Meet Regina, the Biomimicry master that invented the “Bioinspired Circular Innovator”
An interview with Regina Rowland and Paul Hoffmann
In this article, we talk with Regina Rowland about her passion for bioinspiration and how she became a consultant for transformative change based on the Biomimicry framework. Regina was a professor for Design Management at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she developed a Biomimicry Certification Program that is the base for the program we are offering at Biomimicry Academy Berlin. Next, to her teaching and research position at the University of Applied Sciences Burgenland in Austria (the location of her current full-time professorship), she is a Biomimicry Consultant, and with her work, Regina wants to help companies to develop strategic & systemic sustainability, engage in collaborative design & innovation, and transform their organisational system. Regina is a certified “Biomimicry Specialist”, and she holds a graduate degree in Biomimicry from the Arizona State University. Here at the Biomimicry Academy, Regina is the driving force behind the content of the three courses “Bioinspired Circular Innovation”, “Biomimicry Practitioner” and “Biomimicry Coach”. Let’s start with the first question
What are your experiences with your students when you talk about Biomimicry?
It is really easy to get people excited about it. Because of the case studies, they are publicly available and fantastic. The work is usually well designed. The Innovation process is solid “Like hands down solid, it will always work”. If there is a possibility in the particular project to become a circular innovation, I never see it fail. It is not always an entirely new innovation, it is sometimes an improvement of an existing innovation. But the excellence in which this process can be accomplished in is high.
Where students or participants have issues is in the depth of the science that is required to really find the strategy that nature uses and translate that into an abstract design principle. That is where someone like biologists, or an ecologist, or naturalist is absolutely necessary for the group. So if the group doesn’t have one of those experts in it, they have a hard time reaching deep enough into the science, to find the secrets of nature. This is a collective experience I have as a facilitator of that process: that the depth of the science might be challenging and you can mitigate that by having a biologist or ecologist in the Group present during the entire time. That’s better than just at specific parts of the process. If you work with a lot of engineers they usually have not so much the problem to go deep into the science, they have more passions for the process, but they get very handicapped when it comes to the creative part of the process. That is what creative people love. On the other side, creative people have more problems with sticking to science, and they also have a challenge when it comes to refining the prototype. Which is where the engineers come in with an advantage.
The same is true when it comes to fundamental innovation or business innovations.
Here you have the business managers be active at specific parts of the process, while they are not so strong in others. But they don’t have the passions or experience to contribute a whole lot. So when you facilitate the process, you want people to understand the ups and downs during the process, how it is different for all in the process. So when the group accepts that this will happen, then they put back and forward the leadership during the particular phases of the project.
I like the explanation of the importance of an interdisciplinary team to create innovation. That’s one of the reasons why we as biologists support the participants, to better understand the depth of the science. As an engineer, I know very well that the challenging part for a scientist is the design part. I see this, especially in my work with our Communication Designer, and I’m pleased to have someone who supports me at this stage with hands-on practice.
Hold on for a second! I also think it’s important to understand the difference between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.
Multidisciplinary has initially emerged in the United States many years ago, as we became aware “Hey there are different cultures, and they have different value systems and all of those value systems are different, and we need to negotiate the differences”.
So it was looking from that perspective of difference through a scenario of dynamic where different cultures came together, and people want to learn what are these differences and how can I work with these differences.
Then we evolved from that into interdisciplinary studies which had at the core an intent to bring the different disciplines into a dialogue. It was no longer about the difference but about “Hey what can we learn from each other”. It was no longer mitigating or negotiating the differences, it was more about what can we create together.
Then we moved towards -transdisciplinary -which was about bringing different disciplines to the table to make a contribution in terms of starting a dialogue with other disciplines. Then they would shape the contribution so that the content, the project, became the core of why the group came together.
Maybe this explanation already helps to understand that these are three very distinct intentions. In how you bring people together. For the Biomimicry process, it is essential that we do not think about the differences, not even about what we have in common, and it is not about an emotional aspect either; as much as it is not an element of “Hey how can we make a bridge between these different disciplines”.
But it is rather a dialogue, that helps us to understand the different perspectives.
This is about an era when people come together, and they have already matured through the multi-, and the interdisciplinary process and they are now in this transdisciplinary space where the focus is on the content, and they know what happens when those different kinds of people or disciplines come together.
So your background becomes less important and what you bring to the table for the sake of the project becomes essential instead. The facilitator of the biomimicry process has to have enough experience and knowledge to know what is required at the design table for this particular project.
At your work as a Biomimicry consultant, what are the key factors that a Biomimetic should have, to bring Biomimicry to a company and to convince the manager of the biomimicry design process?
The engagement for Biomimicry is, most of the time, very high. But when it comes to the practical part, it is always hard to show the cost reduction after the project ends. Is there any method you use to make the Biomimicry process evident to the manager? How do you move away from focussing solely on cost reduction? And to explain them not to look at the cost reduction as primary criteria.
That’s a hard one! My experience is that in the business world, things always need to happen faster than are humanly possible. So it’s not just a matter of how much does it cost, but also a question of how long does it last. And how many people do I need to pool, from how many different areas to make that happen?
So it’s also a matter of capacity selection in the group from the company. So the challenge you have there, is as you said, to counterbalance what it costs in terms of money, time and brainpower, with the value they get out in the end.
And so, I personally don’t have a magic potion, to help you with that one. I’m always struggling with that one too. But I have said “no” to projects when I could tell, that those people weren’t interested in stretching their understanding of what it takes to do a real innovation, and I think that’s important for every facilitator to decide.
Because, if you step into it knowing you can’t do it in half a day and you can’t do it for free. If you step into such a limiting situation like that, you have more chances to fail than to succeed. That is going to be your fault in the end, because you agreed to these terms and now you don’t have any results to show.
My advice would be to really gauge whether the maximum offer they can make, or what is the optimum offer from their perspective, whether that is enough for you to feel successful with this process.
You always want to show up like nature would do it, looking on the bright side of the opportunities in every challenge.
So I would say, it’s good to negotiate back and forward and try to help people understand what the value is, and most of the time they want to see the real thing, they want to see a case study. So if you come up with the Shinkansen train, you would not lead with the fact, that it took eight years for the engineer to actually develop it. So it’s tricky which samples you will pool from, and it’s also tricky in that some of these examples we always use, have not undergone the biomimicry thinking process, as we teach it.
“Yeah, that’s always a problem, I really like to use the example from Lenovo. They use bioinspiration to improve the efficiency of the cooler fans in their devices, to make them thinner. They use the fin of the dolphin to optimise the wings of the cooler. But they don’t use the whole biomimicry process to come to this innovation. Therefore it is a problem to explain the differences to the bionics and than to explain that the bionics don’t have this claim to be sustainable.”
“So the next question is, why are you fascinated by Biomimicry.”
“I’m happy to talk about that. So, I came actually from the creative professions. I started as a fine artist, and I still have things to dear, but not so much time to do my own creative work anymore. Then I moved into design, so visual design and I had my own design studio for a while and then I went into teaching. “
And I moved from the east to the west coast. On the west coast, you know innovation and doing new things is the core of what “happens” there. So after ten-fifteen years of teaching Design, I got really bored with it. So how many times can you design logos, how many books can you design. So I was thinking what else can I do with the skills that I know, the process of design and I know what the pitfalls are and how to negotiate or make it across these gaps.
And because of where I was, – on the west coast-, where you really get opportunities to do new things – of which people don’t know what the outcome is. They thrive, and that’s a significant culture that way. I found organisations around me the “Facebooks, Googles “and all the things and you meet people to connect with those companies everywhere, like in the coffee shop, in the bar or in the restaurant. People are willing and interested because of the thriving culture here to talk about it.
So it was not hard for me to find ways, where I just go in with my designer suitcase, and well I said I don’t know what I’m doing, but I would like to try to apply the design process to your challenge, that you have in organisational transformation. Then I learned that I was missing some other pieces so that I learned organisational development, I studied psychology, and I learned NLP to help organisations to the whole dynamic they bring in and where they wanna go. I used the visual process for that. That then transformed, from a visual process, I would do for the client, to a collaborative process to do it with the client.
So we would be drawing on huge walls like a mirror to think about our issues and things like that. Which now is called design thinking an human-centred design where we looked for solutions in other organisations, that have moved through a similar challenge and found a solution, that’s run for a couple of years.
I finished my dissertation with Intercultural Communication and Transcultural Communication and Visual Communication, in a framework theory. But I don’t want to explain that now. I just want to say that things “got to go well together’ through that process.
As you move through the world, we all have a point in our personal history where you just wake up one morning, and you say to yourself. “Whatever we do, it doesn’t make sense, we are ruining the planet”. Something needs to be done about that. I had one of those epiphanies, I had one of these moments where I woke up in the morning, and I’m like “Wow we are really doing such bad things, and I’m part of this I have a contribution to that world because I’m enabling companies to do these unsustainable things”. So now from that moment forward and that was early in the 2000s. I had to pitch up knowledge of methods for moving towards a sustainable future. I learnt about natural capitalism and the natural steps and several other methods. One of those was Biomimicry, and when I came across Biomimicry, as you said, it was like a magic door opened. It showed me the potential solutions and things that I already knew a long time ago, that I needed to solve in the future.
Then a second thing happened, I stopped teaching design, and I moved to teach organisational dynamics and systems and transformation. I was using human-centred design approaches, and I was using a variety of sustainability frames that were developed by other human scientists, but when you are in that transformative change work, you always get pushback from those people, who need to do that work. Even if they want to do the job, they always push against their limits of being able to change.
So the first part of being successful with this transformative change work is to move with the group through this space of resistance, and this is like walking through molasses up to your knees. Your feeds are stuck with tons of chewing gum, and you “kinda like “trying to make it across the road. I didn’t like that because the energy is always going against “You” as the facilitator. Now you learn how to hold that and not be bowled over by that, but it is still not a comfortable feeling.
I rather work with people that say “Yeah, let us do that”. So when I found the Biomimicry framework, I noticed that I do not have to defend the framework. This is the greatest advantage, over all those other systems which have been designed by human minds. Because then you can always question it. “How does that person know that that is really true?”. We tend to question the validity of the framework. But when you work with nature and the Biomimicry process, all you have to say is “Well you don’t have to believe me, let’s just go outside, and you can observe for yourself and discover for yourself”.
Then that whole resistance is very much reduced. It gives more joy to the work, and it moves the group faster to a potential solution space, and you personally, as the facilitator do not have to bear all that resistance that usually comes towards you.
This was the first part of the fascinating interview with Regina. In the next part, we talk about Regina’s impact on the programme of the Biomimicry Academy.
Please share your experience in the comments. If you want to become a Bioinspired Circular Innovator, a Change Maker for humankind going forward, then please contact me.
Cheers Paul Hoffmann