Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Diversity as Strength: Learning from our Prairies

This article from AskNature.org seems particularly relevant this week as we heal from the deadly and divisive events of the weekend. It may seem strange to draw parallels between plant and human communities to learn from them, but by studying our native tallgrass prairies we learn that fostering diversity within a community is its source of STRENGTH and key to its long-term RESILIENCE.

“But when the work of one species is hampered by drought or other conditions, another species in a diverse and multi-talented community is likely to thrive and expand its activities. It is this ability of species to compensate for one another that allows the system as a whole to function steadily over the long term.” (Baskin 1997:24-25) Read more here!

So how can we learn from nature to foster diversity within our own communities? We welcome your constructive thoughts on how we can help our communities be more resilient by learning from nature's diversity strategies.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

August iSite: Our Place in the Woodland

Woodland near Railroad Track
It is part of my regular routine to walk my dog and sometimes run through a small patch of forest near the railroad tracks in my town. This small 50 acre woodland is bordered by a railroad track, a river, and single family homes. It is home to mostly maple trees with more than a few black cherry trees of various ages and sizes, from 100 year old grandmothers to a forest floor of saplings. There are few if any oaks to be found in this stand, largely because this park is located on the east side of the river, a location typically shielded from the prairie fires that blow from the west. The woodland also houses typical suburban critters from squirrels and bunnies to skunks, raccoons, and even coyotes. It also houses quite a few insects from mosquitoes that love me to black gnats that fly into my eyes. Ah, the web of life!

This is a managed woodland. The forest preserve keeps up the trails and removes invasive species. This area, and others nearby, also serve our community in another way: they are a part of the overall flood control strategy for our nearby downtown. In times of heavy rain, particularly in the spring, parks such as this are allowed to flood so that the river doesn't damage the valuable economic interests downtown.

So in this small tract of woodland surrounded by suburban low-density housing, humans and non-humans interact quite a bit. I could draw a diagram of the web of life that exists here, but my curiosity lies in the functions this ecosystem performs.

Water Cycles
I mentioned the flood control functions this ecosystem performs. Not only does it slow the flow of water that falls from the sky with its varied layers of vegetation, but it also slows the flow of water runoff from northern developments by allowing additional land for the river to cover in lieu of the valuable real estate downtown. The water stored is filtered through the soil and hummus layers and feeds the underground water table. Adjacent properties could assist with this function by building rain gardens and other forms of green infrastructure to help keep water on site where it falls.

While the biodiversity I mentioned above isn't as high in terms of number and depth of species as a woodland in a more rural location would be, it is much higher than the typical turf grass and trees landscapes adjacent to it. This area becomes an oasis for local fauna to find shelter and food when they cannot otherwise. Biodiversity is key to resilience over time, and our human habitats can begin to foster diversity by learning from ecosystems too.

Carbon and Climate 
This suburban oasis of a woodland helps to cool the ambient temperature of the surrounding area. The temperature is noticeably cooler, not just from the shade of the trees but also from the transpiration of plants which adds water vapor to the air. Trees shade themselves, harness energy, purify the air, and provide shelter. They also sequester carbon in their trunks and roots. Each of these ecosystem functions help provide a livable environment for a variety of life - including humans. The next step is to create buildings that do the same! And green architects around the world are doing just that.

Material Cycles
Woodlands are great examples for material cycling in nature - after all, there is no landfill for them to store their waste! All materials are cycled in nested closed loops (see Rachel's post here), and while doing so create conditions for life to thrive because of readily available nutrients and stable soil. Imagine if the materials we use to construct human habitats were held to the same standard and fit with the nature of the place, were designed for deconstruction, and readily recycled on site. That would truly set a new standard of practice for our built environment.

Community Connections
This is a fairly isolated patch of woodland with hard borders such as railroad tracks being very difficult and dangerous for humans and wildlife to cross. But what if this oasis could be connected to other woodlands and prairies with wildlife corridors and vegetation-rich landscapes, thereby improving the biodiversity and interconnectivity of the land? And else can we learn from ecosystems to improve connections between human communities as well?

Understanding our Deep Roots
When brought together, we can begin to understand the ecosystem standard that our native ecosystems, such as this woodland, set. Our challenge is then to find ways to emulate nature's standard in our built environment, creating human habitats that perform at least as well as the ecosystems they inhabit.

Learn more by visiting the Deep Roots Initiative page of our website!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July iSite: Deciduous trees and the disposable economy

(cross-posted via facebook, by Rachel Hahs)

After having a discussion with my daughter yesterday about why trees have green and then red or yellow leaves, I couldn't help but think about the process of deciduous trees dropping leaves and growing new ones in the spring. I've also been thinking about the circular economy, and the fact that in nature, cheap abundant materials are actually disposable and cycled within an ecosystem. 

The deciduous tree is a great example of how a "manufacturing process" can use "expensive" materials, like chlorophyll, without disposing of them, while keeping "cheap" materials in a tight loop that feed the tree to grow again in the next growing season. This also feeds an economy of processors that are enriched and in turn enrich the tree in a cycle of sustained growth. 

We can so aspire to do the same! 

Monday, July 10, 2017

July iSite Challenge: Finding Nature's Processes

July iSite: Finding Nature's Processes
Time: 20-30 minutes
Materials: Clear mind, writing utensil and paper

In biomimicry when we talk about process, we are talking about how something is made - the "manufacturing" processes including chemistry and assembly. Human manufacturing processes often use "heat, beat and treat" - we achieve structure through energy intensive processes at high temperatures with toxic chemistry. In nature, manufacturing processes rely on low temperatures, abundant readily available life-friendly materials, and self-assembly.

For example, photosynthesis is a chemical reaction that converts radiant energy from the sun into chemical energy (sugars) using the abundant materials of carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. Another example is spider silk - a super strong material with a complex structure made with life-friendly green chemistry (aka, digested insects) in the gut of a spider!

As you did for the June iSite, find a comfortable sit spot where you feel close to nature. Observe the world around you for at least 5 minutes before moving onto the exercise.

Sketch, write, photograph or video the processes you observe around you.
  • What "manufactured" materials do you observe around you?
  • What is the general "manufacturing process"?
  • What are the "raw materials" that go into them?
  • What is the function being performed ?
  • What do you want to learn more about?
Share your July iSite with us via social media or email!

Friday, June 30, 2017

June iSite: Virginia Creeper

{cross posted from moira albanase via facebook}

For my June iSite experience, I decided to make it a family event. A car full of sunscreen, snacks, and hats brought my daughter, sister and mother to Scenic Vista in Columbiana County Ohio. While the younger two got comfy in the hammocks, my mother and I ventured down the forest trails. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the paths were cool and the air was heavy. It was not long before we noticed that it was more than tree leaves that sheltered us from the sun. Creeping vines were making their way skyward, using the tree trunks as both foundation and highway.

We identified Virginia Creeper, Poison Ivy, Grape Vines, and some mystery plant, all with different strategies for getting height. Virginia Creepers would find crevices in the bark of a tree and situate themselves in the shelter of the cranny. This would create a chaotic upward growth pattern for the vine. Poison Ivy would create thick, hairy vines that shot straight up a tree regardless of the bark texture. The mystery plant was growing in a large circle around, but not touching the tree, only reaching out for support once it was too tall to support itself. This created the ghost of a hoop skirt and bodice around the well-dressed tree. Grape vines grew on everything they touched, even collapsing a tree that had grown top heavy with vines.

We were all interested in the different techniques the plants were using and what that might mean for its relationship to the supporting flora. But no amount of sunscreen could protect us from bugs, and the hammocks were becoming more like swings. It was time to head home, and start researching for the July iSite: process!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Another isite!

{cross post from Sally Jungblut via Facebook}

I was out kayaking this weekend in Cary when I noticed something bushy in the water. As I reached for the aquatic plant, it's form went from looking like a part of a pine branch to a squishy lump of green. 

This aquatic plant is called a Myriophyllum heterophyllum. It's name in latin means "ten thousand leaves". Though native to Florida, this plant has traveled through most of the eastern part of the states and lives in most waterways and small bodies of water. What I noticed as I drew the small sprig from the water is how the branches with all it's very fine bristles created a net - a net made up of hundreds of little nets.
  • How would you use this for human use?
  • What about spills - oil, chemical, hazardous waste?
  • Filtration both in air and water?
  • What if I wanted to capture with it? 
  • Dip the design into a product and withdraw and transport?
  • What about a new grocery/storage system?
  • Wouldn't it be cool if I could attach food containers to a branch and then have it collapse onto itself to create a protective net over it?
Remember, there's still time to go out and find your own organism for the Biomimicry isite Challenge!

Monday, June 19, 2017

June iSite: Purple Cone Flower

Walking the prairie yesterday, I came across a purple echinacae - or coneflower. This plant, while native to Illinois, is not that common in native habitats. In fact, most of the plants that grow in the wild are escaped cultivars. But do they ever stand out! Their delicate pink leaves are topped with a collection of small spines, which are packed closely in the Fibonacci spiral formation, allowing for radiating growth.

I started to wonder how this radiating growth pattern could be useful for us: could the seating arrangement in a restaurant, theater in the round, or other establishment fit more people into a small space? Could it grow and contract as needed? Would this pattern be relevant to temporary disaster shelter camps as well?

There are so many questions we can ask nature. Join us this month as we explore nature's forms - and get outside with us this summer! http://www.biomimicrychicago.net/events/

I got outside!

The mental hurdle of "finding the time" to go outside can sometimes be huge, but the resulting relaxation is worth it. Last week I spent all day at a workshop. By the time I got back, my brain was fried and I had a headache. After going outside to do my Biomimicry Chicago June iSite, I felt so much better. Purposefully taking the time to sit down, relax, observe is not just good biomimicry practice, it's good for the body and soul.

I started by doing a five minute warm-up exercise from the book "Keeping a Nature Journal" by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth which got me in the observing mode.

Then I went into my June iSite and focused on the fern. An ancient species, the fern is well adapted to a forest's low light understory. I was amazed at how the form you see at a macro scale was repeated again and again to much smaller scales. Possibly an efficient way to gather as much light as possible? My mind of course went to the large broad leaves of the rainforest understory. Why are they different? But of course, I'm just doing a 20-30 minute iSite, so the answers to that question would be for another day. I'll tuck that question away in the back of my brain though for if there ever comes a time when I am working on a similar challenge. Then I'd dig deep.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Form iSite: the Cup Plant

Did you get outside this weekend? Share your experiences with us through our June iSite Challenge: Exploring Forms in Nature!

For example, this is the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum L.), a plant native to our region that has leaves that join together at the stem to form a cup, holding water to attract birds and pollinators. So we could ask ourselves "how does nature attract collaborators?" or "how does nature store water?" and we could look to the cup plant for inspiration!

What will you discover? Check out our new website to learn more! http://www.biomimicrychicago.net/events/

Monday, June 5, 2017

The fire resistance of the Bur Oak

Did you go outside this weekend and observe nature's forms? Join us for our June iSite challenge!

I (Amy) took a walk this morning through the The Morton Arboretum and loved seeing all of the gorgeous Bur Oaks. These native trees are naturally fire resistant because of their thick, corky bark with deep ridges that passively channel hot air up and away from the surface of the tree. This adaptation helped the tree to survive in the fire-adapted oak savannahs native to our area. Imagine if our buildings could learn from this adaptation to channel hot air up and away, passively cooling the structure?

Visit http://www.biomimicrychicago.net/events/ to learn how YOU can participate in this challenge! And find time to go outside today!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How does nature distribute resources and information? #cottonwood #summersnow

Cottonwood trees propagate their seeds and distribute the "information" needed to reproduce using efficiency and resilience strategies!

Like most wind propagated species, the Cottonwood tree leverages an existing, readily available resource to help it distribute seeds: wind. Instead of spending its own energy to distribute its seeds, it uses the wind to do it instead. This strategy allows the tree to distribute thousands of seeds as far as the wind blows. But is the distribution of thousands of seeds with the hope that only a few will mature really that efficient? It is when you take resilience strategies into account.

"R select" species such as the Cottonwood use a reproduction strategy where multitudes of seeds are a produced but each one requires a very low investment for the plant. And this shear abundance is a resilience strategy because 1) their abundance ensures that at least a few will land in growing conditions in which they will thrive and 2) their genetic diversity allows for adaptation to these growing conditions.

And even the vast majority of seeds that do not become a tree will provide food and building materials that feed the ecosystem - another example of nature creating conditions conducive to life!

So what can we learn from nature to distribute resources and information?

Leverage existing, renewable energy flows instead of doing everything yourself - i.e. leverage solar and wind energies as well as collaborative relationships
Package information to be distributed in a low-cost, energy efficient way and send out multitudes in the hope that a few will land in the right place and thrive - i.e. nature's version of email spam, and like spam these cottony seeds that coat everything can be quite annoying!
Rapidly prototype many different ideas and send them out into the wind to see what sticks!

...and many more! How can you learn from the Cottonwood tree?

See also: https://asknature.org/…/lightweight-structure-aids-dispers…/

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Let's get outside and learn - together!

Summer is an AMAZING time to be outside and experience nature, and this summer Biomimicry Chicago would like to invite you to experience nature with us - biomimicry style!

Biomimicry is the emulation of life’s forms, processes, and systems into the context of human innovation, and we want everyone in the Biomimicry Chicago network to collectively explore our region and share ideas. Each month, we will be giving you an observational challenge - what biomimics call an “iSite,” where we will ask you to go outside in a natural area by you and observe life’s forms, processes, and systems in context and explore what YOU can learn from nature. This is a FREE program that we are offering to build the biomimicry competency of local practitioners while growing our network, so join us today! Sign up for our mailing list and learn more today!

  • June’s Challenge: Exploring Life’s Forms
  • July’s Challenge: Exploring Life’s Processes
  • August’s Challenge: Exploring Life’s Systems
To participate, all you need to do is read the challenge, find a natural area near you, and observe. Complete the exercise and send your sketches, essays, or photos to us at biomimicrychicago@gmail.com and we will compile your entries and showcase them to the Global Biomimicry Network through our website and social media channels.

Explore your own creativity and learn about biomimicry this summer with Biomimicry Chicago!

June’s Challenge: Finding Forms in Nature

Integral to the practice of biomimicry is a connection with and respect for life’s organisms and ecosystems. To foster this connection and hone your skills of observation, we ask you to go outside in a natural area (a wildlife preserve, a garden, or even your backyard) and observe nature’s forms. For a portion of the time, just sit and be still. Do not check your phone or record observations at first – just open your eyes and “quiet your cleverness” as Dr. Dayna Baumeister says. Relax, focus on (re)connecting with the world around you, and let your creative juices flow.

When you are ready, consider the following questions:
  • Where are you?
  • What are you observing?
  • What forms do you see that intrigue you?
  • Are they examples of well-adapted design? If so, how?
  • What design insights does this give you for your own life and work?
  • What do you want to learn more about?
We recommend you spend at least 30 minutes outside just observing and then record your observations in a journal entry, blog, video, graphic, sketch or other medium and including a photo or two to remember your experience.

An example of completed assignment, for your reference:

Exercise adapted from Biomimicry3.8 Professional Certificate Program iSite with facilitated discussion methods from Technology of Participation by The Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Getting Ready for our Deep Roots Workshop: My Current Reading List

We are getting more and more excited as we prepare for our upcoming Deep Roots Workshop April 21. As we dig deeper into how biomimicry can apply to the built environment not only as it applies to a building or project site, but also to a regional discussion of what all sustainability and resiliency efforts are working towards, we are adding shape to our Deep Roots vision. I wrote about this recently on my Think Biomimicry blog post about shifting a built environment designed to sit upon a landscape into one that lives within it, and included my current reading list as I prepare for our workshop.

We are inspired and awed by the incredible work taking place within the Chicagoland region such as the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, the Center for Neighborhood Technology Rain Ready program, the innovative work of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District including their Restore the Canopy, Plant a Tree program, the Urban Wildlife Institute which studies the interaction between urban development and the natural ecosystem, and of course the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council's work to envision a future for our region.

Together, these efforts and countless others move our region in a direction towards restoring greater resilience and sustainability. The question is, how will we know if we have done enough or how far we have to go? How do we know if we achieve "sustainability" or sufficient redundancy and diversity in our systems to be able to provide the services needed to live here for centuries to come?

I hope you find the articles inspiring and get you thinking about our built environment in a whole new way. Bring that thinking to our workshop! We're excited to share our thoughts and hope to learn from and work with you to figure out how to make it a reality.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Biomimicry Chicago Upcoming Events: April 2017

Carbon as Catalyst
Thursday April 6

5:30 - 6:30pm

Hosted by AECOM, 100 South Wacker Drive, Suite 500, Chicago

RSVP for this FREE event TODAY!

Moving beyond carbon emissions.

In nature, carbon cycles throughout our atmosphere, soils, water and all life, tying us all together. Carbon is a critical abundant resource that, together with water and the energy from sunlight, forms the fundamental building blocks of life.

Next Thursday April 6, learn how people fighting climate change are beginning to move beyond simply reducing carbon emissions to a strategy of looking to complete the carbon cycle as nature does, including seeing carbon as a resource and catalyst for new business opportunities. 
Thirsty Thursdays: RSVP Today!

Deep Roots Workshop, Friday April 21, 2017

Don't forget to register today for our Deep Roots Workshop! We are excited to share our vision for how the topics we've covered in our Thirsty Thursday events - ecosystem services, biodiversity, water and carbon management - can tie together to create a science-based framework that defines sustainability for our region. For more information, visit our event websiteEarly Bird pricing ends April 7!
Workshop: RSVP Today!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Think Biomimicry #SystemReset Series - New Post!

In my latest post on Trulstech's innovative Molecular Heat Eater (MHE) family of flame retardants and the flame retardant industry, I continue to explore how using biomimicry to not only innovate new technology but also use different materials based on life-friendly chemistry has the potential to disrupt entire product category ecosystems toward a more sustainable future.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Registration is LIVE for our Inaugural Deep Roots Workshop!

Urban flooding...water pollution...topsoil erosion...urban heat islands... 
Did you ever wonder WHY we face these challenges? While their individual causes are complex, they result from one systemic failure: the systematic removal of ecosystem services from our built environment. The time is right and the need is great to radically shift our built environment approach towards one of holistic regeneration rooted in the genius of our place - northeastern Illinois.

Kick off event!

Using water to illustrate our ideas and approach, we will discuss how learning from our local ecology allows us to shift our thinking about stormwater from waste to critical resource - one to hold on to for as long as possible. Through fun brainstorming activities, we will use real projects provided by workshop partners alongside design principles from local natural models to reimagine the potential of our local water management systems to shift from operating at a deficit to generating a net positive water balance.

At our one-day event, we will begin to explore the opportunities to use the cutting-edge biomimicry innovation methodology to design and build lost ecosystem functions back into our built environment. Join us in kicking off this exciting new initiative for the Chicago region!

Who Should Come?

To lay the foundation for this shift, we seek to collaborate with multidisciplinary teams (with people like you!) to develop publicly accessible information and tools to inform our collective decision making and measure the success of our designs.

Therefore, our goal is to bring in as diverse a group as possible - all perspectives are needed and valued! Architects, designers, engineers (civil, industrial...all kinds!), developers, municipal workers, biologists, landscape architects, students and educators, planners, economists, and more!

During this event, participants will:
  • Explore the grounds of the Lurie Garden with ecologists and learn about the inherent sustainability and resilience of our native ecosystems;
  • Learn about ecosystem functions as applied to the built environment through interactive activities;
  • Learn biomimicry tools and strategies for learning from nature to create innovative solutions to critical challenges; and
  • Collectively brainstorm a common vision for The Deep Roots Project that will continue long after the initial event.

Our Speakers

Speakers who will lead the workshop include Biomimicry Chicago network leaders Amy Coffman Phillips and Rachel Hahs as well as Conservation Design forum's Jim Patchett and the Lurie Garden's Director Scott Stewart. The Deep Roots initiative is guided by industry leaders representing diverse experience including architecture, business, ecology and design, and we welcome all participants in bringing this initiative to work for the Chicago region. If you would like to be a part of this initiative, either as an organization or as an individual, please contact us.

Learn more and register today!