A Little Help From Nature

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on Engineered Ecologies – a particular interest of mine. I have struggled to put into words why I find the concept so interesting, but I think I’ve come to some sort of explanation. Engineered Ecologies allow natural processes to continue to function while utilizing them for some positive benefit towards human society. I know that sounds like a lot of complicated mumbo jumbo that doesn’t seem to say anything at all. I’ve been trying to come up with a better way to explain myself, but at the moment, that’s what I’ve got. It’s easier to explain through examples rather than using a large amount of abstract, all-encompassing terms.

(Source: MIT Media Lab)

This kind of thinking – utilizing natural processes for human benefits – doesn’t just have to apply to ecologies, it also applies to systems on smaller scales. Recently, MIT featured a pavilion constructed with the help of 6,500 silkworms. After a scaffold was constructed, the silkworms were placed upon the bars and did their work – spinning webs of silk across the bars to form walls and windows as instructed by the influence of varying environmental factors – light, heat, and geometry. The applications for this technology include architecture and fabric manufacturing. The best part? The silkworms can produce offspring, allowing for a whole new set of workers.

Dewars’ – a whiskey maker – has a started a project using 80,000 honey bees. The bees are placed in a mold so that when the honeycombs are formed, they will form into desired shapes. Sculptures include a bottle and a human bust. I’m not sure how practical the bottle will be, or if the honeycomb structure provides any benefits for applications, but this strategy certainly exemplifies out-of-the-box thinking.

(Source: Dewar’s)

Finally, the company Ecovative – best known for the patented process of growing mushroom-based packaging, is testing their mushroom material as an insulating material in their Mushroom Tiny House. The mushroom material grows into the wooden walls in a few days, and once dried, creates an airtight and extremely strong insulating material. Because the mycelium can grow into the wood, no nails or glue is required to keep the wooden beams and panels together. The material provides great thermal insulation and fire resistance.

All three examples utilize a certain formula that allows natural processes to be used for human benefit. I haven’t quite found a word to describe this kind of thinking, I’m sure there’s a word out there that sums it up nicely. MIT uses the term “Biohacking” and Dewar’s calls their method “3-B” but I think this term is somewhat misleading. This kind of thinking is what motivates me to pursue Environmental Engineering, I hope to apply this thinking to infrastructure design.

After much thought, I’ve tried to boil the formula down into essential steps which can be applied to all scales (both engineered ecologies for infrastructure, and for smaller-scale examples mentioned above):

  1. Examine the problem/goal: what is it you want to achieve, in as basic terms as possible? (for instance, the problem is not building a bridge, but finding the most efficient and cost-effective method to get from point A to point B.) Usually, when you break the problem down, you allow your mind to view the problem in a different, unbiased light. This allows you to approach the problem using methods and strategies never before considered. Create a set of steps to achieve your now broken-down goal: This is your outline, the fundamental, basic steps one needs. These can be pretty abstract.
  2. Identify natural processes that achieve parts (or all) of your goal: This is similar to the strategy of biomimicry, in that you look at nature for examples. However, the goal isn’t just to mimic nature, it’s to actually USE nature. This may require some research and modeling, but basically, you are taking an inventory of the natural tools you can use to put together your solution. Tools can be physical/chemical (the hydrological cycles, the wind currents, soil chemistry) or biological (the silk-producing ability of worms, the honeycomb-construction of bees, the connective tissue of fungi).
  3. Create a framework for the natural processes to function: This is basically the scaffolding, or if you prefer biological metaphors – the seed. This is the structure that must be man-made, but once put into place, requires no artificial intervention. For instance, the MIT pavilion required scaffolding to achieve the desired shape, but once created, the silkworms did the rest of the work. Basically, the idea is to do as little as possible to get to your result. Think of it as growing a tree – you decide what kind of seed and where to plant it, but after that, nature pretty much takes over. It’s the same idea here. This way, the solution is formed by nature, and therefore is more resilient and adaptable (well, hopefully).
  4. Wait: Now your part is done. If you’ve done the research and careful planning required, the natural processes should now be doing the hard work for you. This part is probably the most unsettling for humans, as it requires a hands-back approach and we all know that humans don’t like to feel like they are not in control. Remember, this isn’t construction, this is growth.

Well there you have it – my formula. As I said before, it applies to the examples I listed in this post, as well as the examples in my Engineered Ecologies post, and I’m sure it applies to many other stories I’ve mentioned before. It probably makes little sense and actually has very little practical value. After all, I’ve never actually used this formula for anything, it’s just a product of my observations. If anything, I hope it gives you a slightly better idea of what I’m talking about and as to why I am so interested in Engineered Ecologies and this type of thinking. If you have any ideas or opinions on the topic, please share, I am always interested.

What are the advantages of this kind of thinking? I think this will help us garner a stronger appreciation and confidence for/towards the natural processes and systems that surround us. I also think that this will provide more cost-effective solutions. If we let nature do the heavy-lifting, I’m sure materials and operations costs will be reduced. Also I’m sure these solutions will be quite aesthetically appealing (which goes a long way towards community involvement and investment). There are of course, downsides to this thinking (mainly, time requires), and I welcome any inputs on the negatives of this kind of framework. But these are just an opinion of a 3rd year Environmental Engineering student with no professional experience. I’m curious to hear what others think. Please comment and/or share this piece with others that may find this interesting.

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