Sunday, May 04, 2008

Natural Optimization

What is the single-most important driving force for any animal living on this planet?

It is not the ability to live in a sustainable equilibrium with all other creatures, it's not the ability to even multiply, but most importantly it is the ability to maintain a sustainable environment for its offspring to live in. This is so deceptively simple to understand, that nature has been doing it from ever since nature exists. Generating this self sustaining equilibrium through various processes and counter-processes which clean each other out. It is an important perspective to share with nature, that we need to keep our home clean for our children to live in. This is not the transfer of responsibility alone, but also generating a conducive environment so that the offspring can carry out the responsibility for its offspring and so on.

Biomimicry is that emerging field which will be responsible to teach "humans" (can be read as, wasteful creatures) how to emulate nature's owns works through our technology to maintain a sustainable environment for our kids to live in.

Why is it so complicated for us humans to design something, to make something, to use something & generate a huge amount of waste in the process of doing so, which can't be used for anything at all but for disposal? Even the system of nature has it own share of outputs/byproducts, but how these outputs are effectively fed back to other parallel systems working along with it as an input for some other process. The whole crux of looking at life as a complex adaptive system, let alone nature, feeding enormous quantity of waste to some system which acts as the enormous amount of input for that system.

For instance, what is the most heavily generated by product we can even conceive of from any system? Imagine a system of animals, what can they generate which can be potentially lethal for their own survival? Well, many things, but the alarming quantities of one substance, namely Carbon dioxide (CO2) is what I am aiming at. Almost all mammals exhale this gas, which is not good for their survival on this planet. Well we know where it is used and how it is recycled. Its a natural process, CO2 not required by mammals is used by the flora & many other systems which sort of sustain the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is nature's amazing way to clean itself up, this is an optimization system which makes use of "what is" available to eliminate the waste from other processes by using it as an essential ingredient.

What could have been nature's challenge in terms of developing this self-sustaining equilibrium? We can't have such information, atleast from what we know. But one thing that biomimicry expert Janine Benyus, points out is the use of elements (a limited amount of them) in constructing these systems. What she means to say is, we humans use the entire length and breadth of the periodic table in making things which makes our lives more livable, whereas nature uses just a few elements from the periodic table in order to generate specific processes. So the whole concept of biomimicry is to emulate nature's own way constructing these systems & make changes in our designs to minimize our wastefulness.

In this remarkable video by Benyus at TED 2005, she explains 12 sustainable ideas from nature which can be (and are actually being) incorporated into our way of thinking of systems and designing them. The aim, is to be design more efficient systems, parallel to the way nature conceives it & eliminate non biodegradable waste, which apparently cannot be used as an input for any other system.

So according to her, whats the biggest design challenge for the current and the forthcoming generation; is to design systems which allow them to do what they want to do without destroying the environment which will take care of the forthcoming generations.

The bottomline according to Benyus is;

"With 3.8 billion years of research and development on its side, nature has already solved problems that human designers and engineers still struggle with. Thus there can be ways in which humans mimic nature in the products we build and the systems we implement. And because the champion adapters in the natural world are, by definition, those that can survive without destroying the environment that sustains them, biomimicry can contribute to the long-term health of our planet."

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Raunak said...

An interesting discussion...

Wed, May 7, 2008 at 12:37 AM -

Raunak, your post popped up in a search for material on biomimicry. Based on your background and experience, I am curious what you think allows nature to maintain a sustainable environment. Although we see the results, the 'mechanics' are not clear to me, even given what we know about ecosystems. Why do other organisms only use a subset of available materials, shaping and structuring those materials to deliver unique functions, while we turn to our chemistry tubes? Why is there a balance in natural systems that we often disrupt?

Although you talk about nature cleaning itself, my sense is that organisms are finding and utilizing what we see as waste, but they see as an available food source. CO2 is a critical by-product of respiration, necessary for photosynthesis, and also has helped maintain an equitable climate on Earth. Our use of fossil fuels has disrupted the balance of production and consumption. Taking a broader view and longer timescale, the imbalance will be addressed when we have consumed all fossil fuels, albeit inflicting a degree of short-term harm on other species as well as ourselves.
Regards, Norbert

Wed, May 7, 2008 at 10:41 PM -

Glad to hear from you. I don't know for certain 'how' nature maintains a sustainable environment, but I think the answer lies in the theory of natural selection. On a very long time-line, nature must have been successful in eliminating creatures who couldn't effectively & efficiently use their surroundings. Thus, became a hazard for themselves & got extinct. Thats one theory, but we humans can become an exception or maybe not. We haven't really been around that long to see the nature's wrath against wasteful creatures.

About the use of minimal elements, again, its just an observation by Benyus (and it makes sense), but we don't know the underlying processes that have resulted into the current state of things, in nature. Maybe we look at a sea shell made up of calcium carbonate, we now know how it is made, but we dont know the process that nature has been through to perfect the shell creation process. How many trials & errors had nature been through, how many elements nature had tested to get this final prototype right?

We humans, I think the scientific method (generally), are left brained and believe in methodical understanding of processes. Like steps in an algorithm. So once we realized the existence of atoms, elements being discovered, we couldnt really stop thinking about the possible uses of this new element or that new compound. We eventually reached a point in time where we experimented with different elements & then made something useful (read commercially or industrially) out of it & still keep on doing. We can attribute this to the inquisitiveness of humans (not that other animals aren't curious) & also to some extent the process where we could think in a language. Linguistics I believe have played a huge role in this development of curiosity to actual discovery & invention. So the reason why we humans end up using more elements than nature needs,might be since we don't really know nature's way of doing it (or reaching to that point of sophistication) & we found our own process (which helps us do what we need to do with the things we make).

About the waste, the only reason I think humans are wasteful is the sheer utilization rate. Otherwise we aren't really different from other animals. There are feedback loops, I believe, which constantly feed each other through their outputs. Becomes one whole jungle of interdependent systems living off each other. I agree with you when you say that we used fossil fuels out of proportion, but about that, there is also this counter argument (not really proven, but still an enticing theory) of abiogenic origin of fuels. So, maybe we are just emitting a lot of carbon and not really harming the fossil fuel reserves, purely maybe.

Like you said, by extending the timeline we may definitely be able to see how the humans unnatural behavior or utilization of resources to be precise will impact the survival of the human race. I think what Benyus says, really needs to be spread far and wide in terms of designing old things in a new way. The concept just needs to reach critical mass, for which I am not aware how much research is actually being carried out across the globe.

Do reply with your suggestions, arguments & most importantly corrections :)

I would love to know more about the nature of your work, not many people are interested in biomimicry. Googling your name pointed me towards some links based on biomimicry, but I didnt really have the time to go through them. I will this weekend. :)

For the nature of my work, well, I am a sophomore at a local b-school in Mumbai. My area of interest is finance & I graduate next year. My interest in biomimicry was arbitrary, but now I desire to read more about it. Please recommend some material or even books apart from Benyus'. Who knows if I get some cool idea in finance inspired by nature's own law of conservatism! :)


Thu, May 8, 2008 at 1:35 AM -
Raunak, thanks for your very detailed responses!

The interesting thing about natural selection is that it has traditionally been seen as working at the level of the organism, rather than collections of organisms. On the surface, a species that is particularly effective at utilising resources, entering new niches and increasing reproductive success should flourish, which is exactly what humans are doing. What natural selection does not appear to address is longevity - what allows a species to survive over millions of years? Some writers argue that it is more about 'survival of the fit' (with respect to the environment) than 'survival of the fittest', but I think that is playing with words unless they can point to an underlying mechanism.

I suspect the selection of materials used in biology may relate to the forms and quantities of energy available to 'The Rest of the World'. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen have action potentials that work in a low energy environment, whereas we can tap into massively larger and more concentrated forms of energy that lets us harness the other elements. There may be a positive feedback loop where more energy gives us access to technology that lets us tap into even more energy (fission and fusion come to mind). Certainly our intelligence and language capabilities play a big role, although recent research suggests that these are quantitative rather than qualitative differences compared to other animals.

I have heard of the abiogenic generation of fossil fuels, but expect that if the process exists, it is very slow and unlikely to keep up with our consumption of fossil fuels. The trend towards ever-increasing difficulties in finding new sources of fossil fuel seems clear. I believe the rate at which we consume resources is a critical factor - almost all organisms other than plants rely on stored energy, but they consume it at a rate that does not exceed the rate of replenishment. Maybe those that do die out quickly. There is an interesting quote in Energy at the Crossroads attributed to Georgescu-Roegen:

“Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps, the destiny of man is to have a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life . . .”

As far as information about biomimicry is concerned, I believe Janine Benyus is working on a new book that takes up where Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature left off. There is the Biomimicry Institute website that has lots of material and other links (they publish a reading list). The consulting side is the Biomimicry Guild. Each organisation puts on yearly courses. I maintain a Clippings weblog and edit the BioInspired! Newsletter. The June 2007 issue had an article by Jeff Blend on applying biomimicry to economics. He is continuing in developing his ideas, although is finding it hard going. It gets back to mechanisms - it is easy to see the balance in ecosystems and say that we should strive for the same, but the actual 'under the covers' differences between ecosystem and economic dynamics may be smaller than we think. We argue that businesses are self-centric and short-sighted, yet I suspect that your average squirrel displays many of the same traits.

A group of us have been trying to develop a pattern language based on ecosystem principles. Progress has been slow but steady. Research into non-equilibrium thermodynamics and self-organising systems looks promising, although again there is no clear 'do this and be sustainable'. We have a Wiki - the text is public-access, although you need to be logged in to make changes or download most documents.
Regards, Norbert

Ninad Kunder said...


Let me at the outset state that I enjoy your blog for the sheer variety of topics that it randomly runs around with.

It is the arrogance of the human species that believes in its ability if not the intent to destroy the planet. The human race has existed for all of 5 mins in a 24 hour existence of this planet.

99.99% of the species that have inhabitated the Earth are today extinct. Though we might want to believe otherwise, as species the odds are staked against us.

I think the plant itself has evolved and changed its elements in its journey. The only fittest creature in this whole journey has been the planet itself.

I m sure that right thru evolution of this planet there have been species which have been responsible for the extinction of other species before they became extinct. We humans might be better at it but we are or were not the only ones.

I think the key for a species is to evolve itself with the changing elements of the planet. It might be reponsible for the change in those elements.

"Survival of the evolving" as opposed to the the fittest.