Written by current M.S. in Sustainability Management student Jason Prince.
Recent M.S. in Sustainability Management graduate Adiel Gavish (’13) thinks that we’ve all got something to learn from nature. As the vibrant Founder of BiomimicryNYC, the thirty-two year old is leading the charge to change the way that people design solutions through biomimicry – the science and ethos that studies designs and patterns in the natural world and applies them to solve human problems.
Take Velcro: this ubiquitous product solves the problem of adhesion by emulating the natural design of hooks on burr needles. In the same way, biomimicry encourages us to draw on the billions of years of nature’s evolutionary research and development experience for inspiration.
With BiomimicryNYC, Ms. Gavish brings together a consortium of professionals in the New York City metro region who are doing just this. By applying innovative solutions inspired by nature to their respective industries, this network seeks to create a more environmentally sustainable, socially equitable and economically prosperous world.
A veteran sustainability strategist and determined innovator, I caught up with Ms. Gavish over coffee at Columbia University where she recently graduated from the Master of Science in Sustainability Management.
Biomimicry: Why is it important?
It’s important to me because as a person who has been looking for sustainable solutions for so long, I thought it made so much more sense to find an approach that wasn’t about doing less bad but about doing more good. With everyone focusing on climate change, I knew that it was a symptom of the larger problem and if you focused just on the symptom and don’t get to the real crux of the issue you’re never going to get to where we want to be.
Real inspiration for me came in college [at the State University of New York College at Buffalo] when I had a professor, Michael Woldenberg, this mad-scientist type of guy who was awesome and taught Fluvial Geomorphology. It was the study of rivers and how they are self-forming and self-balancing. He took us through all of these dynamics and energy flows that rivers go through. And then one day he got to Murray’s law – basically, a pattern of flow that transcends multiple mediums.
The idea is that a stream when it’s forming it will form branches and branches and branches. But, there’s a certain equation to that. And that pattern is also found in your lungs. And it’s also found in tree branches. And it’s also found in organizational structures that are self-forming. I was just fascinated by that.
If it appears in your lungs and in a river and in a tree, it must be there for a reason. We can take that as a best practice and use it as a principle to extrapolate from the natural world and then apply to other systems.
How is it that biomimicry actually takes these principles and applies them?
Biomimicry is the practice. It is the process of taking the design challenge and biologizing it – taking it down to its lowest common denominator, to its function.
Think: what is the function that you are trying to achieve?
Because in nature, form follows function. So, you take the design challenge that you’re trying to solve, you biologize the problem, and then you look to the natural world for organisms and systems that have already solved that problem. Almost always you’ll find the things that are solving that same challenge, just in a different way. That’s how you can find nature’s solutions to that problem.
What is BiomimicryNYC doing to encourage the adoption of these practices?
Many people all over the world have already come to the same conclusion. They’ve also been looking for solutions and for something that’s tangible and constant – that can be a constant mentor. So I think you see this natural emergence of professionals from all different backgrounds – engineering, design, teaching, art – whatever it might be.
Then you also see it because a lot of companies are realizing that in order to stay relevant they can’t just offer a product. Instead, they are also becoming more services-based, like car companies that are becoming transportation companies or coal companies that are becoming energy companies.
Considering the dynamism of nature, how does the idea of change follow-through to biomimicry design?
Nature is never perfect – it is always adapting, evolving, growing and changing in conjunction with everything else around it. It is not separate from. The problem is that we design products and services and systems apart from everything else. We don’t necessarily take into account that the ecology of New York City is completely different from the ecology of Shanghai or Boston.
Nature uses place-based solutions. Similarly, businesses need to be aware of where they are doing business. They are already dynamic systems themselves: there are inputs and outputs of energy flows and there are resources that can be fed back into the system so that they are up-cycled and reused so they’re not lost. But business today is linear whereas nature is constantly cycling. Nature is a cyclical process.
So, I think a few really interesting things are going to start emerging from this kind of shift to more cyclical strategies. You are already seeing it happen, for one, with things like big data. All of a sudden people are realizing that, “Oh wait, I can measure something and then control what happens later if I just measure it and then anticipate trends?“ And it’s like, “Yes, you can utilize data as inputs for your system and then analyze it to create more efficient energy flows.”
Nature already does this without numbers. It just does it with constant signal-response every single day. And nature is constantly changing and shifting and in dynamic non-equilibrium because of it.
I think businesses need to take information in and then respond according to changing conditions. I know that’s really ethereal but for example with the smart grid, it’s like, “Duh, there are certain times of day we use more energy and certain times we use less.” So companies or a house can plug in, and there’s this constant ever-changing dynamic system, but if you have the numbers then you can anticipate trends and then you can be more efficient with your resources.
What’s your favorite biomimicry concept?
I kind of just really like yin and yang.
For example, everywhere you look where there’s life, there’s death. The second you’re born is the moment you know you will die. You see it everywhere. It’s just one of those things that’s a constant principle in the natural world. It’s not one of the life’s principles that we study – maybe eventually if we become Buddhist Zen-like business masters then we can – but I’m just fascinated by it. That’s what creates energy and flow. You need extremes in order to create movement and action in life.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.