To begin to experiment with bottom-up principles of nature, I first needed to understand these principles in the most general sense. There has been a lot of work on postulating theories of nature, trying to understand how the complexity came about and essentially how it all functions. One of the keen observations is that life doesn't contain anything that could not be present in non-life or the dead, inanimate world. It is the principles of self-organization, self-regulation, and complexity which distinctly separates living from non-living. Fritjof Capra has generalized it to quite an extent - the three conditions for autopoiesis are pattern, process, and structure. Although it provides some insight and direction on how to proceed, I find it still quite vague and too general to be thought-provoking. Another aspect of this is that all processes, including those of life, are bound by the same fundamental, natural laws of physics and quantum mechanics. These in turn give rise to larger and larger effects that we can observe and see throughout nature. As Bret Victor puts it, alien lifeforms may not be all that different from the lifeform that we find on Earth, even if the organisms are not carbon-based. The works of Ernst Haeckel attest to this fact. His work shows remarkable similarity to natural forms yet seems very alien. It's as if, yes the illustrations could exist on Earth yet they were created using the imagination of the fundamental laws of physics acting in various ways.
Illustrations of Ernst Haeckel
So what are these fundamental principles and forces of nature? Based on my research, I have found a few coupled with industrial work done using the principles. Most of the work falls in the category of "Architecture", though when I looked at it, there is nothing to suggest that one requires domain-specific knowledge to apply the principles. Often, prototypes were constructed on the small scale and demonstrated similar abilities to the ones made on a larger scale.
Any living system that we can see is characterized by growth throughout its lifetime. It seems to be so fundamental and it adds the dimension of time or temporality to life. Perhaps one of the most influential writing on this topic is by D'Arcy Thompson in his book 'On Growth and Form'. There is a deep connection to the process of growth and forms that we see in nature.
Central to D'Arcy Thompson's argument is that the process of natural growth is not uniform or simple. There is great complexity in growth and through it, we can explain many of the forms and processes which we see in nature. The simple act of plant stems growing against gravity while plant roots growing towards gravity shows this in action. Plants also bend towards light and this bending happens as one side of the stem (side in shadow) grows faster and longer than the other side. The variation and complexity of rates of growth transcend throughout scales in nature. Andy Lomas' work on cellular forms shows a computer simulation of cell growth to generate various forms.
Andy Lomas' Cellular Forms
We can see the emergence of complex structures found in nature. The central way of producing these simulations is boiling down various processes that happen on microscopic levels to those of fundamental forces - very similar to Newton's approach to deconstructing forces. When the growth substrate is varied or performed on other forms, we get other complex structures similar to corals, flowers, or even intestines.
My experiment with growth on edges
Levels of Hierarchy
Another fundamental principle on which nature operates is having levels of hierarchy on different scales. Having this essential feature brings about remarkable properties that far outperform those that are manmade. Nature operates on a vast, vast scale - from the atomic level to the cosmic level. Our current technology has barely started penetrating across various levels and scales coherently. The book 'Bulletproof Feathers' by Robert Allen provides the most intriguing examples of these phenomena in nature. Unlike man-made manufactured materials, natural materials (like bones) are full of variation and partitions at various levels. This effectively makes bone one of the strongest materials in relation to its density and volume. If a bone cracks on the microscopic level, this crack is not allowed to spread because of its structure, while minute imperfections in man-made materials easily make them crack such that these cracks become bigger leading to the failure of the material.
The microscopic structure of bone
Further, this structure is present at various scales in the bone and not just on any one scale. The amazing self-organizing properties that make bones in the first place is how nature can achieve this. To some extent, we see this principle applied in some man-made objects as well, but most came from indigenous methods and not from the context of industrial mass manufacturing. The most prominent example is ropes.
Closeup of rope
The rope is made by twisting two strands together which again are twisted with other similar strands and on and on. The process goes from a very small thread (about the width of a human hair) to a large rope. At each level, further reinforcement is added which makes the rope exponentially stronger compared to the material being used up. Similar structures are seen in tree trunks (formed by larger and larger vessels). In a way, it can be looked at as a fractal, when one steps away from the strict mathematical definition. As such, this leads me to believe in the practical application of fractals which is manifested in nature through hierarchies at different levels. This brings us to the question - what sort of processes can we do on existing man-made materials such that we can apply them at various scales using current technology? My hypothesis is if we can do such processing of material, we could be able to create stronger, more resilient materials using less mass. Or perhaps even some other unexpected properties. Definitely, a direction for me to explore and experiment. Some current processes and technologies that could be used (from largest scale to smallest scale) :
Structure, Organization, and Information
It seems that the fundamental differences in problem-solving from that of nature compared to engineering and science lies in the reliance on certain key elements.
Problem-solving can be looked at from the perspective of the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The existence of the problem itself depends on there being a thesis and antithesis. Say we want to build a strong structure. The usual problems encountered are material strength, gravity, wind, etc and eventually, the solution that is brought forth is in accounting for all these problems. And so when we are building something innovative, this innovation is a synthesis (solution) that happens in light of the thesis and anti-thesis.
In today's world, we extensively rely on energy as a source of synthesis for our problems. We can overcome antithesis by supplying energy. It is easy to see how this is bringing about all sorts of other wicked problems as energy is limited. However, nature minimizes energy and relies more on structure, organization, information, and time throughout various scales. Structure and organization do come free of environmental cost as it requires design ingenuity and research. Sometimes minimal energy is required to maintain these aspects. Information is becoming more and more ubiquitous and easy to process. So it goes rightfully to say that future processes need to involve more research in seeing how structure, organization, and information fit into new methods.
A very apt example is that of cooling buildings. The most common solution to this problem that we see are air-conditioners, which are energy extensive and have little to do with organization or structure.
Salmaan Craig's breathable walls
Salmaan Craig has researched various structural and organizational innovations on keeping buildings cool without air-conditioners. It becomes apparent that various approaches to solving problems exist and we need to shift focus on innovating in structures and organizations rather than optimizing energy usage.
There are a few more fundamental principles that are apparent in nature however these are the ones that I saw immense value in keeping in mind for future experimentation. They provide a general guideline for thinking about processes and how to go about innovating in them. The Framework
To begin performing experiments and ideating with this approach, I started creating a preliminary framework. I intended these to work more as triggers in combining the various fundamental principles with processes that happen in nature.
I randomly chose cards from this Nature's Toolbox to randomly combine various strategies and ideate generatively. A few of the chosen triggers and ideas were:
For ideating strategies on movement, hierarchy, and structure, I was thinking about how fractal structures would be made dynamic. There are a couple of other directions, however, this seemed the most promising. Especially with additive manufacturing, depositing material on another flexible material allows giving direction and control to the ways in which the flexible material can stretch or bend. Control to the extent of getting exact curvature can be achieved to get complicated forms. I tried experimenting with paper, using a similar approach as I didn't have access to a 3d printer at the time. The experiments show promise. Further, the joineries in the actual application could be enhanced by compliant joinery.
Energy, resonance, and deposit are an interesting combination of strategies. Something I would never have thought about. One of the interesting ideas that came was using cymatics as a form of self-assembly. What would happen if electroforming is done while inducing cymatic vibrations? Or Bundi while dropped in oil is fried with cymatic vibrations? I will have to do it and find out!
I could relate information, substance, and assembly to the way indigenous structures are built. A very good example is the weaver bird's nest where assembly happens randomly but information - like curvature, length of strand etc, is used to form spherical structures. Some ideas were - what if we randomly drop material (but having a parameter that is controlled) on a surface. What type of properties would the surface form? As I go ahead, I will be performing experiments with these ideas and see where they go.