Thursday, December 19, 2013

Learning Resilience from our Immune Systems!

My daughter and I have been sick with the flu for a week now. This is a typical fate this time of year when viruses linger in the air. But last night as I told her the story of her immune system, I was grateful to my biologist collaborator, Maria O'Farrell, who during the creation of our "BEND, Don't Break" Naturally Resilient workshop, taught me all about my immune system so that I could tell it to my daughter. The story I told her goes a little something like this:
"Once upon a time, there was a virus. This virus came into our house on the hands of a little boy, otherwise known as brother-the-carrier-monkey. He picked it up at school by touching something and then touching his eyes or mouth. He then came home and touched many things in our house. Meanwhile, this virus was not alone - it was busy invading our cells and having babies and its babies were having babies, until there was virus all over our house...and in our bodies. And we got sick. 
But then, an amazing thing happened! We fought back! Our bodies have an immune system - something akin to a police force that is always running throughout our bodies to determine which parts are "me" and which invaders are "not me." When the police (white blood cells) find something that is "not me," or just not right, they send out a signal to other police cells to see if they found an invader too. If they both have an invader - and know that others do too - they pass a threshold for action and tag the invader for destruction! Then, the police cells go for backup. They go back to police headquarters (the closest lymph node) and replicate themselves (but a new and improved version that can better fight the invader!) who then return in full force to attack the virus and they beat it up until it explodes! And this is happening all over your body and will keep happening, until all the virus is dead.
So you see, your body is resilient! By looking out for potential problems, knowing when there is enough of a problem to react, and learning from experience, your body is able to not over react or under react to potential harm, but your response is, like Goldilocks, just right. Think about what it would be like to not have an immune system! We couldn't live on this planet because we literally swim in viruses in the air like a fish swims through plankton in water. Now think about THAT as you go to sleep tonight!"
What can we learn about resilience from our immune system?
Our immune systems are our body's adaptive strategy to respond to disturbances that we know will happen, but we don't know when and we don't know how bad it will be. And there is quite a bit we can learn about resilience from adaptive immune systems.

What instances can you think of where we know a disturbance will happen, but we don't know when and we don't know how bad it will be? This makes me think of economic fluctuations, talent migration
necessitating personnel changes, energy and maintenance costs fluctuations, and other cyclical and
expected disturbances. By looking at nature through the lens of antigen invasion in an adaptive immune system, we can begin to create human systems which effectively adapt to changing conditions and result in effective, efficient information exchange coupled with a regulated response and held in balance by feedback loops. I could go into more detail, but again, I have the flu and the resources usually allocated to my brain are currently being rerouted to my immune system.

Want to know more? Talk to us about our "BEND, Don't Break Naturally Resilient Workshop" where you can learn more about this and other biological phenomena and apply nature's lessons to your business or organization! 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Resilience in the Midwest: How does nature buffer high speed winds?

Those of us who live in the American Upper Midwest have it pretty good. 

Although we rarely take the time to acknowledge it, comparatively to other more vulnerable regions in the globe, we are living in an ideal location. We live in the breadbasket and grow more than enough food to feed ourselves. We’re well above sea level, so we will not be affected by anticipated sea level rise. And we have the world’s largest accessible freshwater body – the Great Lakes – in our back yard. But, we still have our own forms of adversity with which we need to contend - and the tornado that flattened homes outside of Peoria, Illinois, this weekend proves that even inland areas must adapt to the challenge of increasing storm intensity.
Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 18, 2013
According to the Chicago Climate Action Plan, it is likely our region will experience a variety of disturbances, including stronger, but infrequent, storms causing wind damage, widespread flooding and/or intermittent drought. In the wake of the recent tornado that wrecked communities across Illinois, let’s start with wind damage – how can we make our homes and infrastructure more resilient to damaging wind speeds? As an architect and biomimic, I believe the answer can be found by looking at how our neighbors, the native organisms that have occupied this land long before we have, solve the same challenge. We can start by asking nature!

How does nature...buffer high speed winds?

Every time there is a large storm event, we see absolute devastation of our human habitats. There are no metrics to measure the wildlife populations before and after strong storm events, such as tornadoes, but it's safe to say that native populations have adapted themselves to survive and thrive through a variety of disturbances. By looking to native organisms and patterns found in nature, we can begin to think of new and innovative ways of surviving high wind speeds in our built infrastructure. Some patterns we find in nature include:

Monday, November 18, 2013


Indulge me for a minute as I complain about something that is clearly a first world problem: communication breakdowns between me and my communications provider (the irony is not lost).

After years of paying a ridiculous amount of money to have multiple carriers provide what has become a basic service in our society - communication services - I chose consolidation: a non-diversified, less-resilient strategy, but much, much cheaper. When ordering the service, I thought I had asked all the right questions - how much will it cost now, how much in the future, what channels will I get, how fast will my internet be, can I keep my old number, etc. I did what I thought was my due diligence to make sure I was ordering what I needed/wanted. But the cost I was quoted did not include some services, such as HDTV, that they consider to be an upcharge and I consider to be "basic," so much so that I didn't inquire about it assuming it was included and they didn't offer this information as the upcharge that they consider it to be. This lack of transparency about the baseline assumptions of our conversation lead to a communication breakdown and annoyance on the part of the consumer, namely me.

This problem illustrates a key point for resilience in human systems: one of the most common forms of disturbance in our business and economic systems involve communication breakdowns, and mitigating these disturbances is key to resilience of those systems. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

If there ever was a case for community resilience... would be the movie The Purge with Ethan Hawk. Have you seen it? My husband and I rented it last night and it got me thinking about this idea of personal resilience and how it falls short when you need it most.

The premise of this film is a dystopic America where crime and poverty are minimal because everyone is given a free pass one night a year to commit any crime they want, including murder, to purge themselves of pent up aggression and hostility they feel during the rest of the year. 

There are two types of people in this society - those that commit the acts of aggression and murder and those that hole themselves up indoors waiting for the night to be over. Most of us would put ourselves firmly in the second camp - we'd stockpile food and water, build the best security systems to protect ourselves and our property, and hold our families close as we ride out the night and hope to survive. This is the premise that interested me about this arguably flawed movie (at the end of the film, my husband and I were laughing at it's implausibility that fundamentally misunderstands humanity, but this is a spoiler free zone so I will save that discussion for those of you who have seen it). 

To me, this movie illustrates that the focus on survivalism and personal resilience at the cost of everyone else deprives us of our humanity and is fundamentally impossible to achieve.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Blog Post: Resilient Communities on the Edge

How can we learn from ecosystems in nature to design more resilient communities? The B-Collaborative founder, Amy Coffman Phillips, wrote an article on this topic for The Resiliency Institute, a local suburban permaculture advocacy group. Read the article and let us know what you think!

Ecotones in Nature (creative commons image credit:
"Studies have shown that America has become much more polarized in the last twenty-five years in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and particularly political world views. These divisions have been exacerbated by structural forces, such as fragmented news media, increasing disparity of socio-economic conditions, and indoctrinated societal world-views, to name a few.
Each of these barriers are complex and interrelated, but if you accept we have inadvertently created these structural barriers that serve to disconnect our communities, we should be able to identify and break down these barriers as well. Doing so would foster interconnected, resilient communities that are able to resolve disputes and weather disturbance more effectively than is possible today.
As a biomimic and architect, I look to nature for inspiration to design buildings, communities, and cities that function more like a healthy ecosystem – rich with interconnections, diversity, and mutualisms. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ecotones. Until last year, I wouldn’t have even known what that term meant, but now I see them and think about the parallels between ecosystem communities and our human communities every day. So what is an ecotone and what could we learn from ecosystems in nature to inspire more diverse, interconnected, and resilient communities?"
 Click here to continue reading.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

FRED 2013 this Saturday!

Gearing up for the FRED 2013 conference this Saturday! In gorgeous Riverside, Illinois, we'll be showcasing biomimicry as it applies to communities and landscapes while exploring how "ecotones" influence social interactions in nature. Join us for an interactive workshop and outdoor exploration where we explore answers to the question: "What can ecotones teach us about fostering social interactions?" Register today!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Have you met FRED?

Have you met FRED? If you have an interest in biomimicry and landscape design - check it out next Saturday, September 21st, in Riverside, IL. 

"Join us on Saturday, September 21, 2013 for the FRED, an exciting day of classes, tours and workshops brimming with new ideas for your garden or community. The FRED (Frederick Law Olmsted in Riverside Education and Design) is a unique opportunity to enjoy landscape and garden design in the historic landmark community of Riverside, Illinois."

Biomimicry: (Re)Learning from Nature’s Genius
Amy Coffman Phillips, workshop facilitator

"How can nature inspire us in the design process? Biomimicry is the practice of drawing inspiration from nature to solve the sustainable design challenges we face. By studying nature, we can discover practical and inspired solutions to challenges from product design to community planning. Join Amy as she illustrates how biomimics around the world are learning from nature’s solutions and then explore how to apply them to our communities in an interactive BioBrainstorm session."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Resilient Communities Inspired by Nature

The B-Collaborative's founder Amy Coffman Phillips recently wrote an article on resilient communities inspired by nature for the Great Lakes Bioneers Chicago blog - check it and let us know what you think! Let's start a conversation about local resiliency for our communities by looking to Nature's communities as inspiration. 
"The resiliency challenges we face must be planned for and addressed now – prior to them becoming a crisis – in order for our efforts to be effective. Fortunately, we have models we can look to when tackling such seemingly large obstacles."
Click here to read more and join the conversation!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Prairie Project

by Amy Coffman Phillips

I recently wrote an article on my work with the Prairie Project, a Biomimicry Chicago AskPlace initiative, for the Metropolis blog. I have republished it here, and visit the Metropolis site for the full article.

Have you ever sat in your home or office and wondered what your part of the world looked like before your community was there? What ecosystems and organisms sat where you do now and how did they adapt and thrive through the same challenges that we face today?

Our built environment faces many challenges in adapting to a changing climate, from storm water management and drought tolerance to energy use optimization and eliminating waste. By recognizing that our communities and cities have been built on, and in most cases destroyed, land that was previously occupied we can we learn from our native ecosystems to design more resilient, well-adapted communities.

Biomimicry is the practice of drawing inspiration from nature to solve the sustainable design challenges we face.  This practice is especially relevant when we are challenged with adapting to regional and changing climate conditions.  The Global Biomimicry Network, of which Biomimicry Chicago is a regional node, is co-creating a framework to assist designers, planners, and municipalities with making communities that are well adapted to the climatic and cultural place in which we live. We call this learning from the “Genius of Place.”
Biomimicry Chicago’s “Prairie Project,” named for the city’s native tall grass prairie ecosystem, is dedicated to providing the information and tools necessary for everyone from individual gardeners to businesses and municipal governments to (Re)Connect with nature and our sense of place,(Re)Learn the wisdom of our ancestors, and (Re)Think how we live and design in our bioregion.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


"Morphogenetic" bus by Altair Engineering for the NYT
I recently read a New York Times article on Altair, a company that developed software to emulate bone growth, where software optimizes the relationship between stress and form much like vertibrate bones do.
“During the design process using morphogenesis, coliseums may vaguely resemble rib cages; chairs can look like vines growing up a tree; and motorcycle frames can resemble the shape and strength of a snake’s jaw,” - Altair company prospectus
Image credit:
The idea is really nothing new - Leonardo Da Vinci was emulating nature's forms in his inventions in the 1400s.  What is fairly new is our access to powerful computers that allow such technology to exist.  Similar technology was used to create the famous biomimicry case study, the Mecedes Benz Bionic Car, where designers used "Soft Kill Option (SKO)" and "Computer-Aided Optimization (CAO)" software developed at the Karlsruhe Research Centre to analyze stresses and create a form that optimized material use.  This much lighter frame resulted in a 70 mpg efficiency with a conventional (non-hybrid) engine, saving resources not only at the gas pump but also in the production of the car.
“The engineering optimization found in nature is astonishing and often superior to our own innovations. Growth patterns and resource management systems within living organisms can be thought of as found technologies waiting to be understood and re-purposed for industry.” - William Myers, author of a new book Bio Design
What gets me excited about this subject are the possibilities of incorporating this engineering software into software used by architects and structural engineers when designing biomorphic, biophilic, and biomimetic architecture.  By incorporating not only natural algorithms into our buildings but also natural processes that result in natural aesthetics, we can create structures that truly emulate nature at the deepest levels.  We can reconnect ourselves aesthetically and functionally with the beauty and optimization of nature.  And THAT is truly beautiful.

References (in addition to those linked above)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

On the Creature Trail

We have been coming to Sanibel Island for many years, but it wasn't until I started learning about biomimicry that I really paid attention to the abundant Life that is present on this natural beach.  We took a recent trip to the beach at low tide and came across some fascinating creatures!  I even got other kids involved and one of their moms asked if I was a marine biologist.  I said no, I'm an architect, but I have an amazing instructor in biomimicry that is!  So, this post is a thank you to Biomimicry3.8's Dayna Baumeister.  Everyone involved in design should be lucky enough to learn from her and the amazing creature stories she shares.

Budding Scientists

Learning from Moon Snails

My daughter found this tiny (deceased) moon snail while walking on the beach with her Grandma.  We knew it had died because while the animal was still in the shell, it was floating and didn't retract when touched.  So we had a rare opportunity to look at it more and learn from the moon snail!

Tiny Moon Snail
I first heard of moon snails on my BPro kayaking trip to British Columbia.  We used a large moon snail shell as a "talking stick" for our opening and closing rituals, and one of the amazing biologists we kayaked with showed us the architectural egg casing that the moon snail creates using sand, seawater, and the mucus it secretes.  So when my daughter found this one, I got excited.  I showed her its foot and how it has tiny microscopic serrations that it uses to drill into clam shells, creating the little holes in the shells we used to make a necklace.
Tiny Moon Snail
We looked at the shell's gorgeous spiral shape and purplish color, the spiral a result of how it grows larger and builds its shell.  We think that the snail died because the protective cover on its foot got jammed on a slightly damaged shell edge and couldn't retract.  But this creature's misfortune gave us a chance to look at it closer.  And as the creature dried up and fell out of its shell, we got to examine it in greater detail.

Solving Mysteries on the Beach

One of my favorite things about my work is learning new things about environments I'm familiar with - going outside, exploring, and asking questions!  My family and I went walking along Sanibel Island during low tide and came upon a mystery.  We found these critters just floating in the shallow waters and had no idea what they were.  They were squishy and had "hairy" tentacles all over its back, but its belly was smooth.  We didn't know what it was, so we started to investigate and ask questions, biomimicry style.
Mystery Critter
We noticed it didn't have a shell like the other tidal organisms we found in the same area.  Why does he have a soft body when all of the other creatures here have a shell?  Especially in tidal areas, where this makes him more vulnerable to the ever present sea gulls.  What are the tentacles for?  Protection?  Camouflage?  Why was its belly so smooth and almost a thin membrane that concealed its insides?  And maybe the most interesting question - why was it here and why were they floating, seemingly lifeless?