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Nature Gadget: a Biological Approach to Technology of the Future
Architect Umair Zia discusses creating new innovations in technology through the synergy of natural processes and design.
Umair Zia - My name is Umair Zia. I am an Architect, Assistant Professor, and a Project Coordinator at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore Punjab, Pakistan. I am also on the editorial board of the International Journal of Interior Architecture + Spatial Design.
I worked hard to get a formal education, by choice, as my father died when I was four. I found nothing more exhilarating than discovering unfamiliar connections between familiar phenomena. I studied biology, engineering, the social sciences and liberal arts, and finally found architecture at the crossroads of all disciplines. Earth is my spaceship and nature is my kin.
My interest is in crafting a technological future of the world for humanity using the natural principle of synergy. My inspiration for the Nature Gadget project is Sir Richard Buckminster Fuller’s masterpiece work, Synergetics. All of my gadgets germinate from the idea that life is a synergistic outcome of design processes in nature. It is only after atoms organize themselves in a certain way that life manifests itself, and if those interrelationships are lost, so is life. A Nature Gadget is a tool created with the latest technologies that mimics this natural process — the gadget becomes “alive” when its technologies are organized synergistically.
Synergy — the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
Look at skin, for example. One could cross-section skin down to a cellular level, but it would only be a static representation of the organ, with a finite set of features. The beauty of skin is that it can perform multiple functions at the same time when combined with other systems in the body: it is a part of the skeletal system and keeps muscles and tendons in place; it is sensitive to touch via the nervous system; it can release fluids; it is also the heat-exchanging device of a body. The ability to molecularly reorganize and allow shifting interrelationships between parts makes skin a complex adaptive system. Now, this is just skin. Imagine how nature weaves adaptable systems together in an entire organism.
To explain how nature accomplishes this, consider two identical equilateral triangles as systems, A and B. They each have one planar surface. But by reorganizing (rotating) their vertices, we can achieve a new system C, which has four planar surfaces. The two extra surfaces only reveal themselves when system A and B combine in a particular way. Therefore, 1+1= 4.
Now let’s replace the above systems with our latest technologies. Consider a car, comprised of several technological components. A car has a sturdy frame — an armature which distributes structural forces to the ground. It has an engine (another system) and a cooling system for that engine. It also has a lighting system, a shock-absorbence system and several other systems. Yet as advanced as our car-organism appears to be, its individual technologies do not combine synergistically.
How would nature design a car, then? Nature might start with one system — say, the car frame. It would break down this system into its individual attributes and objectives. One objective would be to provide support to the engine. The engine is linked to the engine-cooling system, which has hollow tubular sections that allow fluids (air or liquid) to flow.
Now, a car frame is also made of hollow tubular sections. Nature might use these same tubes to extract heat from the engine, then convert the heat energy into light, which could travel and reflect internally through those sections, giving light to the passenger when needed. This way, only one component would be necessary — a car frame capable of performing multiple functions at the same time, i.e. structural integrity, thermal-regulation and lighting.
This idea was inspired for me from a toucan’s beak, a prime structural organ for the bird as well as its thermal regulator. Check out this nature gadget for more inspirations in this area.
Concept drawing illustrating the car frame as a nature gadget.
What is Nature Gadget, and how did you come up with the idea? What is your inspiration for the project, and what is your goal?
My website, NatureGadget.com, is a bio-mimicry design journal combining personal blogging with empirical research. I came up with this idea while preparing a competition entry for the Arctic Perspective Initiative in 2013. I mimicked three different processes of nature separately and then combined them together. The properties which emerged in the new system were not present in the individual systems, which led me to a deeper research into synergy.
Academic research in bio-mimicry leads either to a scientific model (Jenine Benyus’ approach) or high art (Neri Oxman’s approach). It is about time we presented bio-mimicry as a worldview like sustainability, which all of us can relate with. The real strength of this initiative resides with the youth of the world, I want to inspire their minds. I believe that by learning from nature and redefining our technology, we can redefine our future.
I take inspiration from nature because nature is grand and we are only one species of its innumerable children. We call ourselves wise ones — ones who can save the planet, but I study natural processes three to six hours every day, and I think we cannot destroy nature, we can only destroy ourselves. Instead, we should learn from nature.
Can you give some examples of some of the Nature Gadgets you have developed? What are you trying to achieve with each gadget?
It is difficult to pick a few gadgets because each one demonstrates its own unique system, and all of them share my enthusiasm. But a few more daring cases are a non-collapsing space-scraper inspired by macro-algae, an adaptable backpack inspired by the sea cucumber, and light ribbons to replace road infrastructures inspired by the pine spittlebug. Here are a few others:
A building façade that keeps thermal comfort in all conditions, inspired by bull kelp. Kelp responds structurally to multiple environmental conditions at once. This alternative architecture adjusts itself dynamically to changing climate conditions both within and without the building.
A shoe sole that speeds up the pace, inspired by the springtail. The springtail’s fork-like body parts unhook when jumping, releasing a huge amount of tension as they launch into the air. This mechanism can be mimicked in shoes and tuned with an app on an Apple Watch.
An unmanned aircraft which can dodge lasers, inspired by the moth. A moth’s natural predator is the bat. To dodge an attack, the moth emits its own radar that deranges the bat’s frequency. At the same time, the moth’s anatomy supports a flight pattern with negative-stability.
A water-resistant blouse, inspired by the Titan Arum blossom. Made from waterproof materials similar to Gore Tex 3, AeroTech and N2R, this blouse tightens its threads to seal the body from rain and give warmth.
A wheel which turns without turning, inspired by the water flea. The handlebar traditionally turns a wheel on a motorbike, but riding a stallion (or a flea) is more immersive. We can connect a wheel to respond to the human mind and heartbeat.
What is your process for designing a Nature Gadget?
First, I identify real-world problems that can be solved with design. The problems range across six categories: Art, Architecture, Sports, Mobility, Defense and General Utility.
Once I’ve identified a problem, I add its context or environment into the equation, then break down the system into its component parts. It helps me to rephrase the question from “how” to “why”. Instead of thinking how to solve the problem on a large level, I think about why each part works the way it does. Then I look for similar situations in nature and see how nature invents and solves for those individual problems.
I then conduct a thorough technological review of possible materials to recreate these natural mechanisms. Every part needs to be made from technology that belongs to the real world or it can’t be built.
Finally, the missing links in technology are solved synergistically, as I described above with the examples of skin and the car frame inspired by the toucan. The collective outcome must reveal unknown potential from the independent technologies, giving previously undiscovered life to the product.
To fully document a Nature Gadget, I collect reference images, link sources, draw product diagrams and a feature image, and describe the functions and considerations of the gadget in my journal online.
For an artist, engineer, scientist and inventor, a concept is not just an idea but a well-informed and thoroughly developed idea.
All sketches are done manually in this project, as you can see. But I want to pause here. I want creative young people to know that Concepts is not merely a sketching app but a powerful design-based research tool. Presently, all my work — from conception all the way to publication — is done in Concepts.
When a man or a woman first picked up a stone, he/she not only explored the geometry, weight, form and texture of the stone but also the possibilities of his/her own hand. It is by using different tools that we get to know our own abilities better — doers are the real thinkers, said Steve Jobs. For an artist, engineer, scientist and inventor, a concept is not just an idea but a well-informed and thoroughly developed idea. Concepts brings together all the tools we need to discover these concepts for ourselves.
For each Nature Gadget, I create the following with the app:
Technical Montage — This is a visual depiction of references and citations. I crop screenshots and online images to square. Once I’ve collected a number of images, I drag & drop sixteen of them into Concepts. I use Precision mode to organize them into a square montage. I save the references for these images separately in a text layer.
They are copied directly from here to the post in Wordpress. This way, my Literature Review (natural and technological) and its related set of drawings are saved in the same file.
Patent Illustration — Possibly the most important illustration of a gadget is its diagram of the systems. This illustration is similar to the engineering plan in architecture or a patent illustration for product design.
Concepts’ pens and rulers etc. make my workflow efficient. Vector graphics prove useful at this stage — I sketch drawings with a pencil, then adjust and reiterate with pen in a new layer, maintaining quality by controlling the stroke’s presets. I save labels in another layer.
Feature Image — Once the patent illustrations are completed, I create the feature image. This is a composite image — a rendered gadget placed on reference-image background.
Quick objects from the Object Library often come in handy and it is unbelievable how uniformly the airbrush paints. Despite being a vector, the tool behaves like a bitmap spray with endless definition.
Text and Citations — I document the website title, copyright text and year of publication on separate layers, which can be turned on and off as I need. I also copy the project settings between drawings to keep the publishing format consistent.
Publication and Archive — Concepts allows me to export in multiple formats, including PSD which stores layer data. I upload the native CPT file format along with a back-up PSD file directly to my archive in the cloud.
One little-explored potential of Concepts is its ability to design the layout of a book. I will be publishing the first volume of Nature Gadgets soon using the app.
In nature, the brilliance and beauty of a creation is in its function, echoed by its unique form. As I have mimicked real cases in nature and designed my gadgets, I’ve discovered that the life or soul of something is not in the finite or known variables of its equation, but in the infinite relationships of those variables interacting with each other. Though I use only existing technologies to build each gadget, the unknown interrelationships of these materials — their synergy — are what create a beautiful new life: a nature gadget.
Umair Zia is a visionary Architect, Assistant Professor, and creator of NatureGadget.com. Some of his bio-mimicry projects have been published at international forums such as CTBUH Why Tall? Design Competition 2011, and Adaptable Futures 2015 Exhibition. He encourages friends to follow BrainPickings.org, AskNature.org and MIT Tech Review. He thanks his mother, his teachers Arfan Ghani and Dr. Arfa Syeda, and the NCA Lahore, where he learns and where he teaches.
Interview by Erica Christensen
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