Cheryl Heller

Bottoms Up: A Thought Experiment on Designing for Social Impact

When Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry was published in 1977 it was an awakening. Like Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring over a decade earlier, one slim book changed the way we thought – in Benyus’s case about design – and stunned us by uncovering what had been in plain sight all along – standards for manufacturing that made even our most refined efforts amateurish in comparison; elegant, beautiful, effective, and restorative.

We are creatures of making and acquiring; most of the lessons that have stuck from Biomimicry pertain to the manufacture of physical things. We remember the conch shell, made as strong as ceramic without heating the ocean. Spider silk tougher than nylon filament made without waste or petrochemicals. Or my favorite, the prairie: An emergent, diverse mix of plant species that are vulnerable alone but impervious to drought or disease when together. These examples and others have inspired designers and manufacturers to think differently.

As some of us cogitate about the challenge of creating more equitable life on earth, our focus is shifting; from artifacts to systems, from transactions to relationships, from design as craft to design as thinking, from habits of destruction to an awareness of the need for resilience.

As individuals, we devote abundant resources to changing ourselves, but are lost when faced with the challenge of instigating a shift in our collective behavior. Most of us can’t even move our own families to change their entrenched opinions let alone our cities, countries or the population at large. But here too, biomimicry has important wisdom to impart to development through enterprise. Just like the conch shell and spider web, the social lessons of biomimicry have been hiding in plain sight all along.

The Biomimicry Institute uses two questions about building a house to demonstrate its way of thinking compared to traditional approaches. The traditional question is, “how should we heat and cool it?” The second question illustrates the way that nature asks, “how can we maintain an optimal temperature?” The traditional question presupposes that the house will need to be heated and cooled, limits creativity and can only result in an incrementally better version of what has been done before. The second question inspires the kind of breakthrough thinking that might lead to a house designed so it does not need to be heated or cooled, an ability, which by the way, numerous species already possess. Imagine.

When we turn to designing change in social structures, though, what is the behavioral (as opposed to material) version of this example? Perhaps instead of asking what we typically do, “how we can change our institutions and society to be more just and sustainable”, we might ask “how can we create communities that are healthy and self-reliant?”

To the point of the traditional question above, professionals spend an enormous amount of time, energy and money gathering together in groups to get “something” done or changed: Conversations, meetings, brainstorms, ideation sessions, think tanks, do-tanks (yes, I’m afraid so), conventions, conferences, labs, symposiums, off sites, institutes, bootcamps, accelerators, co-whatever spaces. Some are free, some pay and some cost obscene amounts of money. People fly in from all over the world to exchange business cards and promise to follow up. Almost none of these events actually change anything. Nature would never be so stupid, at least not repeatedly.

On the other hand, I have been a participant in several student-led communities lately that demonstrated some of the social principles of biomomicry: The Social Enterprise Boot Camp (a collaboration between Columbia, NYU and SVA Design for Social Innovation), GES (Global Engagement Summit at Northwestern) and the NYC Creative Interns. (Come to think of it, they could all use some professional help with naming, but that’s another story.) Through genius or accident, they mimic nature rather than the society they want to change. While they still may not have cracked the code for how we will evolve to become a sustainable species, they provide enough hope to keep us all working at it.

Here’s how these student-led gatherings are different:

  • They are self-organized, at their inception, and at their events. There is no imposed order. People are free to notice what’s important and act on it.

  • They are not permanent institutions with infrastructures. When students graduate, others take over.

  • They exist to answer a need that is not solely about making money.

  • Everybody is a participant. There are no passengers.

  • No one is in charge. Instead, there’s shared responsibility. There is no cult of leadership or celebrity – as in nature, there are no heroes.

  • Communication serves a role other than hype – it’s about how to participate, what’s expected, how to prepare, not about how great it’s going to be and who else will be there.

  • They do not focus on problems, or what’s wrong, unlike professionals and their organizations too often do. The focus is on creating something new. Like nature, these young people deal in assets, not negativity or liabilities.

  • They are mostly local.

  • There’s not a lot at stake. Not much fear of failure, no high production value AV system to crash. It makes play and experimentation possible.

  • There are few rules and regulations. No advance instructions about how to behave.

  • They are alive, of and in the moment. The aren’t planned, or crammed, to within an inch of their lives.

  • They produce less unexpected results. Highly produced events are like chain stores, you know what you’ll find there before you walk in the door.

  • The people who come are the people who will do the work afterwards, not CEOs who don’t have the luxury or curiosity to follow unexpected threads.

  • You never hear the words “thought leader”. Multiple thought leaders in the same room leads to bloviation, not considered action.

It may be true that the dynamics that make these gatherings more provocative are simply products of the way they evolve and what is at hand. Yet how silly we would be not to notice them. Every one of these design principles can apply to the process of innovation in other community or buiness contexts. It’s an interesting parallel with Clayton Christianson’s theory about disruptive innovation, what’s really new comes from the quick and dirty bottom, not the precious top.

And it’s like that chilling bit of scientific calculation about how long it would take the earth to shut down if insects went away. It’s lonely as hell at the top of the food chain when there’s nothing living beneath us to eat.

Education, Impact Assessment