Biomimicry 101: An Interview with Denny Royal, Principal and Head of Design and Biomimicry at Azul Seven

By Kristina Woodburn

February 8, 2018

The below text is a transcription of the interview captured above. Please listen or read depending on your preference of content deliverable.

Kristina Woodburn: Hello, and welcome to biomimicry and design 101. I’m Kristina Woodburn, Project Manager at Azul Seven. Today I’m talking with Denny Royal, the Principal and Head of Design and biomimicry here at Azul Seven, about biomimicry and design. Welcome, Denny, thanks for making the time to sit down with me today.

Denny Royal: Hello.

KW: To start, let’s have you define biomimicry.

DR: Biomimicry, the way that we look at it, is the conscious emulation of nature’s genius, so that is, we’re tapping into and learning from nature, and taking what we learn and applying it to the design work that we do by abstracting design principles out of what we’ve learned from nature.

KW: How did biomimicry become part of your career as a designer?

DR: I have kind of two hardcore passions in my life. One being design, and the other one being the outdoors. In the design world I’ve always followed different innovation methods that are going on out there. I’d followed Biomimicry 3.8 for some time, and they published some new methods a few years ago with their biomimicry design circle and I looked and saw that there was actually an opportunity to go get some learning experiences, and to do a Masters level course. Within a couple days I had applied for that course, and was accepted into the cohort and got trained up in biomimicry. That was kind of the beginning of my adventure in connecting the two things that I’m passionate about, nature and design.

KW: That’s very cool. Alright, next let’s play a game, if you’re up for it. I’ll describe something, and you tell me if it’s an example of biomimicry, biophilia, or bio-inspired.

DR: Alright.

KW: Okay, first one. Man-made material on shoes or clothing that has the appearance of snakeskin.

DR: Yeah, bio-inspired.

KW: Alright, number two. Observing dolphins to help develop a tsunami alert system.

DR: Biomimicry.

KW: Number three, a carnival ride that looks and maneuvers a lot like an octopus.

DR: That’s an interesting one. That’s kind of both bio-inspired, but also could be biophilic in just kind of how it looks and behaves. Biophilia is usually applied more to the built environment, but it’s kind of from an attraction standpoint.

KW: And, final one. How about a surface covering design to repel bacteria in a way similar to how shark skin functions?

DR: That’s biomimicry.

KW: Wow, that’s fascinating. Could you tell me more about that?

DR: Yeah, actually that’s an existing product. Sharklet Technologies has developed a surface treatment and structure based off the structures of the denticles that are on shark skin. They’ve got a very specific kind of triangular structure, and what that does is allow for there to be like almost no biofouling on a shark, which means that no bacteria or anything can attach itself to a shark’s skin. It’s got like a 98% success rate in keeping bacteria off, so what Sharklet Technologies did was mimic the structural piece that makes it so that bacteria can’t stick. They’ve been applying it to surfaces and to film. I think some of the first things that they did it on were ships to not have the hulls biofoul, but they’ve also been looking at it from one space that we’re particularly interested in – the healthcare space.  If we could coat surfaces with this film versus having to clean surfaces all the time we could really diminish the amount of hospital acquired infections, which has probably cost the industry about 20 billion dollars a year. There are a few hundred deaths a day from surface infections that happen, and the way that we deal with it right now in hospitals is actually taking and using really harsh chemicals to clean up. We don’t know if we’re cleaning up everything, but if we could treat surfaces in a way that we would never have to clean them or clean them less often and not worry about bacteria sticking to them, it could be kind of a huge breakthrough in the healthcare space in preventing infection.

KW: That’s really a game changer.

DR: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

KW: What are the key benefits to an organization that chooses to incorporate biomimicry into their product design process?

DR: A lot of people right now see it as a kind of secret-sauce because there’re not as many companies doing it, but I think that it also opens up innovation and ideation space. You gain kind of this giant library, this 3.8 billion year library, of innovation that’s already happened that you can tap into. I think also in the way that we start to measure the products that come out of that, if we’re measuring them against life’s principles or as we like to say, nature as a modelment or measure.

We measure those things to see whether they’re going to be sustainable for the future of the business and resilient for the future of that business, but also making sure that they’re sustainable for the environment that those things are actually in, right? Kind of making sure that we’re doing less harm. I think also nature’s extraordinarily resilient in the way that it behaves, and I think that from a company standpoint we can learn a lot about that resiliency and apply that, not only to the products that we make but to the business practices and the way that we structure our businesses as well.

KW: Can you share some examples of design issues that have been addressed using biomimicry?

DR: Sure, so the famous one that everybody talks about all the time and is really easy to understand is the Shinkansen bullet train. It obviously used to be shaped like a bullet, but it’s not anymore. They had a problem when it would come out of a tunnel it would be pushing this bow-wave of pressure in front of it, and it would cause a sonic boom. It  was upsetting to all of the neighbors in the area, and folks nearby. The head engineer on it was actually an avid birder, and interested in applying some biomimicry principles and started to look at a particular species that could help them think about how to redesign the train.  They started looking at the Kingfisher and the structure of its beak and head. The Kingfisher’s really interesting from an example in nature in the sense that it can go from one fluid medium, air, to another fluid medium, water, and not cause a splash. They looked at that and started engineering it, and that’s actually what the Shinkansen bullet train is now designed after, and what that allows is for it’s I believe like 10% more efficient now, and 13% faster, now that it is shaped like this thing and t’s traveling at 200 miles an hour. So, it got quieter, uses less electricity, moves faster, and now it doesn’t have a sonic boom so everybody is happy in the long run.

KW: Wow. How about designing digital products? How has biomimicry been applied there?

DR: There are a few products that come to mind with that. One, actually, a digital product that you can thank for the safety and fuel efficiency for modern cars. Claus Mattheck developed a chunk of software that looked at how trees use material and only put material where it’s supposed to be. Material is really expensive in nature, right? It costs a lot of energy to gain material, so nature really is designed to have optimal efficiency in its structures. It only puts material where it’s supposed to be.  Think about a tree and how it might be bigger on one side. On the downhill side it might be a little fatter and kind of pointy – not perfectly round. Or, if you think about the shape of our bones. Those structures only have material where they absolutely belong. Claus Mattheck developed a chunk of software that would take any part that was put into the software and it would analyze it, and figure out what the optimal material specification was around that. How much and where it was supposed to go, and that’s really led to cars getting safer and lighter. I think almost every major manufacturer uses it. Maybe not Tesla, I don’t know what they’re up to. I hope they do, but yeah, it’s really interesting in what they’ve been able to do. I believe it was the Soft-kill options software. It’s allowed conventional cars to be up to 30% lighter, which is pretty amazing and is leading to a lot more efficiency with that.

KW: Cool. Alright, so I’m passionate about service design. How would I apply biomimicry in service design?

DR: There’re a lot of things that can crossover into the service design realm. We look at it with a combination of human-centered design and biomimicry, and we did a recent project with the local government agency where they were looking at service design and access for particular populations that maybe English wasn’t their first language. Sometimes even they were not literate in their own language, so we were looking at kind of using some of nature’s navigation lessons. We built a playbook for them using these lessons that we saw in nature were used to help with signaling. Helping with communications. We studied kinds of transition zones a lot, and were looking at environmental transition zones because there are environmental transition zones when you’re dealing with government.

In the city of Minneapolis you’re dealing with the city government and what they do, and it may not be clear in comparison to what the county government does, and what they’re responsible for. Which then may not be clear what the state government does, and federal government, et cetera. We were looking at that to distinguish those different ecosystems, and then help people navigate through that. We looked at examples of transition zones and paths to go through those transition zones to help navigate that, and also some kind of more dispersed services versus making people physically come to the government. The other piece we looked at is using government centers as more of a gathering place too, and with that we were looking at things like the fig tree in the jungle.

A fig tree fruits asymmetrical, which means that not all the fruit becomes ripe at a particular point in time during the year. It is kind of ever and ongoing, so there is fruit that always coming up. Those trees tend to be a kind of meeting place, gathering place, a pathway for a multitude of species in that particular environment. We were looking at how do we kind of change government centers to be more like that, so that there’s more interaction of people and more help around, providing other services, and providing those services at a time when people actually have time to access them. And maybe not during the business day, you know, like there are nocturnal creatures that come by the fig tree at night to get food. A lot of people are trying to work during the day, and it’s really costly for them to take a day off of work and take a bus down to get a particular service. We were looking at kind of the asymmetry of that and the services, and when they’re provided as well.

KW: What are the functional roles on a biomimicry-focused design project?

DR: You’re going to have all of your normal kind of design pieces that you would think of be it product design, service design, digital design. Those roles are still going to be there, but the addition to that would be biologists and biomimics. We always talk about having biologists at the table, which means that they’re the ones that are going to help us kind of find and analyze the biology from the primary literature, as well as the biomimic working on that as well.  Then those groups of people help translate that. The biologist is helping us find the right species to look at as a champion species and say this species and this function that is happening in nature solves our design issue. Then the biomimic is helping translate that further to the design teams to help abstract a design principle that they can then use and pull forward, and inspire the team on whatever the design is that they’re working on. Then from there it’s more upfront research and the ideation phase, so we might have gone out from a human-centered design standpoint, understood what the problem is, and bring that problem back. Asking the question, how does nature solve this?  Then we’re going to go to the biology and the primary literature. We’re going to pull that through, and then get that abstracted design principle. From there it’s kind of a similar normal prototype test cycle, but with that prototype test cycle the other thing that we’re doing that’s maybe a little bit different is, again, back to that modelment or measure piece of it. We’re measuring against life’s principles and some standards that are out there that we’ve established from a biometic standpoint, life’s principles, and ecosystems services, and making sure that we’re hitting the targets we want. Not only are we testing with users, we’re also testing against that criteria that we’ve set forth to begin with from a biometic standpoint.

KW: Okay. Well, it’s all really thought provoking. If you’ve got time, we’ve got some questions that have been submitted online.

DR: Sure.

KW: Let’s start here. “What does a biomimicry and design project entail?”

DR: Kind of what I was just talking about. We’re going to go through. We’re going to do the research, and then we’re going to scope that out. Again, we look at it with that melded approach of the human-centered design piece. We’re going to go identify what that unmet need or problem is, and then we’re going to take that and come up with our “how might we?’s” or what things we’re going to chase. When we start to look at that then we’re going to look at how is nature solving this particular problem? We’re going to ask, how would nature do X or do Y? We’re going to work with the biologist to identify that, and then pull that through the same way that we were talking about before.

KW: Alright, now I’ve Leah. She’s a business analyst in the healthcare industry, and her question is, “There are a lot of opinions at my organization about what’s wrong with customer web products. Could biomimicry be used to identify or validate issues with product adoption?

DR: Yeah, I think absolutely it could. That would probably be less of a problem of going biology to design or design to biology, but what we’d be looking at there is more of that measurement criteria. That’s a place, again, where we might take and look at life’s principles, which are these deep deep patterns in nature that kind of every species is subject to that also happen to be really, really, really good design principles. Like feedback loops, for instance. Feedback loops have always been kind of a really awesome design principle that has been thought about forever in how they work. It’s very key to what’s going on in nature, and it’s very key to how we would think about designing something in the digital sphere when we’re working on digital products. We would compare that and say, “Okay. How is it working as far as feedback loops that are occurring in this web property or digital property or whatever?” There are a set of 26 of those that we would take and maybe compare, and look at to help assess, is this product working in a sustainable and resilient manner?

KW: Okay. Question from Dan. He works in strategy, also in healthcare. “My company is focused heavily on lean UX and agile development, does this rule out biomimicry as part of the product development process?”

DR: Absolutely not. I think this is a space again where I’ve talked a little bit about the fact that we’re combining human-centered design and biomimicry, but we also work with agile teams, lean teams, et cetera. I think the message with that is the same that I would say about any of these methods – stay away from the dogma. Don’t become a slave to the process. Yes, you can use a combination of them, and you need to figure out what combination of those tools works, be it biomimicry, lean design, agile, or design thinking. You need to figure out what kind of combination works the best for your culture and how to apply that with your business. Sometimes we help folks figure that out. I absolutely think there’s a place for biomimicry in any team that’s trying to do that innovative work, and trying to think differently about how they’re doing that innovation work. I’ve done some talks on this before that the dirty secret of human-centered design is we’re really good at identifying an unmet need. The same with lean and agile. Or we’re doing these user stories and stuff. The problem with all of that is then it’s just a group of designers, four or five of us, standing in front of a white board trying to come up with ideas. Or some developers and designers standing in front of a board trying to figure out the ideas of what this user needs for this path, and my question always is how smart are we?  Are we able to really figure this out, and maybe we need to kind of back off a little bit and turn to some other resources that might help us get through that. When we do that work we’re just bringing our baggage and our individual lens to it, and I think that the more that we can add to that innovation space and to that mix to help teams forward when they’re designing things, I think is absolutely crucial. Long winded answer, yes. Biomimicry can fit into any of that.

KW: Alright, Matt is in marketing, and he works in the retail industry. Hiss question is, “Measurement is key in my industry. How would a business assess the upfront value of biomimicry and design?”

DR: I think the upfront value is that speed to market. Getting the innovation right the first time, and innovations a little bit more of a long tail play. The upfront outlay on doing a biomimicry project and having more ideas to choose from. I mean, it’s been proven that it’s much more successful if you’ve got three or four ideas that you’re prototyping and testing versus a singular idea that you’re prototyping and testing. The success rate and the outcomes of that are much higher, so I think having those influences from biomimicry to give that broader space that still solves the same problem kind of proves itself right there. I think again, it’s very similar to a design thinking methodology, which has proven more speed to market. Getting the idea of failing early and testing early, which we do when we apply these methodologies. I think that the ideation space having so much more to tap into, again versus our little monkey brains and designers doing it, I think there’s an immediate pay-off.

KW: Okay, here’s a question from Tatiana. She works in IT and financial technologies. Her question is, is biomimicry a cost effective approach to improving design?

DR: You know, absolutely. I think the example I gave with the Shinkansen bullet train that there’s an immediate kind of 15% less electricity. That’s a lot of money when we’re talking about something like that. I think there’s the payoff. Another really good example is the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe that was designed kind of mimicking termite mounds. When you think about buildings and the energy used from an HVAC standpoint. What they did is Mick Pearce looked at how termites can kind of keep the temperature in an environment where there’s a 70 degree temperature swing from day to night in these deserts, right? This termite mound, while there’s a 70 degree temperature swing outside, they can keep it to one to two degrees the same inside. While it’s getting hot and cold, they’re staying the same inside.  The way they do that is each little termites got some genetic programming that says open my little door when the temperature threshold hits X, or close my little door when the temperature threshold hits Y. They do that, and they can kind of think about this. When you think about that then in the built environment, about 40% of the building costs are operational costs of a building is for HVAC. All the energy used to do that. They were able to kind of redesign this building that uses 90% less energy for ventilation and heating and cooling. In the first couple years that they had that building open in Zimbabwe, which is getting very toasty there, they saved 3.5 million dollars in air conditioning costs.

KW: That’s fascinating.

DR: Just simple things like that. You can see the payoff in those things when you kind of start to peel the onion back a little bit, and look at what is going on.

KW: Alright. Final question we’re going to take today is Jeff. He works in operations, also in financial technologies like Tatiana. Do you have tips for introducing biomimicry to leadership as a practical way to address product design issues?

DR: Yeah, I think start with small doses, and small projects, and quick wins. You know, get your feet wet. I think that we usually recommend doing some kind of workshop work as well just to expose people to it, and get them to understand the buy-in. That’s taking them and helping understand that connection that we have to nature and that we can learn from it, but then also showing successful examples of biomimicry in the real world. Then maybe starting to kind of play with it a little bit, and unpack a small project in that way and kind of think about doing stuff differently. That’s been a successful route.  It’s kind of like bringing design thinking in. You need to have that executive sponsorship, but you also need to have some kind of boots on that ground level that are understanding it and doing it, and kind of working with it. With that, that’s what biomimics are for. That’s what I’m trained to do is to kind of help translate between the biology and all those kind of different disciplines in the world from architecture, education, design, business, et cetera, that that’s our roles. That’s how we’re trained is biomimicry to help kind of cross that chasm and bridge that gap.

KW: Great. Well thank you to all of you who submitted questions. Sorry we can’t get to them all. I just have a few more things that I wanted to get to before we wrap up, so I’m going to bring myself on. What do you look for in an ideal biomimicry design project?

DR: I think it’s the same as any design project. I’m looking for a good challenge, and then we’re looking for a team that really is interested in doing something different. That’s interested in building resilient and sustainable solutions, and that’s interested in changing the way that they think about things. These are big paradigm shifts in the way that we design, and I know that it’s interesting. Almost every person that I present biomimicry to and talk to, they’re like, “Why aren’t we doing this? This makes so much sense”. I’m like, yeah, I get that duh-question from them every time, and I think that it’s getting more and more popular as a methodology.  There’s much more education outlets for it now, so I think that it’s cool that people are picking that up. Just the appetite and the curiosity to move forward on a project like that is what I’m looking for now. I’m trying to spread the idea and the meaning as much as possible, and get people interested in it.

KW: Is there a design problem that you personally would like to take on using biomimicry?

DR: Well, I’m kind of an outdoor gear nut. Particularly like the clothing and packs that are used. I’m super interested in fabrics and materiality and the design of those products. I’m always like … A lot of those products have a lot of bad stuff in them. There’s a lot of harsh chemicals in the way that we do water treatments, so I’m always interested in stuff that’s not harsh in the way that it is. The materials that we’re using. The types of gortex in the materials that we’re using to make things much more abrasion resistant are still made out of plastics. They’re petroleum based things, and if we could get away from that and design stuff differently there I’d be super passionate about that.  Northface has played around with it a little bit. They did a jacket that was made out of the biomimic spider silk, so it’s not real spider silk. It’s human-produced spider silk. I don’t know how many they made of them, but if I could get my hands on one of those I’d be like super happy about it, right? Then I think in the design and the efficiency just of like tents and all of those things I think that there’s … Yeah, I think it’d be super fun to work on that stuff.

KW: It’s all super interesting to me. You provided a list of reading materials, which will be accessible.

DR: Yep.

KW: Apart from that reading, what other advice can you give to someone who is interested in learning more about nature inspired design?

DR: As you said, there’s some more info on our site, and then our strategic partner in biomimicry, Biomimicry 3.8 are the folks that I learned this from. They have a bunch of stuff on their website as well. There’s a couple, Arizona State University, where my Masters of Science in Biomimicry came from obviously offers a Masters of Science. Then over in Ohio, I believe at Akron University, there’s now a Ph.D. program in biomimicry as well. I know there are pockets of stuff going on globally too. One of my current cohort members lives over in Berlin, and she’s been exposed to a lot of the stuff that’s going on. There’s biomimicry networks kind of all over the place, so tap into those. The other advice I always have is get outside and observe. Watch what’s going on around you. Be connected to that library, and make sure that we’re not destroying it as well.

KW: Great. Well, I’m ready to get outside. Thanks for sharing your time and insights, Denny. It’s been fun to learn about biomimicry and design.

DR: You’re welcome. Thank you.

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