From Soap to Cities

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Copyright © 2020 by Dio Cramer All rights reserved. First edition April, 2020 ISBN 978-0-578-67977-8

Biomimicry as a Tool for Mindful Design in the Anthropocene: An Illustrated Manifesto Dio Cramer Macalester College, 2020 Geography Department

We are in a time of crisis. The human-made forces of industry and capitalism have spun so far out of control that even the most optimistic visions of the future seem grim. We are depleting planetary resources and burning fossil fuels so rapidly that we are endangering all life on this planet with the resulting climate catastrophe. We are reaching never before seen planetary tipping points. Collectively we are aware of this, yet globally we are not changing our actions. Welcome to the Anthropocene: The period of time where human beings have become the primary force in determining the future livability of the earth. Traces of our infrastructure and its catastrophic byproducts will far outlive us. Human design decisions got us here, and we need a new set of design rules to turn us in a different direction.

What if nature guided our new design rules? After all, the natural world creates materials, self-organizes, adapts, grows, builds, and evolves all while using renewable energy and safe materials in a way that promotes long-term system health.

Biomimicry is a design paradigm that takes inspiration from the natural world to guide human design and innovation. Biomimicry tells us that if we can learn from the way the natural world works, we will be much better equipped to tackle the challenges of the Anthropocene. Yet, this seemingly perfect solution can also lead us further down into the path of green capitalism and endless militarization. What rules can we make for design to prevent this co-opting of nature’s strategies for human design that ultimately still exploits the natural world? What does it mean to design mindfully, giving equal priority to the health of both the planet and its inhabitants?

Geography has enabled me to explore the ways in which humans have historically shaped the spaces they inhabit, as well as how we continue to shape the world today. As humans we are placemakers. We are worldbuilders. We are designers — for better or for worse. Designing is the act of planning and executing the elements that are so central to human life. The products of our design vary in scope and purpose, but span everything human-made, from things as small as soap to expansive systems as intricate as entire cities. We are shaped by the places we inhabit, and in turn we shape those places. In our relatively short time on this planet, human beings have become a geological force to be reckoned with. Our actions — directly and indirectly — have changed the planet in a significant way, and we have only just begun to critically assess the social, systemic, biological, and geological consequences of these actions. We are not only impacting Earth’s climate, but also its biodiversity and geology. Even if we act now, these changes will be present for millennia. In order to adapt to life in the Anthropocene we do not just need extraordinary collective effort, responsible governance, and engineering, but we also need creativity, storytelling, and community building. We need artists and creatives to engage people’s emotions, to show us how to conceive of possible futures we might never have imagined before. We need to design new ways of survival. This book is my design manifesto. It is the result of academic research, long-held passion, and an unrelenting need to think about my place in the world. This work synthesizes my interests in biomimicry, design, and the Anthropocene into a set of philosophies (I call it mindful design) that we must embody in order to adapt to these strange times.

I know that this book does not adhere to the norms of a traditional thesis, but then again, that is the whole point. The Anthropocene has blurred traditional standards, and in order to adapt we must form new relationships as well. We need playful experimentation in academia. We need to broaden the connections we make, become more inclusive. We need poetry to help understand science. We need geography in design. I hope you find the playfulness in my artwork, and the humanness in my handwritten words, as I pass these thoughts onto you. This project is for you. I hope you take these ideas and run with them! Think about the things you design and your own placemaking. Where are the places you can effect change? What practices should you let die? What new connections can you form? How can we work towards our collective survival? Where will you begin?




The Anthropocene — the age of humans — is the time period when “humans have become a geological agent, profoundly shaping the earth in ways that warrant the creation of a new planetary epoch”1 where evidence of human beings will be written into the rock layers of the Earth itself.2 While this name originally came from the hard sciences, the social sciences quickly joined the discourse as a way to talk about the role of humans and the unprecedented condition of the present era. The naming of the Anthropocene has started a broader conversation on the role of humanity in planetary life.3 In the Anthropocene, the line between nature and culture is blurrier than ever before. It is increasingly hard to imagine the natural world of this planet outside of the effects humans have had on it.4 With the naming of the Anthropocene, we have made visible the complex relationships between humans, the environment, and historical inequalities that have led to the environmental catastrophes we are seeing in the present. Yet the broadness of the name of this new era glosses over centuries of colonial legacies and global inequalities. Not all humans are equally writing themselves into the Earth’s history in irreversible ways, yet under the name Anthropocene, there is an implication of a unified humanity.5 The histories of industrial ecologies have not been evenly distributed across populations, and it can be incredibly harmful to imply that they have. The recent Anthropocene discourse has opened up creative, even playful, new terms to describe our current moment of time, and the histories that got us here. 1 2 3 4 5 6

Davis et al., 2019, p. 2 Castree, 2015a; Braun, 2015b; Davis et al., 2019 Moore 2017; Tsing et al., 2017 Braun, 2015a; Johnson 2016; Tsing et al., 2017 Johnson, 2016 Braun, 2015a





Geographer Jason Moore argues that we call this era the Capitalocene to show capitalism as the primary driver for the global change that led to this new era. It was not simply coal that led to planetary destruction, he argues, but coal and colonies that exploited people and the planet and led to the chaos we see today. This renaming addresses the shortcomings of the unified “we” of the name Anthropocene by shifting the perceived blame from all humans to those responsible for perpetuating colonial-capitalist values.1






Philosopher of science Donna Haraway calls for the name Chthulucene to advocate for a less human-centric understanding of the interconnected species and systems that make up everything on this planet. In her words, the name Chthulucene is drawn from “the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things” of this world. We are not individuals, nor are we capable of acting as such, and a human-centered name only erases the enormousness of this change that is affecting all living and nonliving beings on Earth.2 Initially she helped pull the discussion of the Anthropocene from the hard sciences into the arts and social sciences, and calls for creativity and cross discipline collaboration to navigate the challenges of this era.

Donna Haraway and anthropologist Anna Tsing propose we call this time the Plantationocene. They cite the persistence of the social and economic disparities of plantation economies through modern times and across geographic space, as a way to understand present day global relations. This term aims to decenter the Eurocentric industrial revolution narrative. Instead, as Moore does, it argues for the importance of colonial histories in forming our global economies. This era is the product of racial processes that historically have, and will continue to, create racially different vulnerabilities.3

1 Moore, 2017 2 Haraway, 2014; Haraway, 2015 3 Davis et. al, 2018; Haraway et al., 2015; Tsing et. al., 2017

Yet, on the other hand, perhaps the name Anthropocene implies the universality of the effects of this era.1 While not all humans are equally responsible for perpetuating the fossil fuel economies, nuclear warfare, toxic extraction and industrialization, all of us will feel the consequences of these systems — particularly the communities least responsible. In this text I will continue to use the term Anthropocene, but I use it while acknowledging its shortcomings and honoring the important reminders from the names Capitalocene, Chthulucene, and Plantationocene. The Anthropocene cannot be separated from its racial, imperialist, and capitalist histories, nor can it be separated from the nonhuman entanglements wrapped up in these stories. In the Anthropocene we are experiencing a shift in time, argues Geographer Bruce Braun. We not only have a clearer view of the past, but we also can see very realistic glimpses of predicted futures. This results in the future seemingly coming to meet us at the present in a way unlike ever before.2 At the same time, we are ever haunted by the past and the past ways of life that got us to this point. It feels like we are stuck! Rapidly moving forward on a collision course with the future, and still shackled to the past, unable to free ourselves. How do we move forward towards other futures? How do we create futures beyond our imagination? The idea of the Anthropocene has two roles simultaneously. First, it represents the current state of the world and the climate crisis as we see it unfolding. The establishment of the Anthropocene reveals the complicated web of multi-species interactions that has led to a world of extinctions, teetering on the brink of disaster. These are the stories that have been repeatedly ignored in the name of capitalist progress, and something we must work to acknowledge and engage with moving forward. In the Anthropocene, traditional boundaries and binaries are becoming blurrier. What is human? What is natural? What is political? What is academic? What is social? With this uncertainty comes a space for new practices. As such, the second role of the Anthropocene is as a framework for looking at these complicated, uncertain systems and finding ways to address them. With all these challenges we are facing comes immense freedom. We are offered a chance to re-learn how to interact with each other and the world around us. Donna Haraway calls for kin-building — a focus on building strong ties between people and forming communities united around the very things capitalism tries to steal from us.3 Anna Tsing and others call for shifting of attention to the more-thanhuman entanglements that have historically gone unnoticed during the age of individualism.4 Once we begin to appreciate that there are no individual actors (on both a cultural and a biological scale), we can appreciate the role that other species and systems have in both our survival and destruction. We must respect nature. We are nature. We are changing nature. Now, more than ever before, we need art and creative worldbuilding in order to imagine futures free of the confines we have built ourselves.5 We need creative thinkers, social scientists, activists, community members, caretakers, builders and leaders to work together in this great re-learning. Let’s get to work! We have a lot to do.

“The Anthropocene, even as it threatens the very possibility of a future, frees us to look towards futures that may at present be beyond our imagination.” 6

1 2 3 4 5 6

Johnson & Morehouse, 2014 Braun, 2015b Haraway, 2015 Tsing et al., 2017 Braun, 2015b, Tsing et al., 2017 Lehman & Nelson, 2014, p. 447


Human beings have turned these ancient beings into monsters. With human induced ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution we have created habitats that jellyfish thrive in. Jellyfish populations have multiplied, threatening ocean ecosystems, negatively impacting fishing and boating practices, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses, and occasionally even shutting down factories and power plants (that suck in ocean water for cooling). This human-createdmonster dynamic is often used to highlight the tangible effects of human impacts on the Earth’s systems. As such, the jellyfish as monsters of human creation serve as a physical manifestation of the coming apocalypse.1 Additionally, jellyfish have long been associated with mythical monsters — the free floating jellyfish stage of their life cycle is called medusa.2

Jellyfish are beings that resist categorization. They are remarkably unpredictable and confusing to us. We cannot emotionally relate to them as we do to other animals, for they lack eyes, a centralized brain, and seemingly controllable movement. They often appear mysterious, monstrous, even alien. Yet, perhaps from them we can learn how to broaden our connections to non-human life, and better understand the complicated entanglements of this world, and humanity’s role in altering them.3 Maybe we are the monsters...

Jellyfish are floating fossils — ghosts of the past — a glimpse at the life that occupied the oceans over 565 million years ago when they first emerged. By this standard, they must be doing something other species have not been able to figure out. Jellyfish are masters at regeneration, which make them a popular focus of biomimetic research. With a networked web of nerves instead of a centralized brain, they are incredibly resilient to injuries. Some jellyfish have the capacity to change the direction of their life cycle to an earlier phase of life, theoretically making them immortal.4 This has attracted the attention of bio-pharmaceutical researchers who are looking for ways to harness these anti-aging properties.5

1 Johnson, 2015 2 Berwald, 2018 3 Johnson, 2015 4 Tsing et. al., 2017 5 Johnson, 2015

ON DESIGN The Anthropocene is the era of human design. Everything humanmade around us has been designed — much of it with great intentionality. The computer I am typing this on is the result of decades of careful design work. The serif font that this is printed in (Minion Pro, designed by Robert Slimbach) has evolved over many centuries — the roots of the serif can be traced back to Roman marble carvings. The modern processes of printing and producing paper are carefully designed systems that we rarely consider in our daily lives. Buildings, cities, agricultural systems, all have been designed by people and all of this design has consequences on our lives and this planet, intentional or not. The environmental and global problems we are grappling with in the Anthropocene are the result of human design decisions. Arguably not always the intended consequence, but a consequence nonetheless. And, as designer John Thackara argues, “if we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out”.1 Each of us are designers in some way or another — design is integral to all human actions. The design choices we make today will lead us on the path we take through the Anthropocene — either further into the global crisis, or in the opposite direction. This work involves every one of us. Now we know that we are all designers, and we understand that the collective decisions we make have potentially catastrophic consequences, we need to figure out what kind of designers we will be. How do we design in a world that we cannot predict? How do we design in the face of uncertainty? First and foremost, we need to recognize what isn’t working and change those actions immediately. Then we move forward, together, and experiment, evaluate and adjust. Design and redesign is an eternal process. There is no perfect design solution for this messy world, but we know we cannot keep acting in the ways we are now. To work our way towards a future free of inequalities, global climate destruction, endless warfare, mass extinctions, and needless waste we will need massive change. We need design, we need compassion, we need collaboration, we need creativity.


“Fairness in design is not simply a moral matter but also one that defines quality. How 'good' are you as a designer if the object you design causes harm, destroys the environment, or endangers children’s health?” - William McDonough & Michael Braungart


1 Thackara, 2006, p.1 2 McDonough & Braungart, 2013, p.159


Manifestos and values are an integral part of the design process.1 They are what designers refer back to when making choices at each stage of the design process. These design choices affect how we live our lives, the materials we touch every day, and the larger systems we participate in, consciously or unconsciously. The intended outcome is what drives design values. Prioritizing monetary gain leads to choices that potentially sacrifice human and environmental health for cheaper, possibly toxic materials and harmful processes.2 This notion is how we end up with things like planned obsolescence, where products are designed to stop working after a certain point to encourage consumers to buy another one. Prioritizing environmental and human health leads to design choices that are conscious of materials, processes, and consequences. While not always implemented perfectly, this attention to consequence is crucial. Designers have been increasingly participating in these conversations, and creating manifestos in order to solidify their values and create a framework for design.

“When we use the term 'we' we don’t mean designers as separate from clients, or as some extraordinary class of powerful overseers. We mean 'we' as citizens collectively imagining our futures. The future is fundamentally collaborative.� - Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries 3

1 Thackara, 2006 2 McDonough & Braungart, 2002 3 Mau, 2010, p. 18


Most examples of so-called "sustainable design" we see today are anything but. Sustainability has everything to do with scale, and when you look at the larger picture, most so-called sustainable systems only exist because of a larger system that is just as harmful, simply less visible. Yet we continue these practices in an effort to ease our conscience while not making any lasting changes to or impact on our lifestyles. By definition, sustainable means "able to be maintained." It implies constant existence, unwavering systems. If we work to maintain the systems we have today, we will still be spiraling into a late stage capitalist hellscape that commodifies every aspect of the natural world, even in the more optimistic scenarios. We need new practices and a better word. Mainstream environmentalism is aimed at minimizing degenerative impacts — using less fossil fuels, emitting less carbon, releasing less toxic materials into the environment. This is the "be less bad" approach that marks conventional sustainability. The sustainability movement is full of words that mimic this philosophy: reduce, minimize, limit, halt, avoid. Let’s continue to do the exact things we know are destroying our planet, but let’s just do them a bit slower. Similarly, our environmental policies emulate these ideas with a focus on regulating bad activities, rather than encouraging the good ones. Regulations discourage creative innovation and often pit environmentalists and industry against each other, where too often industry wins and environmentalists get a bad reputation for fighting against everything. Needless to say, this is wholly insufficient for dealing with the scale of the ecological crisis we see today.

WE DON’T NEED TO SLOW DOWN THE TOXIC SYSTEMS WE HAVE NOW, WE NEED TO REDESIGN THEM COMPLETELY. The "be less bad" approach to sustainability is a failure of our collective imagination, and regulations only highlight the failures of design.

REGENERATIVE DESIGN We need design that regenerates and restores —

does actual good instead of just ‘not bad’. Regenerative design and restorative design, if actually implemented, are powerful ideas. They imply a process that restores, renews, and revitalizes their sources of energy and materials — a system that is left better off than it was before. This is how nature behaves, and if we want to keep living on this planet, we should do our best to fit into these natural processes.1 1 McDonough & Braungart, 2002 2 McDonough & Braungart, 2002


Cradle to Cradle


The Cradle to Cradle manifesto is a call to redesign the way we make things. The overarching paradigm of production today, is that objects follow a linear cradle to grave process. Things are produced (cradle), used, and thrown away (grave). This notion is perpetuated by capitalist values embedded in industry like built-in obsolescence — where objects are designed to break around the time a new model will come out. Rather than repair things, capitalism encourages us to just throw it away and buy a new one.

As a result, most things we use are treated as temporary, and replaced rather than fixed when they stop working. This leads to an overwhelming amount of global waste each year, constant extraction of materials, and a general disconnect from the process of production. Alternatively, McDonough & Braungart propose a cradle to cradle model where waste is designed out of the system. Products are born (cradle), used, and reborn (cradle). Waste is really just nutrients out of place, they argue, and we can (re)design our systems and products from the beginning to eliminate the concept of “waste” and think of it instead as “food” (or inputs) for the next system. In order to do this, they have divided materials into two separate cycles: the biological cycle and the technical cycle. In these separate cycles, materials are designed to return to the same systems from which they came. Today, there is so much contamination of materials that when we try and recycle them we end up reducing their quality. This is called downcycling and, unfortunately it is the standard in the recycling industry today. Under the cradle to cradle mentality, materials designed to remain isolated in their pure form allow for genuine recycling in a closed-loop system of industry. Along this line, McDonough & Braungart propose the concept of a product of service. In this conception, products are reimagined as services — leased for a certain amount of time and then returned to the manufacturer for reuse elsewhere. Imagine leasing your roof for 10 years, after which the materials are returned to the manufacturer who made it, that knows how to re-use the components. The manufacturer is then able to use the pieces of the old products as inputs for the next use, and are able “to grow and develop while retaining ownership of their materials”.1 To realize this at a large scale would completely disrupt the modern waste system. 1 McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p.112 2 McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p. 105

“There is no need for shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes ...and other packaging to last decades (or even centuries) longer than what came inside them.” 2 Imagine if these containers were designed to return to the earth after use - or even better - positively impact soil with nutrients if they happened to end up there!

Once again we come to the paradox of the human ego and the designed world. On one hand, we have so much control over our designs and incredible amounts of knowledge about the way the world works. The things and systems we have created are changing the planet in ways unlike ever before. On the other hand, design has significant limits and we will never be perfect designers. Design is both the problem and the solution. No matter how hard we try, we cannot design the things that make us the most human. Love, loss, compassion, grief, joy and sadness can not be created in a design brainstorm session. These emotions help us remember what it is like to be alive. As Donna Haraway says, "grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying."1 These shared experiences connect us to one another through our humanity. We can use this — this humanness — to guide how we design.

"Learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispositions and fear. Learning to die as a civilization means letting go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress." - Roy Scranton


We can design spaces that encourage certain emotions and experiences. We can design situations that bring people together to feel connected to others. We can design systems that are adaptable and value human life over profit. When we experience designed systems that no longer value our humanness, we need to let those be design failures and begin to redesign them. When our systems of healthcare, education, housing, and the economy value profit and power over individual wellbeing, we must move on from these systems. We need to design new ways of living where human and non-human life is valued for more than just the profit or product they can provide. This should be our mission in the Anthropocene: learning to let die the old ways of life that got us to this point. We should let die systems like capitalism, fossil fuel dependence, human exploitation, and systems that do not adapt to human needs, and move forward protecting what makes us human.

1 Haraway, 2016 p. 39 2 Scranton, 2015, p. 24

“When the design works in terms of its context and its inhabitation, we can sense this at once. But the sensation is never planned. We love buildings in which we have fallen in love, or where the space looks out to the rest of the world to suggest that the whole has meaning. Despite all our talk here of ecological responsibility, space must be left for wonder and the preservation of not the known, but the unknown.� - The Hannover Principles

strategies: top-down planned design, design for sustainability


LIFELESS DESIGN This building, on the outskirts of the city of

Copenhagen, Denmark, was designed by Bjarke Ingles, a world famous architect (or starchitect, if you will). It was planned as a mixed-use development that has public space, commercial businesses, and private housing, designed in a way that encourages interactions between people and builds community. It has a sloping green roof that was supposed to elevate life to the rooftops as well as mitigate the heat island effect, where too much concrete, glass, and metal heats up an urban area. I was so excited to visit it in person ­— I have greatly admired Ingles’s work, which is known for its beauty and creativity as well as its attention to sustainable solutions. My friend and I took the train out from the center city to Ørestad, the planned suburb that is home to 8 House and a number of other new “sustainable” developments. When we got there, mid-day on a Thursday, and walked the few blocks to 8 House, we started feeling uneasy. The sun was almost out (which is a beautiful day for Copenhagen), there were lots of buildings, plenty of green space, and a frequent train, but we did not see a single person. It felt eerie, like someone had forgotten to press play on a simulation. This is the problem with over-planned development. There is no room for growth, and often life is pushed away. I could tell that this place had been designed to encourage people to stop and talk, sit down on the benches, exercise on the public equipment, play on the public sculptures… but there were no people to engage in these activities, much less engage with each other!

“Architecture is a process of giving form and pattern to the social life of the community. Architecture is not an individual act performed by an artist-architect and charged with his emotions. Building is a collective action.” - Hannes Meyer

director of Bauhaus 1

when a group of activists took up residence in an old unused military area near the center of Copenhagen. From that time, the intentional community grew and became a space for counterculture movements. Today Christiania has close to a thousand permanent residents and is governed by participatory democracy. Walking through Christiania is the complete opposite of the feelings of walking through Ørestad. There are beautiful, funky buildings, walls covered in murals and graffiti, temporary public art installations, concerts, craft fairs, and people everywhere — walking, sitting, talking, skating, making art, and living. The central warehouse & store is filled with building materials — hundreds of previously used doors, windows, wood, staircases — all recycled from other structures. Homes in Christiania have been built and rebuilt throughout the years, and they feel alive as a result. Christiania is an example of a space designed through evolution. The space has been adapted over and over again to meet the needs of the people living there, and building their own communities. The place is beautiful and full of life, not because of sustainable community planning and design, but as a result of design for the people, by the people. They ended up with sustainable and regenerative systems because they were trying to build themselves a functioning community outside of the normal city infrastructure. 1 Architecture for Humanity, 2006, p. 36

strategies: design through evolution, design for people

LIFE AFFIRMING DESIGN Freetown Christiania emerged in the 1970’s

BIOMIMICRY Biomimicry is the most recent name for a longestablished practice of taking inspiration from the natural world to inform and guide human design and invention. Janine Benyus, who popularized the term in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, defines biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.”1 Biomimicry is at once a set of tools, and a design philosophy aimed at changing the way modern humans interact with the natural world.

sonic booms, which was a previous problem. In the second example, wind turbine designers learned that the shape of the whales fins, which make whales extremely hydrodynamic, would also increase the efficiency of wind turbine blades, and potentially other fan blades or airplane wings.4


biomimicry are not new. Nature has been guiding human invention arguably since the very beginning of humanity. Indigenous peoples all around the world have historically practiced and continue to practice lifestyles that rely on a deep understanding of natural processes to guide agriculture, architecture, and social structures. Many human inventions historically have been efforts to replicate something that exists in the natural world. For instance, biomimics often cite that Leonardo da Vinci’s unsuccessful first attempt at a flying machine and the Wright brothers' first airplane were both created by studying the way birds fly. These were examples of biomimicry before this particular name existed. The field has coalesced in the past two decades to present an operating manual that bridges science, engineering, and biological design with a focus on developing modern technology. Within the flight example, today there are biomimics working on copying the precise way that birds' wings change shape during flight to conserve energy, so that airplanes might be able to do the same. Even if we are able to do that (and how cool would that be?) we are still far inferior to nature’s ability for flight, as hummingbirds are able to cross the Gulf of Mexico on 1/10th of an ounce of fuel (fat), which comes from eating plants which are grown using sunlight.

If you think about it as biomimics do, elements in the natural world already accomplish much of what we strive for — transoceanic flights, deep sea diving, renewable energy systems, circular agriculture, innovation, adaptation, cooperation — all while operating in a way that maintains the long-term health of these systems.2 This is based on the notion that the nature which surrounds us today has evolved specifically to the conditions of life on earth. Biomimicry tells us that if we can learn from the forms, functions, and systems of the natural world that have stuck around after billions of years of evolution, we will be much better equipped to tackle the challenges of the Anthropocene.3 Both examples on this page are commonly cited examples of biomimicry where a form of nature was mimicked in order to solve a human engineering problem. Japanese bullet train engineers realized that mimicking the form of the kingfisher’s beak would help their trains move quickly through tunnels without creating extremely loud

EMERGENCE It is important to consider that the principles behind

1 2 3 4

Benyus, 1997 Haraway, 2016 Braun, 2006 Hamilton, 2008




Biomimicry studies nature’s models and imitates these designs to solve human problems.

Biomimicry uses the ecological standard of 3.8 billion years of evolution to judge the “rightness” of our innovations.

Biomimicry is a new way to view and value nature. Not what we can extract from nature, but what we can learn. FROM BAUMEISTER ET AL., 2014

Scales of Biomimicry





Mimicking the form of something in nature. Example: mimicking the form of ivy to create better grip.

Mimicking the process through which nature creates elements. Example: mimicking the process that blue mussels use to create an adhesive that is biodegradable, and works underwater.

Mimicking the larger function something has in an ecosystem. “If you make bio-inspired fabric using green chemistry, but you have workers weaving it in a sweatshop, loading it onto pollution-spewing trucks, and shipping it long distances, you’ve missed the point.”1 1 Baumeister et al., 2014, p. 12


LIMITATIONS OF BIOMIMICRY Biomimicry is currently being co-opted by the same

anthropocentric mentality that led to the industrial revolution. This mentality thinks of nature primarily as a resource to be extracted and used for human profit. These ideas are masked under the notion that biomimicry extraction happens on the scale of information, and the natural world is seen as an information bank of forms and practices waiting to be mimicked and exploited by humans.1 In this way, biomimicry acts as a tool to legitimize intellectual extraction from and exploitation of nature, and proposes we can simultaneously be “eco-conscious” and not give up our capitalist way of life.2 Each year people continue to profit from medicine, materials, and technologies that use biomimicry — as a field, biomimicry will contribute to $425 billion of the United States GDP by 2030.3 Biomimicry used to further renewable energy practices will have a very different net effect on the world than biomimicry used to design the next generation of weapons. These are both examples of biomimicry, but designing war machines will only lead us further into the destructive spiral of the Anthropocene, perpetuating fossil fuel extraction, planetary disorder, and never-ending war. Historically, the global military has been a huge funder of biomimetic

research, and universally militarization and environmental destruction go hand in hand.4 How can biomimicry offer both the advancement of military technologies and the promise to respect the natural world? This is a relationship that must be reconciled going forward. Thinking back to the scales of biomimicry, I wonder if biomimicry that only considers form or process is as truly biomimetic as that which embodies larger scale ecosystem mimicry. At this systems level, biomimicry asks us to consider ourselves and our inventions in terms of the larger natural system. Exploitations of the natural world under capitalism and militarism explicitly go against the goal of learning from the way nature has evolved these systems. Biomimicry is often presented as the complete solution: both a set of design strategies and a cultural mindset shift that would help reconcile our current exploitative relationship with the natural world. But it is only biomimicry at the systems level where the true paradigm shift will occur. True biomimicry is not designing using nature, but designing from the mindset of the natural world.5 1 Matthews, 2011 2 Johnson & Goldstein, 2015 3 Kennedy et al, 2015 4 International Peace Bureau, 2002 5 Matthews, 2011

Military Interests in Biomimicry




Camouflage appears in many forms all across the natural world. Some animals like octopuses and chameleons can change their skin pattern to match their environment. Adaptive camouflage has consistently been a focus of biomimetic research and development for use in military technology.6

US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded research into the patterns of emergence learning from the swarm patterns of bugs, birds, and fish. They are aiming to program a series of individual robots that can quickly adapt and respond to commands in a similar way.7

The Namib Desert Beetle “makes” its own water by using the unique shape of its shell to condense fog. Researchers have developed a waterbottle that mimics this function, and the miltary is keen to adopt this technology for use in desert climates, which would enable soldiers to make their own water on the move.8 6 Northfield, 2018 7 Northfield, 2018 8 Rong & Thong, 2015

POSSIBILITIES OF BIOMIMICRY When we use biomimicry for sustainable design that

exists within the larger framework of extractive economies and capitalism we are failing to see the big picture. Attention to the big picture should be fundamental to biomimicry, as elements of the natural world all operate within larger ecosystems. While I do believe that biomimicry has potential at the form and process level, biomimicry at the ecosystems level is where the possibility for most promising change exists. Only when performing biomimicry at this level with true attention to larger systems and local geography will we have a chance to reach the paradigm shift that biomimicry advocates promise. Most of the critiques of biomimicry are about biomimicry as we see it practiced today, often arguing that it does not go far enough towards the radical shift it claims. Most of these critics offer hope that the design, production, and societal paradigm shifts that biomimicry hints at, if implemented fully, have the potential for massive change. The main failing of biomimicry as practiced today is our constant tie to the anthropocentric hierarchy of life.1 We need to shift away from letting anthropocentric, capitalist, and militaristic desires rule our interactions with nature and instead participate in the greater biomimetic paradigm shift that offers “possibilities of a new form of production, one that elegantly manipulates the more-than-human world for all life as opposed to capital.”2 This idea complements the more-than-human alliances that Haraway argues for with the name Chthulucene: recognizing that our place in the world is intimately tied to everything else, and calling for creative worldbuilding as we collaboratively design new futures.

“Biomimicry will not furnish a key to sustainability until we act not only in imitation of nature but also from within, so to speak, the mind-set of nature, where this means allowing nature to 'redesign' not only our commodities but also our own desires.” - Freya Matthews 3 1 Johnson, 2016 2 Goldstein & Johnson, 2015, p. 77; Matthews, 2011 3 Matthews, 2011, p. 382




G &


ART, 20

Ants play many vital roles in ecosystems including:



We estimate that there are between 1 quadrillion and 10 quadrillion ants on this planet, more than 12,000 different species. The collective biomass of ants, the combined total amount of living matter in individual organisms, is five times greater than the combined biomass of humans.



Every species of ant has evolved as a response to their particular location, and they play a crucial part of the ecosystems to which they belong. Sometimes hundreds of ant species occupy the same area, but their specific niches work with each other, rather than against. They have achieved this worldwide habitat by actively engaging in their local place. No one is suggesting we live exactly as the ants do, but we would be wise to learn from their behaviors. Diversity is strength. Cooperation is key. Forming a deep connection to place is essential for survival.


WILLIAM MCDONOUGH is an architect, designer and leader in sustainable development around the world. His architecture firm was comissioned by the city of Hannover, Germany to develop these guiding principles for sustainable design.

JANINE BENYUS wrote the book that brought biomimicry into the spotlight. Along with Dr. Dayna Baumeister, the two founded Biomimicry 3.8, the world’s leading bio-inspired consultancy group, and the group responsible for most of the biomimicry educational materials. Nature’s Unifying Patterns are the lessons they identified from the natural world that humans should consider as we design.

JOHN THACKARA is an author and design thinker who has spent years focusing on locally based design strategies. His book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World was the first book I read where I felt that my own values of design were put into words and actual design strategies.


environmentalist, architect and designer who has spent his career developing practices for sustainable and regenerative design. He founded the Living Building Challenge, a well known and rigorous building standard for actualizing regenerative design.

MINDFUL DESIGN As human beings we are a part of the natural world, but we create things that are not natural. Our nuclear waste, our landscapes of extraction, and the remnants of our lives in plastic trash will outlive us by thousands of years. A better world is possible. Getting there will be complicated and messy and there is never a single perfect solution to any problem. Designers have a huge responsibility as the creators of the systems and products that impact our lives and the lives of all beings on this planet. Yet we are all designers in some way or another, so this is about all of us. It will take everyone, working on all scales, to move us in this direction. Maybe the Anthropocene should be called the age of re-learning. We must re-learn how to live together on this planet with our nonhuman counterparts. We must re-learn how to build, design, and grow without leaving catastrophes in our wake. We must re-learn how to live responsibly on the planet, care for one another, and build community in the face of uncertain futures. Mindful design is my personal attempt at this re-learning. It is a set of philosophies to help guide us through making decisions in the Anthropocene. Mindful design is learning how to create with compassion, designing and living our lives with grace, and working in the interests of others. It is a never-ending process of unlearning and relearning. It is also the set of values and practices I want to embody as I move through this world. These are not new ideas. The Quechua people of the Andes have a name for a similar kind of worldbuilding; they call it sumak kawsay. This is a way of living that is both community-centric and ecologically-focused. It is a worldview that is about collective harmony and cultural and environmental locality. Learning about and embodying principles like these help highlight alternative ways of living beyond the limits of capitalism.



Design to strengthen slower, smaller local production loops instead of vast complicated systems that exploit people and the environment. Participate in the slow economy whenever possible. Be mindful of the physical things that come into your life —where did they come from? Who made them? What materials went into their creation? Do they have another life after they leave your hands? How can you divert objects from their usual path to a landfill? Appreciate the life and energy of a handmade ceramic mug, as opposed to a mass-produced one. Share meals with your community. Notice the connections to people and place that slowness brings. Remember the lessons of living we learn from the Anthropocene. Pay attention to what no longer exists. Speed only quickens our collective forgetting. Slowness helps us remember what is important, and where we should focus our energy.

DESIGN FOR LOCALITY Life evolved on this planet to use sunlight, carbon, and oxygen because those were the conditions present. Local conditions are the driving factor of all evolution, and the reason we have biodiversity on this planet. Importance of place and situation underlies everything in the natural world, and therefore should be the underlying theme we can learn from biomimicry. Translating this need for locality into design strategies, we first identify the functions we need our products, systems, and structures to perform, and then adapt those to the local geographic and cultural situations. Buildings need to perform certain functions like shelter and temperature regulation, but the way they fulfill them should depend on their localities. A building in the desert does not need to be made of the same materials and look the same as a building in the tropics. Too often we design products, systems, and buildings to look the same, and be used the same around the world. We overcompensate so that a product will always operate with the same efficiency, and the product's market is maximized. We prioritize ease and financial gain over nuances in design and energy or material optimization. This blatant disregard for locality results in wasteful products and placeless design.

This kind of design has a long architectural history! Vernacular architecture is the name for building using local history, knowledge, and materials. Strategies like passive heating and cooling (temperature control by the shape/materials of a building rather than using energy to heat or cool it) have been in play since human beings started making structures.

DESIGN STRENGTH THROUGH WEBS & NETWORKS In nature, interaction, biodiversity, and density are all keys to success. Too often we design systems that are uniform and hierarchical and are surprised when they fail or cannot respond to evolving needs. Strength and resilience can be designed through patterns of networks. When disturbances occur within a network they can best be tackled at multiple levels, and can easily be stopped or fixed. Social networks support interactions and strength through intimacy and compassion. Strong communities benefit the health of their individual members. The more we can strengthen our communities the more they will strengthen us. Community building is resilience building.

“Revolutions surprise us, and change is sudden and unexpected. The water boils and we don’t see it coming. The networked way of life works, and the failures are fossils. The ants thrive and the dinosaurs are no more.” - Dr. Tamsin Wookey-Barker

“If, in an age of networks, even the smallest actions can contribute to transformation of the system as a whole, then our passionate but puny efforts so far may not have been in vain.” - John Thackara



MYCORRHIZAL FUNGI, the tiny thread-like roots of fungi, exist in a mutually beneficial relationship with most of the land plants on earth. They help deliver nutrients to these plants (through their roots) in exchange for sugar. Trees have been known to communicate with each other, share resources, send danger signals, and help each other survive, all through the mycorrhizal network. This benefits the ecosystem as a whole above the interests of any individual organism, and makes the whole ecosystem more resilient to disturbances. LEARNING FROM THE FUNGI, we should help and support one another. Our small actions collectively can make big change.

1 Woolley-Barker, 2016 2 Thackara, 2017, p.19

DESIGN FREE ZONES When designing systems and physical spaces, there needs to be spaces left undesigned. This allows for evolution that can only happen organically. When things are too designed there is no room for life, for spontaneous activity, for positive change. Design the stage, not the play. Design the rules, and let the interactions unfold.

EMBRACE THE PARADOX In the Anthropocene we know so much and so little at the same time. We have the most control we’ve ever had, and we are completely at the mercy of unpredictability. We simultaneously exist as a part of nature and detached from it. Yet we must keep moving forward through these paradoxes and this uncertainty, and learn to design within these contradictions. There is not a perfect path forward. Embrace all these paradoxes for they free up room for experimentation and creativity.


Sharing physical space encourages interaction and collaboration, and the way we plan spaces affects the relationships we have within them. Design spaces centered around shared commons. Design places for people to sit and talk in the middle of the city. Design physical places to encourage practices of slowness and community building. In ecology, edge effects are the pattern we see where there is heightened biodiversity at the boundaries between different habitats. Design collaborative curriculums that bridge disciplines. Encourage these edge effects, spectacular things will come out of them.


The natural world does not exist for individuals to privatize it. No human should own an idea that they learned from the natural world. Tools and practices from biomimicry should exist to be shared between people and communities. Ideas should be shared. Collaboration is the goal.


Sharing physical things works against the dominant paradigm of consumerism and individualism that capitalism promotes. Invest in places that are made for sharing. Libraries and community centers are spaces that work against capitalism. Nurture them. In the natural world materials are shared by many.

COMMUNITY RESOURCE SHARING: Instead of each household owning their own vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, toolkit, car, etc… imagine if we build resource hubs for each neighborhood where these items were loaned out, like a tool library. Think of all the things you buy and own that you don’t use all the time. Why aren’t we sharing those? It would be cheaper for each household, better for the environment (less physical things needed), and could help build stronger communities by bringing people together, or paring the tools with skill sharing workshops.

DESIGN FOR DISSASSEMBLY It takes humility to design hoping that someone takes apart or betters your work down the line, but this is how we adapt. Designing physical objects in a way that allows them to be easily taken apart makes for easier upgrades or material recovery. For things that rely on technology, designing for disassembly is especially important. Our technology is changing so quickly that our creations need to be easily updatable in order to keep up. Buildings should be designed so that systems (like energy, electricity, water, and waste) can be disassembled and updated with ease. Products should be designed to be easily broken down into their components so that as much of the product can be upcycled into new things rather than the whole object be trashed. This keeps materials in the cradle-to-cradle cycle for as long as possible.

WHALE FALL: In the natural world everything is disassembled into its components and upcycled back into the community. Decomposers play a vital role in ecosystems by recycling these nutrients back into the system. When a whale dies in the ocean, its dead body creates an entire new ecosystem for other species to thrive in. Over decades these carcasses are disassembled — larger organisms, smaller scavengers, and finally microscopic bacteria help break down all organic matter.

Soap and detergents are currently designed to work the same everywhere — but they do not need to be. The strength of soap should be dependent on the local needs. Places with hard water, water that has relatively high amounts of minerals in it, need stronger soap than places with soft water. The soap we use today is usually designed to work the same everywhere, which means that it works well in some places and too well in other places. When soap is stronger than it needs to be, that excess can be

harmful to the environment where it ends up. If we optimized soap based on local needs, we would use materials more wisely and we would prevent unnecessary hard soap from getting into fragile habitats. Thinking about soap as a larger system, there are many places in the process where mindful design can help create a healthier and more beneficial network. Materials making, manufacturing, distribution, transportation — ­ all of these are systems with opportunities of their own.

On a larger scale, many buildings and cities are designed with similar features, regardless of location. Historically, of course, this was not the case. Civilizations only had local materials to build with, and were much more in-tune with their local environments. Now, with past and present globalization we design under the assumption that we should be able to use any materials and design whatever and wherever we want to. In Cradle to Cradle, the authors propose the notion that buildings should be designed to fulfill the same set of functions that a tree does — create habitat, change with the seasons, enrich soil and air. “Imagine, a building like a tree, a city like a forest” they suggest.

I propose we take this a step further by incorperating biomimicry’s ideas of locality. We need to look at how trees have evolved to fit their geography, and design our buildings to mimic these relationships. Under this notion, buildings and cities across the earth will fulfill similar functions to each other but will be designed using local materials and optimized to their local geographies. Cities in the desert and cities in the tropics should function like desert and tropical ecosystems respectively. Designing with locality is a foundational step on the path towards pursuing mindful, responsible design which will be indispensible to us all as we navigate our way through the Anthropocene.

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Image Refrences Cederskjold, J. (Photographer). (2011, October) 8 House - Bjarke Ingels [photograph]. Retrieved from web/20161022140915/ Edited. Koala, B. (Photographer). (2014, March). christiania copenhagen [photograph]. Retrieved from koala/13473116363/ Edited. Seier + seier(Photographer). (2007, August). Christiania glass house [photograph]. Retrieved from seier/1244185274/in/set-72157603362036548/ Edited. The rest of the photos are from or by author. All illustrations by author. These buildings are the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) located in Milan, Italy.

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