2014/02/13 B3D Webinars: Planetary Boundaries

2014/01/13 New webinar date

Taryn Mead, Marie Curie Early Career Researcher at the Business School of the University of Exeter, will be hosting a webinar on the relationship of biomimicry to planetary boundaries on February 13th at 07:00 PST, 08:00 MST, 09:00 CST, 10:00 EST, 15:00 UTC, 16:00 CEST and 17:00 EEST.  Registration at https://business-hangouts.com/register.php?m=NDE5NHwzNDY5 is required (if possible, register with a Google+/Gmail account).

After years of working in biomimicry on a full-time basis and around the edges of the emergent B3D community, I've recently joined the conversation via the B3D webinars.  After several email conversations about biomimicry + sustainability with Norbert over the years, we've been discussing the connections of biologically-inspired design to sustainability and how we are defining sustainability as a group.  As a biologist doing a PhD in a Business School, I've been coming across some interesting connections in this realm and I thought it might be worthwhile to share it with the B3D community to create some more substantial dialogue in this space. 

In 2009, there was a group of scientists who released a paper entitled: "Planetary Boundaries:  A Safe Operating Space for Humanity."  For those of you familiar, it is similar to the message from Limits to Growth (1972) but now with the sophistication of having data to define what the limits to growth are.  It's quite compelling, in my view, and its gaining traction (and critique, of course). Here is a link to the abstract:  http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/20103063016.html.


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Planetary boundaries

Dear Taryn, Norbert & others,

Sorry again for missing the webinar. I just had the opportunity of watching it and want to thank you and the panel for an interesting presentation and some good discussion topics. As promised, instead of being there, I give some feedback based on my research and design work in the field of sustainable product development (my context:) which I hope will be of use. 'Moving the target from emulation to participation' very nicely captures what we experience as well, great point! On the need for quantifying results: when applying Biomimicry for product development, quantifying results is definately something that is asked for and currently missing. Without quantitative tools it is for instance difficult to integrate biomimicry when choosing between design alternatives of for evaluating the end result. Not having such assessment possibility (because it is too difficult) does not seem helpful either. LCA-based assessment tools, which are currently applied in Ecodesign, in several ways are not suitable for capturing the results that Biomimicry is after. Nevertheless, I would currently still use those tools, for instance to evaluate possible adverse effects that occur due to a redesign, but I would welcome an alternative or addition based on Biomimicry. Interesting points about the difference between static solutions vs processes/balancing and aiming to cycle within boundaries. Several of the the life's principles of Biomimicry 3.8 seem to already reflect a focus on processes/cycles within boundaries. However, to my opinion, they currently do not provide for selecting/evaluating purposes. Nevertheless, these principles perhaps help to capture the 'breaking down into cycles' that was suggested.

Some further specific feedback with reference to the presentation: on 'history of terms', thanks for including Nature-Inspired Design Strategies :) This is actually an umbrella term for strategies that take nature as a model for developing products and systems, Biomimicry being one of those (so not being an alternative term). Furthermore I can imagine that Ecological footprint and the Natural Step principles would fit your list of 'measuring systems'. When discussing measurement it may be good to be specific whether you want to measure 'sustainability/sustainable development' or environmental sustainability, because that is what the vast majority of the (mentioned) systems are about (as it's not the same).  I look forward to learning more specifics of what made you consider the planetary boundaries and how you think of using them!

Thanks again and nice weekend!



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re: Planetary boundaries

Thanks, Ingrid. This is helpful feedback and I'm glad that it resonated with you on some level. I've read the two conference proceedings that you have floating around the web and am not surprised by your findings. The quantitative bit, despite our need for systems thinking, does seem to be the best way to make progress that we can point to in a comparable way. I do think that some of the higher level thinking is a very important part of a BII process, but not enough in many settings.

Re: the distinction between 'environmental' and 'sustainable', we see the same split in the biz literature, but I didn't tease it out here. It's hard to know how deep to go with these sorts of things in the various contexts.

I also agree re: Life's Principles. Incredibly insightful, but need that one extra step to be meaningful in various contexts. I don't know if that next step is sector specific (i.e.product design, business, architecture, urban planning etc.) or if that level of specificity can be captured with one 'qualified measure of biomimicri-ness', but it does need to go deeper. That's what I'm hoping to accomplish by furthering this conversation. How do we operationalize the sustainability component of BIIs?

I know you're in the process of writing up, but if you're interested in doing research together in the future, please do let me know. We could have a really interesting perspective together.

To life,


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nhoeller's picture

Notes from Biomimicry and Planetary Boundaries

The links below take you to the YouTube clip.  Clicking on the times will take you to the appropriate place in the clip.

B3D Webinars: Biomimicry and Planetary Boundaries

00:19 Panel and Audience
01:27 Taryn's introduction and background
03:46 Corporate sustainability
05:39 Models of sustainability
06:49 Biologically Inspired Innovation: invention -> innovation, emulation -> participation in biophysical systems
09:58 Terminology and connection to sustainability
11:47 Approaches to quantifying sustainability at different levels of specificity
13:06 Systems thinking and reductionism: complementary rather than contradictory
14:07 Planetary boundaries: bodies of research, safe limits, strong European interest, characteristics, applications
18:18 Levels: form/process/system -> nested product, process, organization and system (Interface as an example)
20:12 Analogues and metaphors, importance in business communities
22:14 Framework for dealing with multiple scales of analysis
22:43 Definition of sustainability
23:52 Implications for further research: industry-specific, "market pull", policies, BIG problems
25:34 Discussion

Overview: (times are offsets into webinar)

Taryn presented her thoughts relating to the question: "Is biomimicry contributing to sustainability and how would we know?"  The subsequent discussion covered a wide range of topics including:

  • 27:08 Marc on metaphors: lead to different questions/setting agenda/framing of problem but are not useful in solving problems
  • 29:13 Marc and Taryn on sustainability: unpredictable, hard to quantify, cost-benefit framing may inhibit getting good answers, importance of values (inter-generational responsibility, Bryan Norton's Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management), Planetary Boundaries useful metrics but not a sufficient requirement for sustainability
  • 33:29 Ray on participation in systems: bi-directional whereas emulate typically uni-directional
  • 34:50 Randy on boundaries: 'participation in planetary cycles' can help ground discussions and lead to tangible actions
  • 37:17 Margo, Marc and Taryn on dynamic systems: sustainability and resilience 'as motion over time', dynamic disequilibrium + cycles within a system -> biophysical realities, ever-changing landscape, Resilience Alliance and panarchy theory gradually gaining some traction within business/innovation, sustainability as a way of being rather than an end-point
  • 43:20 Fil on balance: reconcile competing forces,  relates to resilience (what forces and what rates of change can system manage)
  • 46:52 Marc on Panarchy Theory: based on ecology/natural systems (work of C. S. Holling), complex systems have cycles at multiple time scales (rapid bottom-up, slow top-down), balance and change in these time scales/drivers determines systems properties, influences degree of resilience/resistance to change
  • 49:06 Taryn: ISO committee to create standard for biomimetic process, Biomimicry Germany and Biomimicry Israel are participating, could have an influence on biomimetic practice
  • 50:54 Taryn/Randy/Norbert on future discussions: colleagues to explore topic of sustainability in biologically design, develop process to quantify/qualify, define boundaries/context (forest, city, body of water) to avoid 'wandering conversions', increase engagement, help translate ideas into action, 'take the middle' ground between the high level and low level discussions that are not meeting, plan for positive outcomes
  • 55:59 Taryn/Randy/Marc on unifying sustainability metrics: larger themes such as awareness and participation in biophysical environment but too large to be actionable, depends on who you are talking to, need to create a sense of rapport/mutual understanding, criteria need to handle change and complexity in human/biological systems

Edited Chat Transcript: (clock times)

  •  10:09 Marc Weissburg: shouldn't BID help set the sustainability agenda?   
  • 10:11 Filippo Salustri: participation, not just emulation - that's an important point, I think.     
  • 10:14 Marc Weissburg: Lots of those address efficiency-that is not the same as sustainability. The first is a criterion, the second is an un-quantified value      
  • 10:14 Marc Weissburg: reductionism is not antithetical to systems..   
  • 10:22 Marc Weissburg: I strongly disagree. metaphors have done nothing to advance industrial ecology and little for sustainability in general and there are strong critiques about this 
  • 10:24 Filippo Salustri: Marc's questions are very relevant, at very least for furthering our discussion because they drill down to details. Suggestion: get Taryn & Marc to lead some future discussion - maybe even a workshop.   
  • 10:43 Marc Weissburg: I assume people are familiar with Panarchy theory and the resilience alliance? That is a biologically informed management strategy for complex human systems. Some of this is present in the book Lessons from the rainforest, but not precisely in  this way..   
  • 10:45 Marc Weissburg: what Filippo is talking about [balance] is very similar to panarchy theory..   
BID Planetary Boundaries Presentation-PDF.pdf 2.29 MB
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salustri's picture

FWIW, I've posted the youtube

FWIW, I've posted the youtube vid to my G+ stream.  Hopefully, that'll generate at least a few views. :-)

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nhoeller's picture

Google+ Page Discussion on Planetary Boundaries

Discussion threads at https://plus.google.com/b/112411992907248716919/112411992907248716919/posts/Ajsic9ZX74n:

  • Margo and Taryn on Function (existing within a)+ Dynamic Disequilibrium + Cycles within the system (both natural & business) = Biophysical Realities over time, with an example
  • Josh and Norbert on importance of participation in biophysical systems, aspects of participation and quantification
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salustri's picture

E.g. of NOT participating in biophysical systems

I came across an item that just rubbed me a bit the wrong way.  It does seem at least peripherally pertinent here, so here goes.

I came across this paper: http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2014/mb/c3mb70606k - "Engineering reduced evolutionary potential for synthetic biology"

From the abstract, "we use this framework to review current efforts to engineer the DNA sequences that encode synthetic biology devices and the genomes of their microbial hosts to reduce their ability to evolve and therefore increase their genetic reliability so that they maintain their intended functions over longer timescales." [my emphasis]

That is, they're trying to stop synthetic DNA from evolving.  The thing is that they've found that they can create DNA to perform a function, but it keeps evolving away from the intended function. So they're trying to stop the evolution.

I see this as rather defeating the purpose.  Obviously, if the DNA is evolving away from what they want, then what they want isn't what is most conducive to continued existence of the DNA in that environment.  That is, the DNA wants something different from what it's human designers want.  Hanging my head in shame, I must admit that this is very much the way engineering works; engineers seem to want to force natural systems into configurations and behaviours that they just don't want to do on their own.  That seems the very definition of "unnatural" - which rather implies it's fundamentally inspired by anything but nature.

I think what they should be doing is looking for a way to make the DNA evolve towards what they want it to do, which requires an entirely different mindset.  They're still trying to impose human "will" on nature - which is exactly what's gotten us into all kinds of trouble so far.


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nhoeller's picture

re: E.g. of NOT participating in biophysical systems

Fil, I haven't had a chance to review the paper but it appears to involve trying to engineer organisms to produce products that are not conducive to the long-term survival of the organism.  From the abstract: "...biological engineering efforts can be confounded by undesired evolution that rapidly breaks the functions of parts and systems, particularly when they are costly to the host cell to maintain."  An example might be trying to increase the yield of ethanol. 

Ignoring concerns about engineering organisms, this approach may work in the lab but not scale up, or it may have downstream consequences that are not obvious at this time.  A program on permaculture described modern agriculture as preventing succession from grasslands to woody shrubs and finally trees.  Although industrial agriculture has been very successful at feeding us, the cost is becoming increasingly clear in terms of the requirements for fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  By working with natural systems through understanding the local context, permaculture has been able to deliver comparable yields without large external inputs.

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