering. We determined that we must begin this business as we wish to go. And so from Day 1, we fearlessly put a stake in the ground and committed to create conditions conducive to life.
Zero waste and maximum resource efficiency
We operate as the planet operates, taking only what we need and returning as much as we can to the greater communities where we work and live. This conservative approach to resource management means we have what we need for today and also ensure that we and others have what we all need for all of our tomorrows.
We do not and never will use any type of toxic chemicals in our products, processes, and operations. When we must do activities such as travel, which is now much-improved with high-speed trains but still has a long way to go in terms of air travel, we make sure to pay a monetary contribution that covers our cost to the environment for that activity.
Locally attuned and responsive solutions
Context matters to us. Before we take any action in our product development process, we thoroughly research and incorporate all of the environmental factors in which our solutions must exist. We use locally available resources—including physical goods, labor, and mindshare. Community-involvement in our co-creative processes is always top of mind and a part of every project. We are guests in the areas where we work, and we act accordingly—with gratitude and grace. We listen much more than we talk.
Integration of development with growth
We recognize that progress can and must coexist with conservation. Indeed, the two can feed one another in a symbiotic relationship so that everyone wins. There is a level of give and take that fluidly happens in the course of our work. However, it is not without effort and consciousness. Every player is aware of every other player, and respectful of their right to survive and thrive in the same space. The investment of our time, attention, and action with this mindset is crucial to our success, and the success of our clients, customers, and neighbors.
Respond and adapt to changing conditions
In the past 25 years, our planet has become more diverse than ever. This diversity has driven a compassion, curiosity, and resiliency that has become the backbone of our strength as a species and as a cohesive, cooperative biosphere. Relationships are the cornerstone of everything we do. We experiment, expect the unexpected, make changes based on new information and learning, and then replicate that work. We are committed to continuous improvement with every breath.
While all of these operating principles of our business seemed aspirational 23 years ago when we officially opened for business in the first days of 2021, to us they were an absolute necessity. We could see what our planet would become without this unwavering and sincere promise to operate and build in a sustainable, healthful way. A world without a sustainable ethos was not a world we want to live in. Indeed, it was a world none of us would actually be able to live in. Without exaggeration, we were on the doorstep of extinction and we were the only ones who could pull ourselves back from the brink. We had seen the problem, and the problem was us.
And so we set about becoming our own saviors, our own solution, and thereby the saviors of our elders in the natural world who were counting on us to make amends and drastically change our wasteful ways for the benefit of all beings. We would not, and could not, disappoint them. They needed us to be successful in our pursuit, and so we did everything we could to live up to our potential and responsibility while taking on the genius of nature as our wisest teacher and guide.
23 years on, we have no regrets at The Green Atelier about our brave and bold choices to build a business on the foundation of a sustainable framework. Our only regret is that we did not do this sooner, that our society had to quite literally be on a burning platform before we would make the necessary behavioral changes to survive.
We cannot change our past, but now that we are awake, we will never go back to sleep when it comes to the consciousness with which we make all our decisions, as a business, as a community, and as individuals who are but brief flashes of light in the landscape of deep time. We are privileged to be here in every sense, and we’re grateful for the opportunity that life affords us to support life.
I’m studying sustainable coastal resilience strategies in the face of climate change and rising sea levels. Seawalls don’t provide sufficient protection, harm wildlife, pollute waterways, and are difficult and expensive to maintain. Artificial walls don’t work in nature. What works is building longer buffet tables and larger homes that make accommodations for all stakeholders—coral reefs, mangroves, oyster beds, and salt marshes. This idea is much more than a metaphor or allegory. Seawalls are a cautionary tale of what happens when we exclude beings who have all the same rights that we do to survive and thrive. Sustainable solutions have successfully played out over the course of 3.8 billion years of natural history’s R&D lab. We would be wise to follow its example.
“We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” ~Toby Spribille, Lichenologist
This quote makes my heart grow three sizes. Grow your imagination. Ask bigger questions. It’s the only way we’ll evolve.
Opportunity’s last words from Mars: “My battery is low & it’s getting dark.”
May we all have lives as rich with discovery and a final chapter as peaceful. We’re lucky to have known you, Opportunity, and to see this world through your eyes. Thank you for your service.
I’m over-the-moon about being part of the New York City Story Collider show, My Love Affair with Science, on Tuesday, February 5th at Caveat. I’ll be talking about my long and winding road of a relationship with science and how we got to where we are today. Tickets on sale now: https://www.storycollider.org/shows/2019/2/5/new-york-ny-my-love-affair-with-science
If you’re wondering why I’m so forking excited about studying biomimicry at Arizona State University’s Biomimicry Center, I want you to meet Janine Benyus, the founder of this field and creator of this program. Welcome to the future. Welcome to the movement. Here’s Janine: https://asuonline.wistia.com/medias/npzymug1ue
Last week I had the chance to interview a number of biologists about their work. All of them expressed enthusiasm and passion for their work. And all of them explained that the worst part of their jobs was the funding process. I took some time and looked into this further, and found that this is a pervasive problem. We have many brilliant scientists who have a tough time making a living and remaining joyful about their work because of the tedious, broken, and inefficient funding system in place and the stress it causes.
Platforms like Patreon are great. Merchandise sales are helpful. I use both these outlets to support work that’s important to me, science included. However, the sustainability of these efforts and their ability to support the goal of scientists to be compensated in proportion to the importance of their vital work seems questionable.
So what’s a scientist to do?
That’s the question I’m attempting to answer with the concept for a new product development company that I hope to start when I finish my Masters in biomimicry. I have a BA in Economics and History, an MBA, and a 20-year career in business and product development. Why am I getting this degree in science? Because I believe that all these aspects need to be combined for the sustainability and health of the planet. And as a happy consequence, I want to employ talented scientists in that endeavor so that their research is more widely applied and they are able to generate an income with benefits that helps them live a good quality of life outside of the drudgery of the ever-more-competitive funding cycles.
I understand that this is a very tall order. That it will take a huge amount of work and time to get this right. But I think I can do it, and I’m going to try for all our sakes.
Can’t get this smile off my face because this wk I’m officially a grad student for the 2nd time & for the 1st time am a scientist-in-training. I started my biomimicry program at The Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University. (The program is mostly online so I am still in NYC!) To realize this dream means more to me than I have words to express. Beyond grateful!