Arts college explores biomimicry as a tool for sustainable industrial design
Students more aware of their responsibility for creating a sustainable future, says professor

An industrial design class at the Cleveland Institute for the Arts is exploring the use of biomimicry as a tool for designing a more sustainable system along the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio.

Professor of industrial design Doug Paige is working with a group of students on a project for the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission that involves designing elements into the current Cuyahoga River system to make it more conducive to life.

A core issue of the river is the threat to fish habitat posed by the six miles of steel bulkheads running up the waterway to Lake Erie. Young fish have a hard time surviving up to the lake as there is no natural place for them to rest, hide and eat.

The county has attempted various designs to help the fish but success has been limited.

The Cleveland Institute design class is now tackling the challenge through the use of biomimicry, which involves the adaptation of patterns and processes found in nature to provide solutions.

While biomimicry has gained a lot of attention for the innovative solutions specific organisms offer up for various design challenges, it also involves studying whole natural systems to find answers.

This is the approach Paige and his class are taking for the semester-long project. They are studying the natural system of the river and valley, bringing in a river systems expert and touring the site, as they seek to get a sense of “what is happening, how does the natural system work, where is that breaking down (and) and how can we emulate what’s working.”

They are not looking to restore the entire waterway, but to “bring in some of those elements that happen in the natural river and still do it in conjunction with steel bulkheads and shipping ongoing right now,” says Paige.

Northeast Ohio is fast becoming a frontrunner in the biomimicry movement, convening interested players in June with biomimicry guru Janine Benyus to explore the formation of a regional biomimicry action network and biomimicry centre. The Cuyahoga County Planning Commission is part of this dialogue and activity.

Paige, who has also been involved, says it was through hearing from Benyus that he decided to introduce the biomimicry approach for the design unit project at the college.

“I see biomimicry as really an element of sustainability,” he says. “It’s the reason we would choose to work in this realm of studying nature, to look for better solutions, which often times comes down to better use of materials, better energy savings.”

As he looks to the future of industrial design, Paige says what gives him hope is that he has observed more students display a greater awareness of their responsibility as industrial designers for contributing to a sustainable future.

“If you go back just 10 years and less, designers were pretty much about making cool stuff and getting it into a museum. . . They weren’t really thinking about the long-term impact of what they make,” says Paige.

He notes he and fellow professors at the Cleveland Institute of the Arts have also begun to emphasize the sustainability perspective more with students in recent years.

The message he tries to put forward to the industrial designers of the future is “we should make sure that whatever we’re doing is meaningful and thoughtful and has long-term potential, and, if it has an end of life, that it can be recycled and reused so it doesn’t end up in a landfill.”

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