Jacob Packert

Nature is still the ultimate inspiration in the digital age

Let’s be more inspired by nature. Climate change is a global factor we must respond to. Nature holds more answers than we think. And maybe we need to operate on a totally different timescale.

November 12, 2019

I came across the trend of forest bathing earlier in the year. Put simple it is the realisation that spending time in the woods is good for your mind and your body. I would go even further and say that spending time in nature is also good for our craft and can lead to new ideas and solutions. Sustainable design can also be digital

There should be no discussion that the climate crisis is the most important problem we face in our generation. We — digital designers, product developers and software engineers — are no less responsible for coming up with sustainable solutions than others. By sustainability I’m not just thinking of being carbon-neutral, but also the broader sense of the word; designing with longevity in mind, building systems that can adapt and that are inspired by and respect nature.

A recent example is the design decision from giants like Apple and Facebook to reduce screen time used on their services. It is interesting that after years of designing for more and more share of people’s precious attention, we are now realising that human brains are not wired for an endless loop of instant gratification and dopamine releases. I think it’s great for the industry to realise that humans are not just rational and irrational, but also bound to our biological, chemical and neurological nature, a point described extremely well in the magnificent Behave by Robert Sapolsky. Biomimicry: learning from evolution

A more direct example of inspiration by nature is the idea of biomimicry (literally ‘imitating life’). Biomimicry is the practice of using the designs of nature, evolution and biology to inform design and engineering.

The term is mostly used in material and physical design, like modern airplane wings that have curled wingtips, inspired by gliding birds who do the same for better energy efficiency. In the recent Olympic Games, many swimmers gained an extra advantage by using swimsuits inspired by sharkskin, reducing drag by up to 6%.

And have you ever thought about how cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are naturally hydrophobic? They share a feature to repel water from their surface, making sure they don’t drown in heavy rain, and now scientist are using a similar feature found in nasturtium leaves to create what could be the next Gore-Tex.

MIT even has a whole lab working with experimental materials. One example included releasing thousands of silk worms on a scaffolding in the MIT Lobby to produce a dome of silk. Besides raising eyebrows at the MIT procurement department, the process was novel because it enforced cohabitating and coproduction in the silk manufacturing — a process that normally kills the silkworms when you boil their cocoons to extract the silk. (You can find out more about the MIT Media Lab’s work on bio-architecture in the excellent documentary series Abstract on Netflix).

Landscape architecture as metaphor for digital design

I was recently in Oslo and stumbled upon a weird little exhibit on the practice of landscape architecture. Norway was the first country in the world to train landscape architects, and the exhibition, called Outdoor Matters, described a hundred years of planning gardens, parks and cemeteries.

In our industry, we often compare digital product design to architecture. The respective design processes have similarities: both do research, both depend on drawing plans and sketches over many iterations, both use prototypes in the preliminary design process. And crucially, both have to consider engineering and feasibility as well as aesthetics to reach the ultimate goal of designing for humans. Architecture and digital product design both sit on the intersection of engineering and liberal arts.

Some of the most prominent architecture companies from the Nordics, Bjarke Ingels Group/BIG and Snøhetta, both design with sustainability in mind. From preparing the Manhattan coastline to rising seas and making a power plant green enough to ski on, to making an opera house made as a public landscape and an underwater restaurant that forms an artificial reef and invites kelp, limpets and mussels. Both BIG and Snøhetta owe a legacy to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Fallingwater house blends the boundaries between exterior and interior and is the pinnacle of his organic design philosophy. We are still waiting for this movement to really impact digital product design, but emerging signals are starting to show.

What inspires me with landscape architecture in particular as a metaphor, is that where traditional architecture usually ends with a new building being built within a relatively controlled and time-constrained process, landscape architecture crucially adds time and nature as new dimensions to consider.

In landscape architecture, you simply cannot magically make a new park exist from one day to another. You have to have patience. And you can draw paths, but you will have to accept that people will go where they please. You can plan for trees and plants, but you will ultimately have to wait and see how they grow over the duration of seasons and years.

And so it is with digital products. Once you release them out into the open, you will need patience. Your plans might not work. Or something new will grow that you did not anticipate. Or your users might use your creation in a way you’d have never thought of. Twitter didn’t plan for features like the hashtag or the retweet. They were, famously, suggested by the community, then adapted in to the core platform. To borrow another term from nature, evolution is not just about survival of the fittest, but survival of the ones most ready to adapt.

Sustainability is not only decreasing your impact on the planet. It is also doing things in a way that has more longevity in itself. The Long Now Foundation is making the 10.000 year clock to inspire thinking on a much, much longer scale of time. Try and think of your product or your business or even your code on a different timescale. How will it look in 2 years? 5 or even 10? Are you planning for the next quarter or the rest of the year? And then what?

In our world of agile and sprinting, it is refreshing to force yourself to take a step back and look further. We are fascinated with the promise of the 5-day-design sprint, but crafting software, design and products take much, much longer.

We were told to move fast and break things. But maybe it’s time to go slow and fix things.

Let’s make digital product design inspired by the ingenious solutions of nature, informed by thousands of years biology and evolution and infused with sustainability.

And maybe just go for a hike in the mountains or a walk in the woods and try out that soothing, refreshing forest shower.

Written by Jacob Packert
I write about the Internet, tech, code and design.
Lead Engineer at DR, The Danish Broadcasting Corporation

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