In this section we present the case-study characteristics and the suite of 12 key themes emerging from the analysis of interview and document analyses.
3.2. Case-Study Overview
Case study 1 (CS1): this was a design project where the team identified recurring design challenges faced across their business portfolio. While it was not feasible to engage in extensive research at the individual project level, the organisation was eager to explore innovation solutions to these recurring challenges. Turning to biomimicry, the team adopted the Genius of Place design approach, to identify locally attuned design solutions drawn from local organisms and ecosystems. Given the geographically diverse nature of the portfolio projects, they opted to investigate the ecosystem type that was common to many of their project locations. First identifying design challenges, they then sought out organisms within that ecosystem type that were particularly well adapted to addressing the challenges. Drilling down to the specific design strategies of those organisms, they abstracted these to design and engineering approaches that could be considered and applied across various projects. The results were then published in a design guide for use across the portfolio and to educate a broader audience on the Genius of Place design approach. While these were later applied across various projects, the project has been classified as reaching ‘planning’ phase for the purpose of this case study, reflecting the phase of the project that is captured in the documents and interviews.
Case study 2 (CS2): as part of a broader planning and development program, the project team were engaged to advise how biomimicry could inform planning and design approaches for resilience. Life’s principles were used to inform overarching design principles, while the EPS framework was adopted to support the broader team in understanding the current ecosystem services generated by the project site, as well as the projected potential impact of business as usual development. This created a baseline for improvement, where developers could seek to reduce the overall impact of development on the provision of ecosystem services, and ideally, pursue regenerative design solutions that maximized ecosystem services—asking the question ‘what would nature do here?’.
Case Study 3 (CS3): following extreme flood events that led to damaged infrastructure, this local government authority decided to explore opportunities for ‘design inspired by nature’ in their redesign and repair. As part of the project, biomimicry experts investigated the local ecosystem to identify organisms that were particularly well adapted to shedding water, enhancing infiltration and maintaining shape under pressure. After selecting seven organisms and investigating the design features and mechanisms that supported these performance outcomes, the team conducted a series of training sessions and design charettes, to identify how these locally attuned design strategies could be translated into design and construction of the access infrastructure. While a detailed design phase was not reached, design concepts were prepared specifically for the infrastructure project, and as such this project is classified as reaching ‘design’ phase.
Case Study 4 (CS4): eager to shift towards regenerative design solutions, this organisation piloted the application of Ecological Performance Standards (EPS) to inform design and refurbishments of two operating facilities. While the first pilot was largely qualitative, the second iteration included quantitative assessment of the ecosystem services that would have been provided by an intact ecosystem on that site. Following this, business as usual design was assessed to quantify the expected ecosystem services performance, and the team then investigated a wide range of products and design opportunities to reduce this gap. Ecosystem services were prioritized in response to data availability, ecosystem characteristics and business priorities. These projects were considered as pilot projects toward a broader objective of designing facilities that contributed to, rather than detracting from, ecosystem service and function.
Case Study 5 (CS5): this project was initiated by a builder with a keen interest in biomimicry, who was interested in developing and refining the EPS framework for use in built-environment projects. It involved detailed exploration of how the EPS approach might apply to a small-scale building project, as well as identification of ecosystem services and extensive investigation of primary literature, historical datasets and other relevant sources to inform the development and quantification of ecosystem services for the project site. While the project did not progress to detailed design, it generated material contributions to the EPS framework and methodology.
Case Study 6 (CS6): this case-study project involved an ecosystem study using the Genius of Place methodology. The project team investigated the selected ecosystem to identify organisms well adapted to the design challenge of managing stormwater. Engaging local experts and practitioners, seven biological strategies were selected, design strategies extracted, and design concepts brainstormed for built-environment applications. A key output of this project was the development and publication of detailed project reporting and process guidelines, as well as detailed insights into challenges and lessons learnt, with a goal of building a foundation for future practice.
3.3. Thematic Coding Themes
In investigating challenges and priorities for system-level biomimicry in built-environment design, 12 key themes emerged from the thematic coding as described in the following paragraphs. These are also summarized (in alphabetical order) in Table 3
, including the contribution to theme development from interview and case-study data (represented as numbers of pages coded to each theme).
Changing worldview: in both the interviews and document analysis findings, there was recognition of the role that broader societal and industry contexts play in creating the conditions for success in these projects, beyond project-specific content and design approaches. Interviewees referred to an understanding of the built environment as part of the surrounding ecosystem, where “the structure of a building and a site is part of the structure and function of the surrounding ecosystem” (CS5), and, “the connection of built and natural environments, recognising that living systems are “complex, adaptive systems in dynamic non-equilibrium”, capable of self organisation, renewal and adaptation (CS5). This context provides a foundation for place-based design, including learning from the history of the place, with ‘nature as mentor and model’ to achieve locally attuned and sustainable design. The conceptualization of development and growth within dynamic contexts included an understanding that such development requires an ability to adapt to changing conditions over time and that the expectations of built-environment design will continue to change in line with shifts in public perceptions and standards.
Cost/funding: both the interview and document analyses highlighted references to cost and funding challenges in relation to funding the case-study projects, from availability of funding sources to budget overrun. Barriers to funding included, for public sector organisations, variability in the availability of tax-payer funding. In multiple cases, projects relied on pro-bono and volunteer efforts in order to support the project execution, often relying on enthusiastic project champions—“the team cheerfully volunteered the hours to deliver high quality products” (CS6). Budget overruns included unexpected expenses associated with the time required to frame and implement the biomimetic design process, particularly for pilot projects, with one interviewee noting “Because it’s a pilot project it will cost more money, it will take more time, and we are a taxpayer-based organisation so we have to be credible and fiscally responsible with taxpayers money” (CS3). For infrastructure applications, the high cost of innovation was identified as a key challenge, due in large part to the scale and long lifespan of infrastructure assets.
Developing metrics and benchmarks: establishing ‘Proof of concept’ was a key driver across multiple case-study projects, with an eagerness to test, refine, and provide evidence for the frameworks and metrics adopted, and a view to standardizing metrics and creating a catalogue for future projects. Various barriers and challenges emerged when quantitative metrics were attempted—“The vision is still very strong, but I think now we know a little bit more about the intensity of the design challenge that comes with it.” (CS4). Technical limitations included the availability of scientific literature to support the development of ecosystem baselines or performance metrics. Where information was available, it was at times in formats aligned with qualitative rather than quantitative metrics, thus project teams were required to navigate a balance of quantitative and qualitative metrics and performance targets. Interdisciplinary translation of the data and lexicon was also a challenge. Typically, project teams were required to investigate biological and ecological literature to identify information, data and metrics, before translating this to metrics and targets that could be understood and used by built-environment professionals. Limitations in available data often meant that the selected metrics were influenced more by information availability and ease as opposed to level of materiality or relevance for the project.
Engagement and education: several case-study projects demonstrated a strong focus on engagement, citing the importance of cross-disciplinary engagement and collaboration, including the establishment of a shared vision. For the most part, the focus was on internal engagement, ensuring that employees across the organisation were appropriately engaged and informed of the biomimetic design approach—“It was a huge educational opportunity for so many people to actually just learn what the field of biomimicry is and what it’s trying to do. And I think it definitely stimulated a lot of thought for how it could be applied outside of that specific project…” (CS3) and “What [Company A] has really helped me see, is how this is not just an engineering challenge. It’s a employee engagement challenge as well” (CS4). Workshops were widely used as engagement mechanisms, both to educate staff and external stakeholders on biomimicry and the biomimetic design process, as well as to conduct design charettes and collaboratively brainstorm biomimicry opportunities and design solutions for the project. Where engagement was not a project priority, this was identified by the project teams to be a limitation that could be improved in future iterations—“If we had the time and the staff, I would have gone back and made it a bigger deal” (CS4). It was also noted that while up-front engagement was strong in some projects, opportunities exist to plan for ongoing engagement, involvement and cultivation of interest after initial workshops.
Frameworks and Governance/Guidance:
in looking at enabling mechanisms and opportunities for broader uptake moving forward, projects identified the opportunity to align with building codes that support innovation (“building codes need to evolve towards an ecological building code that does represent the limitations of an ecosystem and those built systems that are intertwined within that system”
(CS4), and to link in with regional strategies, plans and policy positions—approaches already adopted in a number of the case-study projects. Transport agencies and natural resources/forest services were identified as key agencies at present, however it was noted that there exists a significant opportunity for city-level strategies to drive engagement, set priorities and establish requirements around these biomimicry frameworks and approaches “because then the design can really have context, when the city… adopts it
” (CS4). Current approaches often included aligning with corporate strategies, however additional opportunities exist to link in with rating schemes and frameworks such as the Living Building Challenge [26
] and the Sustainable Sites [27
Knowledge-sharing (Information availability and accessibility): limits to the availability of scientific literature and government information presented important and recurring challenges across the projects. Given the pilot nature of these initiatives, there was typically limited information available on prior application of the frameworks and tools in similar contexts. Significant resourcing was required to source, verify, filter, prioritise and translate scientific data and information into project-ready data—“The challenge that we had on this particular project that I hope we wouldn’t have as much on future projects is a lot of the available time was spent on research and not in my opinion on design” (CS4). Moving forward, recommendations included the development of a centralized database to support the applications of EPS, including ecosystem service information such as definitions, categories, and examples of qualitative and quantitative metrics and performance targets, to provide “some anchor, for everybody who wants to do this to say ‘This is how we’re going to define the metrics” (CS4). Furthermore, a best practice database organized by ecosystem service would help to consolidate tangible approaches to supporting ecosystem services through design and construction. Similar recommendations were made for the Life’s Principles and Genius of Place frameworks.
Multiple participants noted opportunities to create a more cohesive and consistent approach moving forward. This could be supported by sharing of lessons learnt, outcomes and process approaches. Project teams noted that data on prior projects, including cost/benefit analysis (“the availability of actual numbers of cost savings” (CS3)) and tangible performance outcomes, would enable them to build a more robust business case for adopting the biomimetic design process, as well as evidencing proof of concept and application—“They want to see that it’s been done somewhere else” (CS3).
Mainstreaming: documentation of methodologies and publication of project outcomes, including a list/taxonomy of best practices and opportunities was identified as a key opportunity to support mainstreaming of system-level biomimetic design approaches—“I would love to have this…list of best practices and green design organized by…ecosystem service for example.” (CS4) or “an app that can be easily accessed by builders” (CS5). Limited scaling has been achieved to date within the organisations involved in the case-study projects, and several challenges were identified, including the applicability and transferability of tools, data and processes across project types and locations. The inherently ‘place-based’ nature of these frameworks presented challenges to scaling and mainstreaming within organisations, with on interviewee noting “The more you take the actual key goals and metrics and move them to another place, you immediately impact the ability to perform to that” (CS4), however efforts were underway to address these and strike a balance between scalability and tailored solutions. Teams again noted the opportunity for collaborative knowledge-sharing to support broader uptake and mainstreaming of these approaches, as well as supporting the establishment of best practice guidance and communities of practice.
Market supply/demand: attempts to engage the industry in the biomimetic design process were met with varying levels of success. Participants in one project noted the difficulty associated with writing and framing the request for proposal (RFP) for a biomimetic design brief (“it took us a year to write the RFP because there weren’t a lot of examples, and we couldn’t consult with [Company B] about it, because we wanted to give them the ability to bid” (CS3), as well as challenges experienced by the market in responding to such RFPs. Contributing factors included the limited experience of the market in delivering biomimetic design solutions, the limited availability of biomimetic products and technical solutions, and the somewhat limited practitioner and expert networks to call on. In a given location or discipline, for example, the small number of biomimicry professionals could mean that all relevant experts are in fact tendering for the project, leaving none of these professionals available to provide mentoring or guidance to the organisation scoping and developing the RFP. Nonetheless, the process was seen as an important early step in introducing key concepts, piloting engagement approaches, establishing an organisation as a thought leader and beginning to articulate a vision for the industry.
Organisational culture: interview findings highlighted organisational culture as important to both the successes and challenges of the case-study projects, with 11 interviewees across 5 case studies making specific mention of this aspect. Challenges included conflict between regulators and developers, as well as internal conflict within project teams and organisations. In some cases, the risk-averse nature of engineering disciplines was highlighted as a key challenge to overcome. This included a strong cultural predisposition towards least cost, highest efficiency and lowest risk approaches—“how do we do the minimum or most efficient minimum amount of work for a predetermined result, and I don’t think that leaves a lot of room for creativity” (CS3). In one organisation with a well-established innovation culture, it was noted that the organisation allowed the project the space required to invest in research, exploration, scoping and process refinement without seeing this additional time investment as a project failure, as it was perceived on other case-study projects. According to one interviewee, “What we’ve been seeking is buy-in, to fund and explore an idea, which in our company is not challenging” (CS4), and an external consultant from that project stating that the company “has a real strong culture of empowering the individual” (CS4).
Project management: regarding project management, internal engagement and support was noted as both a priority and a challenge, with difficulties in managing communication and working relationships between different disciplines, including ecologists and engineers, who may not often typically collaborate in detail on design projects. Once established, however, it was noted that these cross-disciplinary relationships provided significant and tangible benefits to project delivery and the identification of design solutions. The importance of targeted team-building exercises was also recognised, including early establishment of connections and interactions between team members and identification of team members’ strengths, skills and levels of expertise. Recommendations also included leveraging key individual skills, clearly defining accountabilities and engaging appropriate experts from each relevant discipline. Respondents noted the importance of engaging trained biomimicry professionals to provide biomimicry advice, training and facilitation throughout the project. Handover from design teams to engineering, construction and operation teams was cited as a priority area that, if managed poorly, resulted in a significant loss of knowledge and expertise across the project cycle.
Scoping and boundaries: establishing the project boundaries and scope was repeatedly highlighted as a project challenge. In many cases, this was due to the complex, adaptive and dynamic nature of ecosystems, where it was impractical or unfeasible to delineate the project site from its upstream and downstream ecosystems and built environments, or to reflect seasonal or other temporal changes and boundaries. Reflecting systems complexity was identified as a key challenge, in particular for EPS, where it was recognised that while efforts were made to reflect ecosystem cycles and interrelationships, final boundaries and metrics were necessarily reductive.
The importance of clearly defining “a realistic scope at the start” (CS3) of the project was referenced as a key learning. Design workshops that engaged a wide range of stakeholders and disciplines often generated a multitude of design ideas and opportunities; however, many were deemed to be unfeasible, outside of budget or unaligned with technological or market readiness. For these reasons, early clarification of design parameters, limitations and boundaries were proposed for future projects. This extended to accepting the varying degrees of biomimetic solutions, from entry-level to ideal, recognising that the ideal solutions may not be feasible in the first iteration. One interviewee highlighted that while such gradients are accepted within green building and infrastructure (e.g., the varying levels of achievement in industry rating schemes), opportunities to pursue ‘partial’ or ‘limited’ biomimicry were unclear and could result in solutions that were not truly biomimetic. Balancing scientific and technological rigour with project and organisational limitations and resource constraints was identified as a primary challenge across the case-study projects. While participants recognised the need for streamlining, setting boundaries and making assumptions in the absence of robust data, there was debate around the extent to which this could occur before the robustness and defensibility of the project was jeopardized.
Sustainability leadership: the interview findings highlighted that a strong desire for sustainability leadership was a prominent motivating factor behind multiple case-study projects. This included a desire to leave a “sustainability legacy” as well as an eagerness to help shift respective industries and sectors forward by piloting and providing proof-of-concept for new and emerging ideas and approaches—“we individually can’t solve the challenges of climate change, we need to share our thinking with other people” (CS1). Alignment with corporate values around sustainability and environmental protection were also cited by interviewees as drivers for adopting the biomimetic design approach, as well as an eagerness to shift beyond business as usual approaches and to push the boundaries of current sustainability efforts. For example, “They want to be thought leaders, and not only thought leaders they want action, and they want to be truly leaders in the field” (CS4). Reputational and marketing benefits of sustainability-oriented projects were also recognised and identified as important benefits of adopting a leadership position, particularly where such projects often required additional up-front resourcing and investment.