The Best Analogy For Every Business

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There is one story that rules them all. I have spent the better part of a decade telling stories about the natural world, and while many are more mind-blowing, more bizarre, or just fantastic there is one story that always seems to do the trick. I have used this story to help one organization re-think how they manage thousands of volunteers, another how they imagine their place in an ever growing virtual marketplace, and another in helping them realize their true value to their customers lies in information rather than material goods. This uber-analogy, unsurprisingly is a super successful organism, and one that has arguably shaped every living thing on the planet. I didn't think a simple description would do it justice so I created this cartoon to tell the story. 

The mushroom is of course the culprit. Fungi have a peculiar place in the natural order of things. I like to think of them as a stomach one cell wide and millions of cells long that are trying to digest the entire world. Every living thing on land needs to figure out how to avoid them, or bargain with them to exist. As a result they end up connecting our world. Trees and plants share nutrients, water, complex chemicals, and information over the fungi-web. Ecosystems thrive with fungi, and without them would often die. As we look for analogies in our world today, there are few examples that are more rich, more applicable, and more insightful than looking to fungi. If you were a fungi, how might you connect those around you? How might you enable the entire system to thrive? How might you in your ambitious nature to digest the world, end up creating a connected and thriving ecosystem?

How to Design with Biology

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Enter into any design studio in the world and you will find a wood shop, 3D printers, laser cutters, printers, maybe a metal shop or printmaking facility, but you will find no biology.  The careful craft of a wood carver, the skill of working metal allows feedback and hands on experience critical to the creative process in design. Most people if they think of biology & design at all think of synthetic biology. Yet this is cold comfort for design, there is little feedback beyond experimental results. Moving genes around (usually by moving small volumes of water from one tube to another) doesn't engage our senses, it doesn't light up our emotions or our craft.

When I worked at a design studio I tried for a few years to consider all the possible ways we could bring in biology as a craft, and that is when I started the idea: Silk-Smithing. Silk Smithing is the art of working with protein, and specifically working with silk. It turns out that silk can be broken down easily into its molecular components, and these can then be re-spun, re-formed, and tinkered with on a scale similar to other crafts. The video below begins to highlight the depths of my obsession with silk.

All of life is built on protein, it is literally the building block that life uses to make high performance, lower energy, sustainable materials - we should do the same.  At LikoLab we have been focusing on streamlining the process, and engaging with designers and makers to help us bring our vision of Silk Smithing to life. We are currently looking for partners, investors, and players to engage with us and enable biology to join the table as a craft of design.

Two Tools to Unlock the Power of Biology for Innovation

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As someone who has been working in bio-inspired design since 2004, I have a few habits that I rely on to help me gather information about the crazy things living organisms have evolved to accomplish. I spend a good deal of time using search engines to find new insights, or research a particular area of interest. Earlier this year I was looking for a way to make a tool that would help me speed up this process and ran into Google Custom Search. GCS is a free service that allows you to pick the sites you want to search, add a few keywords, and it returns Google results from those pages. It's not perfect, but over the past six months I have found these custom search engines useful. In particular it has enabled be to get more complete searches done in the fraction of the time it used to take. The engines below are in permanent 'beta'. I'm always tweaking and updating them -> If you are interested in helping me refine these, let's get in touch. Enjoy.

 

Searching for Biomimicry Products

Sometimes you just want to know what bio-inspired products are out there. AskNature.org is the go to place for most people starting out, and while their database is huge and growing all the time, I have found their content to be limited on any single specific topic. As a result the search for products includes AskNature in the algorithm, but also asks a bunch of other sites what products are out there lately. I have kept this one pretty tight, and often it will return zero results, but if there is a result it will likely be a product.

 

 Biomimicry Examples

 

Details into Incredible Biology 

Sometimes you want to dig into a particular organism, function, insight, or really cool idea. This next search engine casts a much broader net over the Internet. While the 'Biomimicry Examples' engine might just return 7 hits, this engine will return 40,000. The beauty of this is that it helps you widen your search parameters, see new ideas, and gives you a bit more of a mountain of data to sort through that is highly likely to have some rich information. I use this one more often in my work to start to dig into new areas.

Digging Deeper 

The Bathroom Sink of the Future: Microbe Friendly

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We have been in the war far too long, it's time to call a truce. Bacteria are not our enemies, we have let fear of a few extremist and opportunistic species dictate our conversation, as a result we are loosing the war to anti-biotic resistant species and also leave ourselves vulnerable with few microbial friends.

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The bathroom is a perfect place for us to change our relationship to bacteria and other microbes. It's where we most ruthlessly, and daily impact our own skin. Designing for a healthy microbial life can keep you healthier, reduce anxiety, improve your skin health and make for a less expensive skin management routine. We have highlighted three products that might appear in the near future in your own microbiome friendly bathroom.

 

Oil Enriched Soap & Oil Based Cleaning 

Our skin needs oil, and many soaps will strip the skin of natural oils that bacteria use as food. By removing the food source, and using anti-biotic soaps you have created a clean slate, a no-man's land that can quickly become inhabited by any old bacteria that comes along, even the pathogenic ones. A soap that is enriched with oils, or even better a cleaning oil routine, can help keep the skin microbes well fed, happy, and looking to keep out the invaders.

 

Custom Microbiome Gel Scrub

We know that there is not one type of healthy microbiome, but we do know that in general a more diverse microbiome ends up being a more healthy microbiome. At LikoLab we imagine that in the near future you will be able to purchase different varieties of microbiome gel scrubs. The scrubs are handy because they allow the bacteria a way to enter not just the surface of the skin, but also find those books and crannies where they can make a difference, and keep your skin healthy and glowing.

 

Microbial Enriched/Selective Surface Coatings

Plants and animals have figured out how to cultivate their own specific microbioms. Many mushrooms will recruit specific bacteria to help break them down when they are completed with their task. This symbiotic relationship helps the entire system - and yet with our constant battle against microbes we have missed the opportunity to find those friendly ones that can help us out. We think it won't be too long until you can purchase counter-tops, fixtures, and even spray on applications that recruit the good bacteria to take up residence in your home, on you sink, and in your bathroom. These little bugs could help break down ammonia smells, emit specific 'fresh' scents, and generally keep the bathroom a healthy place with less chance of disesase. 

 

Let's Not Talk: Why our devices should be as smart as a starfish

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In a world of smart connected devices what is 'smart'? 

If your phone has to download an app to make it work, that is not smart.

If you have to turn on Bluetooth or enter a password, that is not smart. 

If you have to replace the existing infrastructure, that is not smart.

Predicting the future is smart. Sensing what is going on and taking action is smart. Adapting to new and different situations is smart. But, we don't need to wait for human AI to be useful. Imagine if we gave even a simple object - your front door for example- real smarts.

CONCEPT SKETCH - OCTOBER STARFISH LOCK

Soft Robot via Havard

Soft Robot via Havard

October Star Fish Lock (OSFL) takes its design cue from Fuse projects August, but rather than relying on bluetooth and an app, it uses a simple set of universal sensors to determine if you are in fact you. No phone required. The somewhat creepy futuristic soft robot depicted above is only a prototype, we expect later models would be cute and yet still benefit from the robust nature of soft robotics in both skills and durability. This means you don't need to replace your lock system, the arms work on almost every door type known.

OSFL doesn't just borrow from star-fish smarts, it also has hacked the same similar tricks a crow uses to distinguish between people. It recognizes faces better than people, and also watches body language and expressions to determine intent. It can let in folks it knows, and keep out those looking suspicious.

OSFL  knows when you leave and come home. It can see you walking toward the door, and unlock it for you. It knows your kids from your neighbors kids. It can tell if the ups guy is the same one or a new addition to the delivery service. Just like Amazon's voice service Alexa, it is a part of your home that you can talk to in order for it be more effective when needed except it never talks back. OSFL can be unobtrusive, but also knows when to step in. You can set OSFL to allow family members access by introducing them. OSFL can hear them talk, and also see their face. No password or bluetooth required, just show up at the door, now that's smart.

Are you as interested in soft robotics and biologically inspired intelligence as we are? Let's connect.

Biomimicry Goggles

The relief of not knowing

We use the practice of biomimicry here at LikoLab to develop our sense of what is possible, and what questions we should be asking of our designs. Part of that practice is getting outside to hone our skills. When we go for a walk in the woods, at least for work, it's to find what makes us go hmmmmm. We don't worry right away if it will fit into a framework or tell us anything related to the design challenges of the day - these things come later. We just look for what pops up on our radar. Once that worry falls away, then it is much easier to enjoy the moment and be creative with what is at hand.

The power of observation

As we walk our heads are swimming with all kinds of information, questions, and observations. Research shows that the brain is tuned to see patterns, outlines, and shapes rather than a photographic immersive reality. Immersive experiences (like walking in the woods) flood the brain, activate the senses and ask us to make sense of the world. Taking the time to settle into the moment and make some observations can allow the brain to do its magic, and actually see more. Sketching a tree, photographing a slug, or doing a water color of an oyster creates the opportunity to both ponder and focus. 

The motivation of curiosity

Captured observations and insights are a launching pad for curiosity. Why does the slug's stalk retract? Does it have bones? What is the mucous made out of? Exploring the depths humanities knowledge becomes easy with biomimicry as you easily bump into questions that have simply never been asked or answered. However, through asking these curious questions you also find the surprises that 3.8 billion years of evolution have created. The slick and sticky nature of slug mucous, or what is hemolymph anyway.  You might start to see the way a slug fits into the ecosystem in new ways, as both a decomposer and an incubator of fungi. Pretty soon, a whole world of networked and weird knowledge is built around your observation.

The ease of connecting

When we build our own understanding of these observations and the fabulously strange networks of information that exist we are preparing our brain to see the easy connections. The connected nodes of data can be accessed and translated by our brain more easily. We see how the retracting mechanism of a slug eye stalk might improve surgical cameras. We see how a viscoelastic fluid could reduce tissue tearing, or snags during surgery. We see how having biodegradable cutting instruments that are replaceable might keep patients safer post surgery. And what is certainly true is that we usually see something entirely different than before we set out in the woods - We have built for ourselves a pair of biomimicry goggles.

Concept Sketch: Strigil for Healthy Skin

Imagine yourself an Olympian of the Ancient Greeks. Body well toned by spending all day at the gymnasium, naked, running around in the dirt covered with olive oil. At the end of a day you are covered with sweat, grime, and generally wanting a bit of cleaning. There is no soap to be had, yet there is great value in the film that coats your body.

Enter the strigil, a gently bent piece of metal that you use to carefully remove the oily film from your skin place it in a jar. Fans and hopefuls would purchase your scrapings in the jar with the hope that it would confer some of your great abilities. Maybe they weren't too far off.

The microbial life on our skin turns out to do quote a lot, and a micro-boost from a superstar athlete might actually help you stay healthier. Scientists have found that what is living on our skin can help regulate allergies, reduce inflammation, prevent skin disease, and even keep mosquitoes off your back.

What if we changed grooming habits to keep our skins microbial life healthy?

Companies like AOBiome are already creating bacterial misters that help you replenish useful bacteria for your skin, to keep you from smelling even when you don't use soap. Would you use a strigil and oil to clean instead of soap? Would you take someone else's scraping to bring their microbial life to your your own?

What kind of strigil would you use?

Lab Gear: DIY Macro Phone Kit

One of the favorite pieces of lab gear floating around LikoLab these days is the 30X21MM Jewelers loop. These small hand held magnifying glasses are handy with a phone camera and cost less than $5. We just hold the loop in front of the lens for a photo.

You do need to get close to your subject, but can obtain surprising results. We have also found video, or even slow motion video comes in handy from time to time. We use them in the lab to 'officially' inspect prototypes, textile samples, and small odds and ends - but they get more use as a macro kit for phones.

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Concept Sketch: Life Bricks

LIFE BRICK - the brick that brings life to your building.

LIFE BRICK - the brick that brings life to your building.

What if bricks, instead of being inert, CO2 emitting, handy blocks of modern architecture were living, responsive, dynamic blocks?

When we first heard of Professor Dosier's bio-brick printer we were smitten. A brick that works with bacteria to fuse together sand. Saving on all the expensive and energy intensive heating processes that cement or bricks need. The current limitations on Dosier's bricks seems to be speed and perhaps a reason to change beyond reducing CO2 emission. Our imaginations started to run wild, without the heat of firing what else could be included in the brick making process!  We are happy to share some of our thoughts on how we might be able to build a better brick.

Professor Dosier's Bio-Brick Printer let's bacteria do the grunt work.

Professor Dosier's Bio-Brick Printer let's bacteria do the grunt work.

Speedy Bio-Bricks

Let's not wait for the bacteria to grow- let's set up quickly on site to use now!

Let's not wait for the bacteria to grow- let's set up quickly on site to use now!

Bacteria are too slow. When we want something we want it now, preferably at the touch of a button. So instead of letting our bricks depend on the bacteria to slowly bind the sand, we instead propose a near instantaneous 'set' technique that then gives way to the bacteria's whims over time. This involves using something we love to play with- molecular silk. Imagine if we used molecular grade silk protein (fibroin) as the glue between the grains of the sand. 

Silk is a strong protein, when used as an additive could be a binder for bricks.

Silk is a strong protein, when used as an additive could be a binder for bricks.

As spiders and silk worms know, silk is very strong, and goes from a liquid to a solid with simple dehumidification techniques. Laboratories (including ours) regularly use molecular silk as a bio-material of almost infinite possibilities. We think it just might be possible to let our bricks sit in the breeze for a few minutes, and it is time to start using. The speed of brick production could go way up, and an added benefit may be the bricks would start to stick to each other without mortar.

Living Bricks

LIFE BRICKS help life flourish, creating clean air, water, and interacting in new ways.

LIFE BRICKS help life flourish, creating clean air, water, and interacting in new ways.

The kicker of the brick however, is that these ones are alive! Not only could the bacteria eat the silk binder to create a more permanent bond, but also the bricks would fuse together as a building! Talk about an organic structure.

But what we like most is the ability to start adding some functional capability to the brick beyond just resisting compression (a noble job sure, but in 2000 years you can learn a few new tricks). Embedding enzymes is already done with silk for implants into the human body, including enzymes in bricks allows us to perform a wide range of functions with our cities. Our Life Bricks would digest pollution, and capture heavy metals in the atmosphere. 

There is also the possibility that some of the bricks could glow or respond like a firefly in the night. When bricks start to respond to their environment, a whole new host of ways of interacting emerges, there are millions of possibilities as these Life Bricks become smart.

Emergency crews could flip a switch and the Life-Bricks would show you to the exits. Life-Bricks can change color when walked on showing common footpaths in a city. Some Life-Bricks responded to pollution levels, glowing brighter when healthy, reminding people to take care of their living city. Many Life-Bricks actually cultivate pro-biotic bacteria that help keep us healthy. And some Life-Bricks have started interacting with our electronics, learning to respond to specific people's cell phones by emitting different scents into the air.

The world begins to take on new possibilities when we open up manufacturing to being life friendly, possibilities that we think are not only amazing, but far better for us and our environment. Our built environment can be responsive, and adaptive, and full of life. Thanks Professor Dosier for the inspiration, and we are adding Life-Bricks to our project portfolio.