Biomimicry and the Design Revolution: the New Intelligence

August 3, 2011

This photo is of artist Theo Jansen’s Rhinoceros and is brought to you by Octa, creators of the Whale Kit iPad Handle.

Humankind has a proud history of developing technology.  Defined by the Greeks as technologia, it is the creation and use of tools, techniques, crafts and systems in order to solve problems or affect purposes.  As soon as we humans recognized our mortality, we began using fire, clothing, and farming to distance ourselves from the vicissitudes of nature.

In the quest for comfort and material security, our species spent thousands of years separating itself from nature.  Now designers are looking back to the natural world out of reverence for its evolutionary intelligence.  Nature, it turns out, already has the solutions to many of our problems.

Biomimicry represents a major revolution in design, but it extends beyond aesthetics.  It is also a revolution in thought.  Biomimicry requires us to expand our definition of “intelligence” to include emergent properties of distributed systems.  This means recognizing thinking forms very different from the human brain – including systems where “thoughts” are computed in parallel by many units and there is no bundle of nerves that can be called the center of decision-making. Google, a predominant example of distributed intelligence, is a coral-like colonial super-organism.  According to the popular science of emergence, Google might be called an infant world mind.  On the local level, methods of networking consumer electronics already imitate biology.  The more we rely on hard drives and servers to store our personal information, the more we notice “network intelligence” in the hormonal communication between and among plants and fungi – and the better we grasp the alien neural architectures of octopuses and other cephalopods.  Even in the human body, thought is distributed throughout a surprising number of systems: memories are stored in the heart, and the gut is home to a larger neural network than the brain itself.  Each of us is a modular multitude of cooperative sub-processes.

By turning to our planet’s library of evolutionary solutions, we re-draw the boundary between “created” and “discovered.” We actively bring our questions to evolution itself and have them answered.  Pioneers in artificial intelligence, instead of using brute force to program sentient life, now design evolving networks that adapt creatively to selected constraints – growing minds with which we already live in symbiosis.  Injecting new intentionality into the evolutionary process, we make nonsense out of the old distinctions between “evolved” and “designed.”

Many authors argue that the distinction between “evolved” and “designed” is irrelevant.  Humans—as the sense organs of an evolving, self-conscious universe—are technology.  Our machines are an extension of the seamless process of our evolution.

Biomimicry is the first step in a new relationship where humans consciously consult the living world as an extension of our own minds.  By the same coin, we recognize ourselves as extensions of a minded living world. Biomimicry returns us, after centuries, to the archaic way of seeing in which our world is alive and aware, thoughtful, companionable, and wise.  Rather than trying to build dams, we can return to the stream of evolutionary intelligence and allow ourselves to swim in its flow.

More on that in a week.

Comments (7)

  1. Nikki Braziel replied on August 3, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Thanks, Michael! I will definitely read the article “Knowing By Heart: Cellular Memory in Heart Transplants.” My mom, when she passed, gave her heart, lungs, and kidneys. It has given me comfort at time to know that my mom’s heart is still beating in a sense. At other times, it brings up radical questions concerning the boundaries of self… Can’t wait to learn and explore more with you and Octa!

  2. Prometheus replied on August 8, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    Great article Michael. We are indeed living in a time where technology and nature are colliding. In our heads and in our hands. It is in the integration of silicon and carbon systems that it seems the new world will be structured. We are seeing the beginning of this and the next couple decades will really showcase this new integration. I am excited to see how we as a design studio can integrate these principles and learn from the billions of years that nature has been mastering design.

  3. Nate Gust replied on August 9, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Well written, Michael. I love your discussion of the ever-changing boundary between “created” and “discovered”. It reminds me of a book called “The Gecko’s Foot” which focuses on bio-inspired engineering and how humans are really starting to reference this ‘vast library of evolutionary solutions’, as you put it. It all makes me very excited to see where bio-mimicry takes us in the coming decades.

  4. Jesse replied on August 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I saw a TED talk ( where a scientist unveiled his discovery of how Gecko’s feet are so sticky! Is it a glue? Is it an electrostatic force? Is it tiny little velcro hooks?!?! nope to all…it actually ends up being Van Der Walls forces…whoa. The Gecko invented nano-technology…

  5. Abbey replied on August 9, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Very interesting! If you haven’t already you should check out the Biomimicry Institute’s Ask Nature project. It’s a great resource for inspiration and innovation in this field.I will look forward to your next posting.

  6. Michael Garfield replied on August 9, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    I’m delighted to see we already have an inspired audience for this series! Please keep replying with your links and reading suggestions. You know, distributed intelligence being one indicator of successful systems… 😉

  7. Lightsight replied on August 16, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Bro your input back into the endless feedback loop of life is certainly _/_wesome inside & outside of the collective consciously unconscious niches and realms of the Universe. You have not ceased to astound me with your exceptionally vast intelligence & it makes me extra happy to know you so freely share your hypothesized ponderings yet again thanks for recycling! <3(((((((((LOVE528)))))))))<3 ;PS I finally got my BIG white tourvan so let's make more musically guitartistic memories for a lifetime once again very soon! Keep ;Dreaming the reality Wonderful friend of the Universe! ;D<3