Complex adaptive systems grad plans to bring biomimicry to his home country

April 22, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

When Louwie Gan learned of biomimicry, he knew it was the key to engineering more symbiotic, sustainable solutions to infrastructure woes, particularly those within his home city of Manila, Philippines. But it wasn’t always this way.  SCAS student Louwie Gan black and white headshot The School of Complex Adaptive Systems selected Louwie Gan as this spring's Outstanding Graduate Student. Download Full Image

Growing up in Manila, a young Gan viewed bustling city streets as avenues for cars — and cars only. He recounts feeling like the pedestrians and street vendors simply took up space, that they were out of place and even inhibited vehicular traffic. But when he began studying architecture, infrastructure and urban planning, he quickly became aware of the socioeconomic and environmental repercussions of an infrastructure centered around those with privilege. 

“When you provide infrastructure for (only) cars, you are actually creating inequality,” Gan said. He notes that many of the low-income Filipinos who live within the city do not have access to the funds and resources necessary to own and maintain their own vehicle, making getting from Point A to Point B in Metro Manila extremely difficult on roads designed with only cars in mind. The solution to these kinds of inequalities, he believes, can be developed from observing the systems and processes of the natural world and weaving that inspiration into urban design.

He took these fundamental ideas of equity and sustainability and used it to shape his career path, enrolling in the ASU College of Global FuturesSchool of Complex Adaptive Systems. He is now graduating with his Master of Science in biomimicry, the next step in his mission is to become a certified biomimicry specialist through the ASU-Biomimicry 3.8 program. His ultimate goal is to lay the foundation for the practice of biomimicry throughout the Philippines, leading the charge on applying design and planning techniques as well as researching and engineering new ones.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: During my college years as an architecture student, I was fascinated with green design and other sustainability concepts. This led me to pursue credentials such as LEED, WELL, EDGE, Sites, and other green initiatives to learn more about sustainability. Through these, I was introduced to biomimicry. Then the rest is history. I told myself, "I need to learn this field." So here I am.

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I found that all our challenges that we are facing right now can be figured out if we look into nature. We just have to ask the right questions and dig deeper to find these answers.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: My overall goal is to be a certified biomimicry specialist or professional. I also researched about the best school to learn biomimicry. ASU stands out among others because of the joint affiliation with Biomimicry 3.8. Choosing ASU was a major step for me to reach this goal.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Even before I started the program at ASU, I had been watching a lot of YouTube videos about biomimicry where Professor of Practice Dayna Baumeister shared basic concepts. In my ASU experience, I learned all the fundamental courses through Baumeister. I am fortunate to have met her during the Biomimicry for Social Innovation Immersion Workshop in Slovenia in 2019. After this pandemic, I look forward to learning more from her in our next venture in the natural world.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: To be more efficient in time management while maximizing learning, my advice is to reverse engineer it. This is reading first all the requirements needed for the week before reading and watching all the resources provided by the professor. I had been doing this process to avoid procrastination. In my experience, this saves time since I do not have to review the resources all over again to confirm if I correctly understood the topic as per assignments. However, I guess each of us has our style of doing things. More importantly, have fun and enjoy every minute at ASU!

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: The L-shaped table at the corner of my room. My abode of peace and concentration.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: No one practices biomimicry in my home country. I am thinking of creating a school where I can teach younger students, business professionals and others about nature-inspired thinking in solving any challenges that may arise. I am also considering creating a YouTube page discussing current events and how biomimicry thinking can help.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would create a research and education center as a hub for innovative design and technology that revolves around improving social and environmental systems, especially poverty, pollution and wildlife protection. 

Madelyn Nelson

Editorial Associate, Global Futures Laboratory, Knowledge Enterprise


SpectraFlex center to define the future of wireless

April 22, 2021

Wireless technology is racing toward ubiquity. Innovative new commercial, scientific and military applications are emerging at an almost unimaginable rate.

“There are thousands of new satellites going into orbit, autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality and we all want high-speed connectivity for our devices everywhere we go,” said Sayfe Kiaei, a professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Artistic rendition of rapidly expanding wireless spectrum usage Rapidly developing information technologies are flooding the airwaves with data and raising concerns about electromagnetic spectrum access, allocation and management. Image courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

At the same time, the electromagnetic spectrum that serves as the medium for this explosion of data transfer is a limited resource. Challenges related to sufficient access, signal interference and poor latency or performance delays are sources of growing global concern.

“And while the United States has been a leader in the development of wireless technologies since World War II, there is now a lot of international competition for dominance in this arena. This is why 5G mobile networks have been such a hot topic in recent years,” Kiaei said. “As a result, the National Science Foundation has called for the creation of a new national center for research, innovation and workforce training to maintain our edge in wireless spectrum use and management.”

That call went out in August 2020, when leading scientists and engineers at U.S. universities were asked to develop detailed proposals for the structure and operation of the new $25 million facility — currently known by its working name, Spectrum Innovation Initiative Center, or SII-Center. In rapid response, multi-institutional teams began forming to leverage complementary expertise as they developed their plans.

Kiaei leads one of these teams, comprised of more than two dozen colleagues at Arizona State University; Cornell University; Florida Atlantic University; Florida International University; Rice University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Michigan and Yale University.

“Our comprehensive plan highlights a flexible approach to the spectrum,” Kiaei said. “We need very adaptive architecture and systems to permit rapid advances in wireless functionality for everything from personal communication and weather sensing telemetry to intelligent transportation networks and more. Reflecting that focus on flexibility, our center name is SpectraFlex.”

The SpectraFlex proposal envisions the new national center organized by discrete but mutually supportive technology research and development thrusts. These areas include terahertz sensors and circuits, digital signal processing systems and artificial intelligence, and very large-scale integration of semiconductor and telecommunication technologies.

The faculty members working together in each thrust will pool their talent and resources to tackle a variety of challenges. One example is equipment reconfigurability to enable operation in either a sensing mode or a communication mode, while another focus is getting electronics to operate across a wide range of frequencies without degrading performance.

“The current approach to building good radio technology is tuning everything to a particular operating point. We optimize something for a very specific use,” said Alyssa Apsel, a professor of electrical engineering and director of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University, as well as the leader of the radio-frequency integrated circuit and transceiver thrust at SpectraFlex.

“Of course, it is possible to make things that are flexible, but you almost always sacrifice performance,” Apsel said, pointing as an example to the difference between an application-specific integrated circuit and a general-purpose computer.

“The integrated circuit does one thing very efficiently, while the general computer does many things pretty well — but by consuming a lot of power and taking up a lot more space,” she said. “The same is true for radio technology. So, we intend to research and develop new systems that are not forced to trade performance for flexibility.”

More broadly than specific technical challenges, the SpectraFlex proposal aims to catalyze a dramatic change to the current collective mindset about the electromagnetic spectrum. The focus should be not just popular issues like 5G or the Internet of Things, but preparing for the wireless world we need in place 30 years from now.

“Think about how wireless data has been totally redefined during just the past five years. It’s a fundamental part of our lives from agriculture to logistics to education to defense,” said John Volakis, a professor of electrical engineering and dean of the College of Engineering & Computing at Florida International University as well as the leader of the multiple-input and multiple-output antennas thrust at SpectraFlex. “Consequently, the ways we use the spectrum have outpaced the technology we have in place. By that, I mean we have so many new applications, but the background systems supporting them haven’t changed much.”

Volakis says this is because we typically develop technologies in an evolutionary manner. Changes are iterative and rooted in what already exists.

“But we now need a revolutionary change,” he said, “and a center like SpectraFlex can take on the risk of developing a new paradigm and open new pathways to transporting wireless data.”

To help open those pathways, Kiaei says that the SpectraFlex proposal team has been actively engaging with leaders of the information technology and communications industries to identify key collaboration opportunities.

“At a workshop earlier this spring, we were discussing the new center with more than 80 representatives from a wide range of enterprises,” he said. “And those discussions include identifying workforce development needs. It’s vital that ASU and other universities train tens of thousands of new scientists and engineers to help push the new technology forward and make the promise of SpectraFlex a reality.”

Final proposals for the new wireless spectrum center are due for submission to the National Science Foundation by the end of April, and selection of the winning plan is expected this summer.

Gary Werner

Senior Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications