Biologically inspired design is the use of designs found in nature for analogy and inspiration in designing technological systems. Biological systems, processes and strategies provide insights into sustainable and adaptable design that can inspire technological innovation. Thus, using nature for inspiration and emulating nature is a research field growing in scope, activity and importance.
We recently organized two workshops on “Charting a Course for Computer-Aided Bio-Inspired Design” sponsored by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF). These workshops brought together a few dozen leading researchers in computational methods and tools for biologically inspired design (http://designengineeringlab.org/BID-workshop/NSF_BID_Workshops.html). An edited volume based on the workshops and containing a dozen chapters describing the state of the art is forthcoming. Here we briefly summarize some of the main findings from the two workshops.
Biologically inspired design seeks to exploit biology for several different kinds of design such as sustainable design, creative design, and complex system design. Although these different kinds of design are mutually compatible and consistent – one can have complex systems that are sustainable, for example – the three design types have different emphases and foci. Some of the discussion at the first workshop focused on sustainable design and complex system design.
The goal of biologically inspired sustainable design is to use biology as an inspiration for designing technological products that are ecologically sustainable. Although biological systems are not always optimal, they typically use only local and abundant resources, and often are very efficient in the use of resources such as energy and water. Of course, this does not guarantee that biologically inspired designs will be necessarily sustainable, but it promises that they may be more sustainable than equivalent products available in the market today. Consider the following specific cases:
• The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute’s work on biologically inspired design is driven by the growing need for sustainable design. An example of sustainable design at 3.8 is the novel design of a water bottle with “ribs” on its plastic surface mimicking the ribs on trees and providing strength to the bottle. This allows the bottle to use less plastic, which makes it lighter than similar water bottles. (http://www.asknature.org/)
• Recent work on BioTRIZ indicates that for many functions for which technological products typically use energy, equivalent biological systems use information instead. This suggests that we seek biological sources as inspiration to design a new generation of technological products that use information in place of energy to achieve as many functions as possible. (http://biotriz.com/)
• Another line of research at Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design seeks to identify design patterns that biological systems use to achieve ecological sustainability. For example, the Namibian beetle uses an interleaved pattern of the biological effects of hydrophobia and hydrophylia for harvesting water from fog. Bio-inspired designers have now used the same pattern for water harvesting at a human scale. This suggests building a classification of functionally-indexed design patterns for sustainable design (http://dilab.cc.gatech.edu/dane/)
The goal of biologically inspired complex systems design is to use the characteristically complex interactions found in nature as a design guide to technological systems that are complex and integrated among their constituent components. Although biologists often welcome complexity, engineers typically attempt to avoid it. Approaching complex system design from a biologist’s perspective, such as using complexity to allow for mechanisms for coping with design failures appears a promising avenue with the following observations:
• Both biological and technological systems contain multiple, heterogeneous parts that fit together and provide different outcomes dependent on initial conditions, as well as non-linear behaviors, uncertainty, and multiple scales. Biological systems typically manifest multi-functionality. Technological systems often have relatively simple units.
• Biologists can help shift the balance between perceived complexity and real complexity in technological systems. This shift can help show designers how to manage complexity in their systems, which could lead to innovative designs, and help predict the performance of complex systems.
• Nature has the ability to adapt, add redundancies, accommodate failure, and repair, reconfigure and regenerate parts. Engineering as a discipline does not view the notion of failure as a positive feature. However, small, intentional failures to avoid a catastrophic failure can be a good thing.
Some of the discussion at the second workshop focused on the development of a potential research program at NSF. Here is one possible design for the program: NSF would invite proposals for research on biologically inspired design that has much potential to solve urgent and critical challenges faced by the United States and the world as a whole, including ecological sustainability, design innovation and complex system design. Proposals must be from suitable multi-disciplinary teams (i.e., members might include biologists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists, designers and engineers), addressing small to medium scale designs (such as household products or automotive systems), have demonstrated computational and educational components, and have a well-formed evaluation plan. Suitable research topics include but are not limited to:
• Interactive tools for searching biological knowledge relevant to engineering design; system interface, visualization and usability.
• Knowledge-base/data-base building and integration, ontologies (construction, use and evaluation) and testbeds (computational and physical).
• Identification of the role of computational methods and tools for each stage of the process of biologically inspired design, e.g., problem framing, conceptual design, refinement, production (i.e., DfM for biologically inspired designs), marketing, re-use/recycle.
• Evaluation of usefulness of biological analogies (before, during and after use), of biologically inspired designs, of design methods, and the manufacturability of resulting designs.
• Roles of scale (both spatial – from micro to macro to system of systems – and temporal – to promote desired emergent behavior over time) of biological knowledge for problem identification, design decomposition, generation, evaluation and explanation.
• Impact of biologically inspired design on communication in multiple disciplinary teams, e.g., novice-expert studies, development of a community of practice and research networks, sociology of disciplinary norms.
• Pedagogical techniques, curriculum and assessments for education in biologically inspired design.
The proposed research should be extensible, and must be shared in order to promote community building.
In summary, it is clear that recent research efforts across the disciplines of biology, computing, design, and engineering have attempted to address the various problems associated with not only developing biologically inspired designs, but also teaching students how to develop biologically inspired designs. It is also evident that there is a need for much additional work on refining the proposed methods and tools as well as developing new methods to address current limitations. We recommend that NSF establish a new crosscutting program in biologically inspired design that seeks to fund transformative research as briefly summarized above. Such a program can support high risk-high reward research that otherwise has no home in NSF.