What does evolution have to do with design?
Nature has long been a source of inspiration for design and invention. Whether the flying machines of Leonardo Da Vinci, the tension structures of Frei Otto, new Algae-based biodegradable plastics or a new generation of high tech self-cleaning materials inspired by common leaves of the Lotus plant, human beings can learn a great deal from our natural habitats. Nature in some sense is a parallel universe of technology that lies in the public domain. Evolution holds an immense library of design that has been evolving (or ‘iterating’) for billions of years. Especially in light of today's societal challenges in managing natural resources, our health, food supplies and many others, fresh perspectives are certainly welcome. My investigations in bio-inspired design has been to critically examine how nature can help us solve problems. Bio-inspired design can't solve every problem but remains a powerful resource- it is an experimental, largely unrealized interdisciplinary practice in the truest sense- spanning Biology, Engineering, Design, Computer science and many other fields of inquiry. My work has led me to collaborate with departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Material Science and many others. Without these collaborators working in tandem with Design and others the field will not progress. In May 2016, I co- organized a symposium at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Experts in bio-inspiration convened from all continents on the globe to view and discuss their bio collection. There, housed in the attics of their archives lie 140 Million biological specimens of extinct and extant species. One of the main questions the conference attempted to answer was simple: how can we learn from these archives to develop appropriate technologies to potentially tackle humankind's most intractable challenges? I touch on these themes more here.
The next step for Human Centered Design: Responsibility
Human Centered Design has influenced industrial design practices, board rooms and now academia resulting in design that reflects actual user needs and delivers profits based frequently on new technologies. Smart Phones, for example, have driven enormous change and are generally cited as one of the most influential products ever introduced. But just as they have satisfied needs, leveraged technological possibility and made fortunes they have also had unintended negative impact, whether creating enormous E-waste, eroding our social skills, dangerously distracting us and even influencing our posture negatively (tech neck). Responsibility is the much needed missing perspective in the HCD triage: what is good for our immediate needs has untold impact. In an academic setting, Universities that contribute to researching the components that lead to tech innovation like Smart Phones have the positive and responsibility to question their impact. As automation, UAV's and driverless car technology forges ahead, what impact might this have on our lives? Already automation is consuming jobs and driverless cars can bring about further social isolation. Are these truly better technologies for society or simply the latest new thing? Do these technologies have lasting impact? "Community" is a critical perspective that builds on the success of HCD to understand unintended consequences on society. A paper I wrote here discusses this theme in further detail.
Alongside my research into the potential of Bio-inspiration to influence lasting innovation, my research interests also lie in understanding past innovations that were eradicated that might benefit to return even after they were eradicated. This perspective which is the topic of my next phase of research is called "Histovation" or looking back for lasting innovation. Examples might include electric street cars, which have undergone a renaissance and other "obsolete" technologies like window shutters and many other home technologies that have been abandoned.
Beyond Histovaton, I am also engaged in a project evaluating culturally comparative approaches to solving problems. In my upcoming sabbatical, I plan to investigate Historical and culturally comparative approaches to problems as additional sources of design innovation beyond the Gospel of technology. Come back soon for more details.
Below: A proposed hydrophobic grout sealing “pre-cleaning” product for a large American based consumer packaged goods manufacturer specializing in cleaning products for the home. The sealant would repel water settling in grout and causing permanently damaging black mildew grout stains. The product depended on early stage academic and R&D research and demonstrated untapped opportunity in aligning academic research with industry in pursuit of market-defining products and services. Such chemistry held the promise of being a breakthrough by replacing bleach based and other cleaners which end up going down the drain and into the watershed.