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Aspiring to Improve the World Through a Career in Sustainable Design, Part 3

Image credit: Stefanie Koehler

In this three-part mini-series, Core77's Stefanie Koehler shares her experiences in bringing a sustainability focus into her work. Read parts one and two

During the 2012–13 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge (BSDC) competition, I discovered that solving humanity's biggest design challenges requires new skills applied within a comprehensive framework that integrates sustainability. I gained a deeper understanding of the Buckminster Fuller Institute's tenet of what Fuller described as "comprehensive anticipatory design scientists" (Fuller, 1999).

Learning from Nature

Biomimicry, the practice of emulating models and strategies found in nature, provides designers with tools for seeing and learning from nature in new ways (Biomimicry 3.8 Institute), serving to both embed an ethos of sustainability and potentially inspire radical thinking.

Pine cone

For the competition, I explored the use of biomimicry as a process for creating a sustainable product as well as a scalable social enterprise idea. Under the inspirational guidance of Denise Deluca, co-founder and director of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI), this work ultimately grew from my Master's thesis project.

My design concept was a water treatment system called SolDrop. My team went on to become the only US finalists in the global 2013 BSDC and I had the honor of presenting at the Biomimicry Education Summit and Global Conference in Boston that year.


From Pine Needles to Social Enterprise

Upon first looking to Mother Nature as a mentor, I started with getting curious while walking through a coastal forest in Oregon. I wanted to know how the clouds were forming in the forest and if I could glean insight into water management strategies. After a quick search on, I discovered that pine needles use the strategy of high surface area to perform the function of collecting moisture.

Dozens of searches and many design iterations later, I learned that nature performs multiple functions using various strategies on all surface, structure and systems levels. Similar to the pine needles, an elephant's wrinkly skin and several desert plants, use the strategy of high surface area, to perform varied functions. Amongst these multi-functional strategies I found several patterns that occurred across many biological organisms.

The biomimetic design idea, SolDrop, is based on the concept of using several modular solar distillation "pods," in a decentralized fashion, to provide a water treatment option that may be affordable for people in impoverished areas. Ideally, SolDrop solar still "pods" are made from recycled plastic bottles or other locally available materials that can be found and maintained locally, and used to purify water in someone's home.


By integrating several bio-inspired strategies and practicing the methods of biomimicry (as applied to design), I went from having an inspiration-level understanding to gaining a deep understanding of biomimicry thinking as a problem-solving framework. This led to continued 'a-ha's' in how I might create a sustainable product innovation and a social enterprise that enriches the ecosystem with good business.

Lessons I Learned

The design challenge and thesis experience allowed me to see that biomimicry offers designers many things:

  • A toolkit for innovative and a methodology to address design challenges in a new way
  • A deeper understanding of sustainability and whole systems thinking through exploring biological strategies
  • A means to embed an ethos of sustainability into design
  • A unique perspective when designing social solutions and the business ecosystem
  • A greater connection to nature, other people, the dynamic living world — in short, the interconnectedness of everything

In retrospect, I took far more away from studying, practicing and making biomimicry thinking a part of my daily habits than I had ever anticipated. Initially I thought I'd just be tackling the product as a designer, but soon shifted to creating a water treatment option that also engages local communities and enhances local economies for long-term positive impact.

This post first appeared on the Core77 blog on March 5, 2014.

Fuller, R.Buckminster. Your Private Sky: The Art of Design Science. Ed. Joachim Krausse; Claude Lichtenstein. Baden: Lars Muller, 1999.

Stefanie is a sustainable design strategist at Biomimicry for Creative Innovation in Portland, OR. Her specialties include systems thinking and sustainable product and service development, synthesizing complex information into understandable visual communication of concepts, and quickly learning while… [Read more about Stefanie Koehler]

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