Biomimicry Global Design Challenge 2018: You Need the Planet and the Planet Needs You!

It’s that time of year again- the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge’s May 1st deadline is looming. This year’s focus is climate change and judges are looking for nature-inspired innovations to help us reverse or slow climate change or mitigate or adapt to potential impacts.

Whether you have already entered the competition, are still thinking of entering, or plan to participate next year, we want to share the story of a student team from Oregon who entered the competition in 2015 with a brilliant design concept and won First Prize! A member of the team now works in Portland and we tracked her down to ask about her experiences and to glean some tips for those who have entered (or are still thinking of entering) the Global Design Challenge.

Back in 2015, Casey Howard was in the final year of her Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Oregon. One of her courses required the class to break into teams and design entries for the Biomimicry Challenge. The challenge that year was Food Systems Innovations, and since none of Casey’s team had heard of biomimicry before, they plunged into the task of learning everything there is to know about Nature’s ingenious solutions. Several ideas made it to the table before the group designed a water filtration system inspired in part by the earthworm’s digestive system, which would filter farmland run-off before it polluted nearby waterways. They called it the Living Filtration System and, as a modification of current farming drainage systems, it has the potential to improve farming techniques by reducing the amount of fertiliser needed (follow this link to see more about their proposal).

To the team’s surprise, they won! The prize was participation in the Biomimicry Launchpad, an acceleration programme that provided the team with financial and mentoring resources to build the prototype of their design and implement it. The prototype demonstrated that the idea worked, although practical limitations such as cost and political will have prevented the team from successfully rolling out their innovation. The experience was one that has opened doors for Casey and she has gained a great deal of experience and knowledge from participating in the challenge.

Several factors defined the team’s experience that can be teased out and shared here. First, the team went through a vigorous process when developing their idea. Although all taking the same landscape architecture course, they came from diverse educational backgrounds and could each look at a problem differently and come up with a range of possible solutions. They relied on the Biomimicry resources offered by the Institute and from there developed their idea from scratch, solely for the purposes of the competition. They also intentionally focused on incorporating Nature’s unifying patterns. This led to the design of a really on-point innovative process that certainly impressed the judges.

This substantive aspect of the design process was combined with excellent communication and collaboration skills. As students of landscape architecture, they were expected to regularly form groups to work on projects and clearly communicate their work to different audiences through presentations and graphical representations. For Casey, the skills involved with presenting and explaining concepts were a major advantage her team had.

Accepting the opportunity to take part in the Biomimicry Launchpad elevated the team to another league entirely. Here, the focus wasn’t on recognising, designing, and presenting a unique solution but rather on operationalising their concept. At this stage of the challenge, Casey felt they lacked the necessary business experience that was clearly needed to advance the product beyond merely conceptual. A team really needs a strong entrepreneurial focus to make an impact with their innovation.

In sum, the Oregon team of 2015’s Biomimicry Design Challenge did phenomenally well because they developed an excellent biomimicry design concept according to competition requirements and communicated it very effectively. They exceeded their own expectations when they were invited to participate in the Biomimicry Launchpad, but they could not foresee and prepare for the needed entrepreneurial skills. They also appear ahead of the curve, as society’s political will to address point-source farming pollution in such a novel way has yet to evolve. Luckily, the concept is sitting comfortably on the shelf for now, and with the right “window of opportunity”, Casey is prepared to brush it off and try again. So, if you’re reading this and think you may be able to push this innovation forward and help clean up the adverse effects of farming practices, please get in touch!