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About Team Members: Siyi Chen Sukruti Gupta Gourab Kar

Advisor: Kathleen Gibson (

A self-sustaining Eco-system within Community

School & Location: Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

Design Concept Image

Scoping the Issue: Identification Food and water security are inextricably tied together, and are threatened due to climate change. Rural and suburban communities are often affected by climate change impacts, leading us to believe that they would be the best regions for a planned intervention to develop community resilience. We looked at our local community: Tompkins County, an area with rich resources and education in agriculture. After the investigation with local farms and agricultural programs at Cornell University, we found that agriculture has largely been adversely affected by climate change. Short-term droughts, floods, heat stress and freezes - all directly damage crops. These observations prompted us to look deeper into association of Water scarcity and Food security. We wanted to introduce a systems solution, to achieve long-term and high-impact management of water and nutrition resources. We decided to follow the 7-step Biomimicry design process, which directed our project.

Water & Food’s association: Water scarcity has a huge impact on food production. Without water people do not have a means of watering their crop to provide food for the fast growing population. Water is key to food security. Crops and livestock need water to grow. Agriculture requires large quantities of water for irrigation and of good quality for various production processes.

Data Visualization Global water stress Food waste & loss

An estimated 24% of food goes to waste somewhere in the production and delivery process. It’s not just the food that is lost; it’s also water, human effort and resources that go into the production process.

Define: Our analysis and exploration of current trends in food production, water management, and waste led us to believe that the key to lasting community endurance against climate change lies in the nexus of these three major issues - with resilience as an integral component of these cooperative, synergistic systems. We defined our foundational questions, and dived further into exploring how mature provides strategy for food stability, water recycling, and stakeholder involvement.

Discover: Biological Strategies Common mycorrhizal networks (CMNs) constitute pathways for the transfer of resources among plants

We looked for systems in nature that conserve and regulate flow of food or water. The overarching aim was to explore, and learn from, symbiotic and collaborative relationships in nature that express food conservation, management, and recycling strategies. Primary sources of inspiration are listed.

storage of water plant survival during drought


Rhizomorphs transport and hold water

water redistribution in rhizosphere

localized distribution of water

reverse flow

Mixed-deciduous forests in and around Ithaca help in water retention and percolation, ensuring a cool microclimate and presence of water in gorges. Through a complex interaction among various species of flora and fauna, these forests become a rich and thriving, self-sustaining resource. Tropical forests


Mutualism among species of some fungi and plants help in storage and transportation of water and nutrients, which help plants to better survive drought conditions. This collaboration between different organisms creates interconnected and resilient ecosystems.

High production

Interdependent biome


Closed system of soil and water



1. Discover: Biological Strategies 2.


Benthic communities on ocean bottom use recycled nutrients which are redistributed into the aquatic food chain. This nutrient-recycling co-operation system enables survival of a staggering variety of organisms through seasons and across various depths of sea levels.

Benthic communities in and on the bottom of the ocean floor.

Seasonal Variation

Transfer of nutrients

Diversity in organisms

Phytoplanktons and other organisms in sunlit regions

Vertical water columns

Deposit and Filter Feeders

Biological Strategy: Understanding and Abstraction The main biological strategy to inspire our design was the recycling and redistribution of nutrients in aquatic food chains, especially by deep sea benthic communities. In oceans, plankton in the photic zone produce food, which is consumed by fish and other heterotrophs. Absence of light on the seafloor prevents benthic communities to produce their own food. The food produced in photic zone is carried down to benthic communities by biological pump - comprised of processes like excretion, migration and death. Benthic organisms, both filter feeders and deposit feeders, consume this food. Nutrients are recycled and waste becomes food. Whales and other big animals that travel through both levels of the ocean are responsible for redistribution of the nutrients, thereby completing the cycle. As whales feed and excrete on both levels of the ocean, the nutrients are brought back to the photic zone by whale pump.

Graindrop incorporates two of the vital principles observed in this biological strategy: (i) Ensuring a closed-loop of nutrients to minimise waste, and (ii) A mutually beneficial system that rewards cooperation.

Strategy Emulation Graindrop is designed to incorporate biological strategies of food recycling, water management, and inter-species cooperation, both in form and function. The system of interconnected bio-swales derives its form from stormwater management systems that emulate nature. Graindrop gets its inputs from organic food waste, rainwater, and greywater. Waste is upcycled into fresh food through urban agriculture - forming the basis of sustainable food production. Swales recycle waste into food, conserving the nutrients within a closed loop, as observed in benthic communities.

Benthic Communities Closed loop Self-sustaining

In order for this system to function well, we have presented technical monitors and eco-scores, which encourages cooperation and enhances sense of community. Just as organisms in each step of nutrient recycling process in benthic communities are crucial for their optimal functioning, these bio-swales would also depend upon each contributing element for ideal operation.

Reuses Waste Conserves resources Diverse actor organisms Rewards cooperation


Strategy Emulation

A key feature of Graindrop is incentivizing sustainable human behaviour. Taking a leaf from nature’s book on Benthic communities, the system is designed such that increased individual benefits would concurrently lead to increased collective benefits. Using technology and Human-Computer Interaction to motivate people to participate, the system is based on the deeply social actions of reward and sharing.

Evaluation Nature’s Unifying Patterns We evaluated the expected performance of Graindrop model against nature’s rules for sustainability. While we expect our designed system to perform well against each principle, three were especially notable: 1.



Nature recycles all materials: Life’s patterns of recycling materials, obtaining food from waste, and upcycling, all visibly manifest themselves in Graindrop. It also has high productivity. Nature is resilient to disturbances: The system is self-sustainable, and depends on diverse organic mechanisms for its functioning. This variety and interdependence allows Graindrop to have a very high resilience towards unexpected climate change. It builds self-reliance and uplifts the resilience quotient of entire neighbourhood. Nature rewards cooperation: Graindrop, at its core, fosters a healthy cooperative relationship between human beings, plants, wildlife, microorganisms, and the built environment. It also rewards cooperation among humans, when all people in an area join hands to cultivate and maintain a bio-swale.

Graindrop is a nature-inspired systems solution that helps communities adapt to climate change, in a way that mitigates impact of existing issues of water scarcity and food insecurity.

Emergent Ideas and Lessons: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Reuse and retrofit of existing housing infrastructure Using installation of Graindrop kit as a community-building exercise Ease of adaptation of the system to various locations and climatic conditions, with little modification The need for Graindrop to be a rewarding experience both in terms of instant and long-term gratification Integration of multiple purposes into the system, including but not limited to, stormwater management, water quality monitoring, organic farming, conservation of endangered local flora and fauna.

Business Case Stakeholders: The primary stakeholders are the residents and the civic body managing the Graindrop network. Secondary stakeholders include service providers engaged in maintaining the bio-swales and growing the farm produce. Benefits: The benefits of graindrop are both tangible as well as intangible in nature. The reuse of greywater can lead to substantial reduction in household fresh water consumption. In addition, unsorted organic waste can be diverted from landfills that generate greenhouse gases, into bioswales that convert waste into organic fertiliser. In addition, this system of interconnected bio-swales enables efficient stormwater management, creates habitat for wildlife, and improves microclimate; while providing access to nature for aesthetic and recreational purposes. Research indicates that such integrated urban water management development projects lead to higher resident satisfaction, better quality of life, and economic benefits like rise in property value. Costs: The costs for the project can be categorized into two main segments - (1) costs incurred by individual households to install the gray-water and the composting systems, and (2) costs incurred by the civic body to develop the network of bio-swales. This is an infrastructure project that will need a decade for all systems to be in place and the break-even period may be in the order of 15-20 years. The long gestation period of the project, and the sustained need for funding are the major risks in this venture. Conclusion: However, given the projected water scarcity and food insecurity associated with climate change, there is no alternative but to develop long-term community driven solutions that attempt to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change by designing resilient food systems. Graindrop is the catalyst that will make this happen.

Limitations & Further Work Graindrop has the potential to catalyze development of resilient food systems in local communities to mitigate the impact of climate change. However, there are some significant limitations that need to be mentioned. 1.

The system components such as the gray-water unit, the composting unit and the bio-swale network are proven solutions individually. However, as an integrated solution these components have not been prototyped and tested in the real world. We need to build a prototype to test and verify the feasibility of our proposed solution.


The project needs buy-in from both the residents who have to invest in the greywater and composting systems, as well as the civic body which needs to invest in the bio-swale network.


The project is envisaged to take at 10 years for implementation, and the break-even period is estimated to be between 15-20 years. We need to work out financing models, using funds allocated for climate change mitigation and creating tax breaks to incentivize the adoption of Graindrop.


The scope of the project is limited to neighborhoods that have space to develop a bio-swale and may not be feasible in high-density urban environments. However, creatively reframing urban land use policies may enable wider adoption of Graindrop.


The adoption of the system hinges on the level of community support for the project. It is critical to develop a communications strategy outlining benefits of the graindrops system and reaching out to all stakeholders for their inputs. Getting people engaged with the idea is the first big step in making this project happen.

Team MakeUp & Dynamics

We are a multicultural and interdisciplinary team of designers from Cornell University. Graindrop is a collectively created solution, and has distinct characteristics from each of our disciplines - architecture, human-computer interaction, and sustainable design. Breakdown of efforts for final deliverables are as mentioned below. Siyi Chen: Problem Identification, 3D Model Prototype, Technical Model Sukruti Gupta: Biological Strategies, Swale Design, Video Gourab Kar: Concept Brief, Logo and branding, Business Model

References AskNature. (2016, April 22). Interaction helps retain water. Retrieved from AskNature. (2016, May 22). Limited organic nutrients are recycled. Retrieved from AskNature. (2016, January 28). Rhizomorphs distribute water between plants: Asomycetes. Retrieved from IFPRI. (2010). Food security and climate change. Retrieved from Large, T. (2017). Thomson Reuters. Reporting food security. Retrieved from Lambert, J. (2016, July 5). Climate smart farming. Retrieved from Ranganathan, J. (2013, December 3). The Global Food Challenge Explained in 18 Graphics. Retrieved from UNDESA. (2014, October 23). Water and food security. Retrieved from

Graindrop - Biomimicry Global Design Challenge 2017  

Graindrop is a strategic systems solution designed to incorporate biological strategies of food recycling, water management, and inter-speci...

Graindrop - Biomimicry Global Design Challenge 2017  

Graindrop is a strategic systems solution designed to incorporate biological strategies of food recycling, water management, and inter-speci...