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Designed to move: ASU Biomimicry Center planting inspiration with seed exhibit

October 25, 2018

Nature-driven office remodel to be included in exhibit opening on Oct. 30

Vaulting beyond velcro, the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University is seeding new ideas for nature-inspired innovation.

Still most widely associated with the invention of velcroEngineer George de Mestral’s invented the hook-and-loop fastener inspired by the burdock plant burrs that stuck on his pants and his dog’s fur while hiking in the Swiss Alps in the 1940s., ASU researchers are walking the talk of biomimicry with a newly renovated office space and a new seed exhibit they hope will capture the imagination of innovators seeking solutions for complex human problems.

“Seeds continue to offer a bottomless design and engineering trove for many other innovations,” said Heidi Fischer, assistant director at the Biomimicry Center. “We hope that our exhibition can provide new models for some of these innovations. With new advances in imaging technologies, the average person now can have access to nature’s heretofore hidden designs and begin to imagine new design possibilities.”

Titled “Designed to Move: Seeds that Float, Fly or Hitchhike through the Desert Southwest,” the exhibit, opening Oct. 30 in the Design School South Gallery on ASU's Tempe campus is offering viewers an extraordinary look at the beauty of desert seeds as captured through the macro photography lens of Taylor James, an alumni of ASU’s Masters of Fine Arts program.

“Most people, including many botanical experts, have never seen up-close photos of desert seeds before,” Fischer said. “New visualization technologies are giving us access to the intricate designs that are largely invisible to us as we casually stroll through the desert. In the process, they uncover a trove of untapped design potential for solving many human challenges.”

Samaras for example, a winged seedpod produced by a wide range of plants including sugar maples and the slender janusia that grows in the desert, is one such seed that is inspiring innovation. Nicknamed “whirlybird” or “helicopter seed” for its propensity to rotate airborne after detaching from the plant stem, scientists studying the aerodynamic properties of samaras are trying to mimic the seedpod's design and apply its principles to airplane wings and space probes for planetary exploration. 

Biomimicry research is also delving into the clinging, coiling and self-planting behavior of the seeds produced by the filaree or “stork’s bill” plant. Among other applications, engineers are mimicking the humidity-triggered coiling and uncoiling of filaree awns to create hygrobots: tiny robots whose flexing movements are powered by daily changes in environmental humidity instead of batteries.

Fischer said the idea for the seed exhibit came about after a conversation with colleagues from ASU’s Vascular Plant Herbarium in the School of Life Sciences, the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix during a photography expedition in the desert. The collaboration led to a selection of Arizona seed species that were determined to be visually compelling and had interesting stories about seed dispersal adaptation or application through design or engineering.

Fischer said there is talk about possibly taking the seed exhibit on the road after its run at the Design School South Gallery comes to a close. The hope, she said, is to get national parks, natural history museums and herbaria interested in hosting all or part of the show’s modular design. She also hopes the exhibit will prompt people to think about seeds in a completely different way when they come across them in the desert.

Office space: The biomimicry way

While biomimicry remains a somewhat vague concept to the general public 20 years after the publication of Janine Benyus’ seminal bookJanine Benyus has authored several books on biomimicry including the widely-referenced "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." on the subject, the engineering of modern innovations such as high-speed bullet trains (inspired by the beak Kingfisher bird), and sharkskin swimsuits (modeled after the dermal denticles on a shark’s skin) illustrate how many biomimicry applications may just be hidden in plain sight.

“For too long our built environment has been seen as separate from nature,” said Sara el Sayed, a research associate at the Biomimicry Center at ASU. “Bringing biomimicry to the built environment allows us to create cities, buildings, products and human systems that function like the natural world — sustainable and aesthetically beautiful.”

Still, as Dayna Baumeister, director of the Biomimicry Center and co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, is quick to point out, just mimicking the shape of something in nature or emulating one aspect of an organism does not necessarily make a design biomimetic.

Biomimicry, Baumeister said, emulates the design principles of nature to achieve functional similarity.

“A chair may look like a leaf but it won’t function as one. Now imagine if that same chair was able to harness photons from sunlight to create energy functioning like the leaf — that’s a step closer. Emulating the deep patterns in nature, which we call Life’s Principles, can result in even more innovative and sustainable solutions. These overarching characteristics and deep patterns are guidelines we use in designing.”

Life’s Principles were consciously applied to the redesign of the office space Baumeister and her team inhabit in the College of Design South building on ASU’s Tempe campus. And, with some help from local design firm Architekton and fabrication firm Nicomia, the team at The Biomimicry Center is now enjoying a more sustainable and resource efficient environment inspired by nature.

“We created modular furniture that ‘adapts to changing conditions,’” Baumeister said, pointing out that the furniture in the Biomimicry Center’s office space can be reconfigured based on changing needs such as social gatherings, classes, office functions or meetings. “We have ‘locally attuned’ lights that mimic the circadian rhythm of day and night cycles, ensuring that we have a healthy work environment. And our recycled ceiling mimics the sound buffering and light-distributing design principles of a forest canopy.”

According to Baumeister, the finish plywood for the office’s furniture and shelving is Purebond, which uses soy proteins inspired by the blue mussel to create natural glues with no off-gassing and the paint is VOCVolatile Organic Compounds, or VOC, refers to certain carbon compounds, that participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions.-free, thanks to application of what she calls “life-friendly chemistry.” This, Baumeister promises, is “just the beginning.”

The Biomimicry Center is offering the public a look at its newly remodeled office at the opening of the macro photography seed exhibit “Designed to Move: Seeds that Float, Fly or Hitchhike through the Desert Southwest” from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 30. The evening will include a Gallery Talk at 6 p.m. and an original soundscape composition by Garth Paine, an acoustic ecologist in ASU’s School of Arts Media and Engineering.

Top photo courtesy of Taylor James

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Ex-CEO of Planned Parenthood hopes empowerment movements are inclusive

Ex-CEO of Planned Parenthood tells ASU group that #MeToo needs to be inclusive.
October 25, 2018

Gloria Feldt tells ASU Lodestar conference that women should leverage communication, data

Gloria Feldt has been at the forefront of women’s empowerment issues for decades, and she hopes women can move past the current #MeToo movement to include men in the conversation about gender equity.

“The #MeToo movement has been incredible in giving women the opportunity to speak in their own voices, and Time’s Up took the next step,” said Feldt, co-founder and president of Take the Lead, a nonprofit launched in 2013 to help women take leadership roles.

“But mostly what they’re doing is suing people, and that’s adversarial. You can’t sue everybody,” she said, adding that both women and men should be part of the conversation.

“It’s easy to let people who are against us get into our heads. Keep your head clear and keep your vison clear for where you want to go and keep going toward that,” Feldt told several hundred people at the Nonprofit Conference on Sustainable Strategies in Phoenix on Thursday morning. The conference was sponsored by the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovations, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.

Feldt, 76, was president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1996 to 2005. Married at 15, she had three children by the age of 20 before going on to earn a college degree in her 30s.

Feldt, the author of “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” said that two ways women can leverage power is through communication and data.

She teaches workshops on “gender bilingual communication” — the idea that men and women have been socialized to speak differently. For example, women often use more words and are less direct than men, but face harsh repercussions when they violate those norms.

“A woman and a man can use exactly the same words and be perceived differently,” she said.

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Iyamidé May, a community engagement and social media coordinator with Experience Matters, and more than 300 other people listen to "Take the Lead: A Conversation With Gloria Feldt" on Thursday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“Sometimes women say to me, ‘Why are you telling me how to speak to men? Why aren’t you telling men how to speak to me?’ I think that’s a fair question.”

She compared it to learning a few words of another language when visiting abroad.

“The truth of the matter is that groups with less power have to be able to speak the language of groups with more power.”

The pay gap between women and men is an example of where data can drive change. Feldt said that when she was CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern Arizona, the organization did a survey.

“Lo and behold, the larger the affiliate, the more likely it was to be run by a man, and the salary disparity was huge — and that’s at an organization whose mission was to advance women,” she said.

“Having that data and presenting it to the board solved the problem in a few years.”

Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the ASU Lodestar Center, said that the definition of leadership can be difficult to pin down.

“Leadership is an action that many can take, not a position few can hold,” he said.

“That’s especially important in today’s political climate where we assume that if we’re not an elected official, we can’t be a leader.”

The conference drew several hundred people from the nonprofit sector, and Feldt told them to be courageous.

“You have to get to the point where you know it’s OK if you get fired for doing the right thing.”

Top photo: Gloria Feldt speaks with ASU Lodestar Center executive director Robert Ashcraft during the opening session of the 26th annual Nonprofit Conference on Sustainability Strategies at the Black Canyon Conference Center on Thursday. Feldt is a former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, a best-selling author, speaker, commentator and feminist leader who has gained national recognition as a social and political advocate for women's rights. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now