Sunday, September 27, 2009

3.8 million years of R&D

Nature has spent 3.8 billion years perfecting how to make stuff without messing up its' own back yard.

Humans have taken just 40,000 years to pollute our oceans, raise the earth's temperature, change the climate, pollute the rivers and streams, eradicate numerous species and generally poison/pollute the world we share with millions of other organisms.

Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Inspired by Nature, shows that humans use a heavy-handed approach to making things using the full spectrum of elements from the periodic table via a "heat, beat and treat" process that produces 96 per cent waste and a mere four percent that's useful.

On the other hand, nature makes stuff using the lightest possible touch, at room temperature and pressures by recombining in clever ways a small sub-set of the chemicals at its' disposal. The result is an environment which is sympathetic to other life forms.

Benyus asks three qestions about what nature can teach us. How does nature make things, make the most of things, and make things that disappear into systems or become part of systems?

She puts up twelve big design ideas such as self-assembly at room temperature. Carbon dioxide as a feedstock to make stuff from glucose and protein chains. Harvesting light directly. Power shapes that reduce friction or improve flow. Extracting water directly from the atmospshere. Using "green chemicals" rather than the dangerous and toxic. Metals without mining. Timed degradation.

Here's a workshop to explore the possibilities:

1. Brainstorm some ways Benyus 12 rules might change our world and the tools we use.
2. What would it take for hard-rock miners to make the switch to extracting minerals using biological rather than physical processes?
3. If we could self-assemble tools and products at room-temperature, using a small sub-set of the least toxic elements, what would be the impact on our environment?
4. What do you know about how nature works that could change the way we design, organize and operate organizations for the better?
5. Brainstorm a list of possible uses for surfaces that are self-cleaning?
6. What might a farm be like if it was part of nature? What new rules might farmers follow?
7. What if we could grow houses, or parts of houses such as light collecting surfaces. What might they look like or be like to live in?
8. If we could unlock nature's rules for timed degradation, what could we use this technology for?
9. If we could convert sunlight directly to usable forms of energy in the way plants do with the same kinds of efficiencies, what impact would this have the social and physical world?
10. What new powers might humans acquire using new kinds of tools we create that not only mimic nature but become a part of nature?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A new fractal future?

For most of the past few thousand years of human civilization, our thinking has been dominated by geometry. The line. The circle. The ellipse. The square. The triangle.

The geometric is reflected in everything we do. The shapes of our buildings, the designs of our tools, the mental models we use. It is both the basis of our incredible success as a species and a millstone around our necks that gets heavier by the day.

According to ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash, geometric thinking dominates everywhere in the world. Except Africa, where villages, homes, living spaces and their tools are fractally organized.

Fractals or self-similarity is how the real world works. The trunks and branches of trees. The blood vessels and capillaries of our bodies. Rivers, tributaries and streams and the patterns they carve out of mountains and deltas. The feathery path that lightning blasts through a resistant atmosphere. The design of a nautilus shell and the peacock's tail. Snowflakes. Our DNA.

It is this new kind of self-organising thinking that the rest of the world needs now to help us design systems that mimic, reflect or are a better fit with nature. To clean up the mess we have made of the natural world through our over-use of geometry.

Which could be just the kind of inspiration Africans need. To see their culture as a resource for the kind of new thinking the world needs right now.

Here's a workshop to explore the possibilities:

1. What are the big differences between seeing the world in terms of circles/straight lines/polygons and seeing the world as a fractal?
2. In what ways does geometry (circles, lines, squares etc.) restrict how we see and what we can do in the world?
3. What might be the advantages of using self-similarity and self-organisation as the way we design products, services, organizations and how we interact with each other?
4. What might a fractal social relationship be like? Give examples of fractal relationships with employers, parents, children or friends.
5. What might a self-organising/fractal learning program look like/be like?
6. Choose one of these concepts and describe in detail what a self-similar version might look/function. Hotel, transport system, garbage disposal system, book, play, dance, social occasion, family or house/home.
7. Apply the concept of self-similarity to solving one of these world problems. Poverty, war, famine, disease, global warming, virus, dislocation, terrorism/freedom fighting.
8. What features/aspects of self-similarity could we use to design organizations and social systems.
9. How could you use knowledge about fractals and self-organizing systems to create wealth in the 21st century?
10. How can Africa use its deeply embedded knowledge of fractals and self-organizing systems to contribute to a new and more powerful/fulfilling future for the people of the continent of Africa and the world?