I first met Tim when he was working at Biomimicry 3.8 with Janine Benyus.  He then went on to join IDEO, and now runs LikoLab.  He’s a biologist, and works with designers to make products, buildings, even urban environments more resilient and more sustainable, using nature as a guide.  His work is transformative, and super cool.  This interview is jam packed with great ideas, reading material and links, so read to the end!

Tim McGeeLS:  If you are at a cocktail party, what do you tell people you do for a living?

TM:  I find my answer depends on who I’m speaking with. If I’m chatting with someone from a field of design I tell them of my interest in Life-Centered Design, a practice that is an evolution of Human-Centered Design except instead of looking to people for insights, I also look to the natural world.  If instead I find myself cozied up next to a fellow scientist, I tell them I work with designers, engineers, and business folks to bridge what we learn from biology to see how it can be applied to designs for their field to achieve more sustainable, resilient, and beneficial outcomes.

LS:  What is LikoLab and how does your group work with the design and engineering community?

TM:  LikoLab is a small biology and design incubation firm on Bainbridge Island, Washington. I created the company to be a place where people can intentionally address the interface between design thinking and biomimicry. We explore how integrating these domains provides useful and original insights for creating value for people and organizations.

Projects at LikoLab are an opportunity to form partnerships. The name Liko comes from the Hawaiian language where it means to bud, or the color and essence of a new leaf. Every project at LikoLab is a collaboration to provide a new service or build a new product. LikoLab is set up for these partnerships to become full fledged businesses, to outgrow the lab as needed.

For example, Stefanie Kohler and I have teamed up to help engineering companies look to the natural world to effectively enhance their innovation work. The unique combination of skill sets our team brings to the table means we can help our clients navigate the challenges engineering cultures often face as they strive to ask better questions by looking to nature, and develop processes that generate measurable results.

Alternatively, design firms like IDEO are often grappling with how to design for entire systems. Looking to nature can help them consider new mental models or to validate design directions around systems based strategies.  But, they also need a rapid and affordable way to integrate these biological concepts into their existing process. Renata Mann and I have teamed up to create a rapid biology strategy service, Nature Bites that quickly delivers natural insights to the design teams that are relevant to their project so that they can engage more deeply with their client, project, and the natural world.

strigilsThe project teams at LikoLab can take many forms, and be experimental.  For example I have partnered with Sean Gibbons a scientist at MIT to study how our use of soaps and different ways to clean our skin (using strigils) can impact the microbiome. My attempt at an animated video explains the proposed research, and we are still seeking funding and interested partners to help move this project forward. As a team we are interested in both the scientific outcomes, and also the design insights that can better enable us to consider the future of how we make products that interact with our microbiome.

LS:  What are some cool projects you are working on now?

TM:  In addition to the partnerships I have mentioned above, I have been lucky to continue to work on exciting architecture and planning projects as a biologist and biomimicry practitioner. One of my partners in this realm has been Kathy Zarsky where we get to consider how biomimicry, biophilia, and architecture merge to bring a healthy and vibrant spaces to life. I have recently been curious how the emerging behavior economy, ecological services, and the urban environment intersect. To probe some of these questions I worked with Biomimicry New England, alongside Peter Lawrence and Renata Mann where we developed an award winning concept to combat Urban Heat Island Effect for a MIT Climate Co-Lab competition. Our concept to create nets that perform urban ecosystem services begins to highlight the cultural and ecological benefits of combining design thinking and biomimicry practices.

heat island effect

Last, but not least, Nan Woodman and I have been cooking up several projects, including developing new ways of telling stories, and finding opportunities to have those stories impact people as well as the products and materials that surround us. In particular Nan and I are interested in advancing our ability to ‘tinker’ with proteins as a way to make materials. The idea is that by learning to use a protein like silk in making objects we can begin to impart more biological integration, and wisdom from the natural world into the design process. When working with a protein like silk it’s surprisingly easy to obtain very hi-tech outcomes. For example it’s possible to embed active enzymes in sheets, fibers, or parts (made out of silk protein) that can then become biologically interactive as part of the process or as an end product itself. This is virtually impossible with normal polymer manufacturing techniques. While this is a longer-term project, it’s one that goes deep into the heart of what LikoLab is interested in exploring.

LS:  One of the big concepts we’ve discussed in the past is resilience. Can you talk about how nature defines resilience and how we can apply those concepts to organizations or cities?

Resilience is a key concept for the future, and has some wonderfully subtle implications. Many people talk about resilience as the ability to bounce back, or to learn from mistakes and become stronger, faster, better. I think this term is better captured in biology as adaptive capacity. The adaptive capacity of organisms to bounce back is certainly a skill set we can learn from, and must all develop within our organizations to better handle the types of challenges that we know we will face. But for resilience we must also ask the question how do we design for the challenges we don’t know we will face?

This is where ecological, rather than organismal, resilience becomes important. This kind of resilience is sometimes called robustness and at its core is the ability to continue regardless of the damages inflicted upon the system. What is interesting to me about being robust is that you actually have to give up on efficiency. Any specific system can’t be efficient and be robust at the same time at the same scale. As our organizations drive blindly towards efficiency we often find that they drive us to brittleness and failure. Knowing when and how to be robust or efficient is a critical decision for almost every aspect of life, and learning the how and why of when nature has evolved different strategies for each can be enlightening.

LS:  For those who are interested in reading more about you and your work, where can they go?

TM:  Our stories from our project work eventually find their way to the blog at LikoLab, but it can take a while.

LS:  What are good books, magazines, journals, blogs you are reading related to biomimicry?

Curiosity about the natural world is at the heart of biomimicry. One book I have been sharing recently is Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex. He reveals the complex relationships parasites have with their hosts. It evolved my perspective of parasites, and has inspired new ways of seeing the world around me, and how parasites play an important role in our systems.

I have also been pulling The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell off of the book shelf quite often. It is a thoughtful meditation on life and our connection to forest organisms. This book regularly inspires me to go outside to reflect on the environment and life around me. To observe, and recognize that even in a square meter of any ecosystem are countless untold stories.

As for blogs, I enjoy NextNature. I find it a source of inspiration at the intersection of biology and design. Their philosophy as well as their regular published content on the blog pushes me to accept humanity’s place as part of the natural world, and asks me to take ownership of how I want to impact life on Earth.

Lastly and increasingly I have been seeing YouTube as a gateway to amazing content. From Emily Graslie’s constant curiosity at the Field Museum on The Brain Scoop, to Henry Reich condensing physics problems to their understandable best on Minute Physics, the scope and quality of the material is breathtaking. A recent favorite of mine is the channel Kurzgesagt (in-a-nutshell) that features super high production animation that takes on complex subjects quickly. While none of these are specifically focused on biomimicry, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to take on a biomimicry education channel on youtube in the near future.

LS:  What biologist or designer do you most admire (past or current) and why?

TM:  The designers and biologists I work with every day inspire me. I’m fortunate that the people who have become my friends and colleagues are also the people who inspire me. I love that I’m always being challenged by my colleagues, and strive to be as fearless, and intentional in my work as I see in all of them. I also admire those biologists or designers who craft their work into books that communicate clearly and purposefully.

Kenya Hara’s book Designing Design has been in a prominent position on my bookshelf, and one I regularly turn to when considering how to tell a story that  engages the senses. The book itself is a beautiful object that shows as much as it tells the message it communicates. His thoughtfulness flows through the pages, and I find myself taking a step back to see the bigger picture after spending time with just a few pages.

I was also struck this summer when I learned of Rafe Sagarin’s tragic and sudden death. His book Learning From The Octopus resonated deeply with me as he was able to weave together ecology, strategy, and narrative to create a compelling story of the value of deep observation of the natural world. The lessons from his co-authored book with Anibal Pauchard, Observation & Ecology pushed on the importance of an ecological perspective, and highlights how the weird world of biology can bring insights that can change humanity.

LS:  Five years from now, what will we all be talking about as it relates to biomimicry?

TM:  I would be delighted if the conversation in five years dives deeply into the value of biomimicry to help shape innovative outcomes that accommodate the desires and needs of the future. While working with leading designers I was at first frustrated to see how people typically frame biomimicry innovations as  “push” technologies, using it as a dismissive of the approach. They consider biomimicry outcomes to be solutions that are in need of a market, rather than “pull” technologies that have a clear market that is ready and waiting. Biomimicry solutions can often feel like this, and the field is littered with failed products and companies.

However, one of the values of using biological insights in product creation is that it enables the ability (intentional or not) to develop the product to accommodate for future, and systemic needs. For example, sharklet technology is one of my favorite future technologies. It is based on how shark skin has evolved over millions of years to inhibit bacterial growth. But, why would we need to control bacteria on surfaces when we can use a bleach wipe, or an antibiotic? At first blush this technology appears to be a perfect example of a “push” technology.

However, as we have learned more about our microbiome and how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics we are increasingly beginning to see the true value of inhibiting bacteria with a surface strategy like sharklet. It has vastly different system impacts than existing technology, and may be a solution that enables controlled cultivation of our microbial partners that can actually improve our health. The future value of the technology to society far outweighs its present market applications.

Navigating  these innovations into the future requires leadership on a systems level, and methods of accounting the value to the market today, as well as the market in the near future. I’m  just starting to see the edges of this conversation, and how biomimicry can impact what we create, what we value, and how we make decisions for the future.