Loughborough University
Thesis-2020-Rovalo.pdf (46.91 MB)

Discovering nature’s design principles with prototypes: a mixed methods sequential explanatory study of the use of physical modelling among biomimicry practitioners to manage knowledge transfer and collaboration challenges in biomimicry

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posted on 2020-05-06, 10:39 authored by Erin Leitch
Biomimicry is a form of design by analogy that derives functional principles from biology for application to design. A key challenge faced by practitioners is making the significant conceptual leap between these two distant domains. The collaborative demands of biomimicry between biologists and designers can be costly and time consuming. However, evaluation and collaboration are common challenges in design practice and frequently addressed through prototyping. This study investigates the utility of prototyping in the biomimicry design process.

A survey exploring current practices of 270 respondents showed that prototypes were underutilized in a biomimicry context when compared to their typical ubiquity in design practice. Findings showed that 75% of those that reported using prototypes also reported using their own personal process for dealing with those key challenges. Following the survey, ten semi-structured interviews provided detailed accounts of biomimicry project prototypes resulting in four across-case themes: (1) Approximation; (2) The Prototyping Principle; (3) Synthesis and Testing; and (4) Validation.

Based on the study’s findings, a two novel approaches to biomimicry through prototyping were identified. The first is an abstraction and transfer process based on form-finding and collaborative performance evaluation described as Performance Based Abstraction. The second novel approach was described as a Fixed Prototyping Principle where the project is initiated by searching for how nature makes use of specific materials and fabrication methods. Prototypes were also found to have utility as boundary objects to develop a shared mental model between biologists and designers, or, in some cases, to take a self-checking approach to reduce collaboration. The purpose of prototypes in biomimicry are similar to those of design in general, but specific nuances of the biomimicry context are described as well as some of the factors that may contribute to its underutilization in a biomimicry context.

This research concludes that prototyping can be used earlier in the biomimicry process to not only develop a design concept but to abstract the biology into a feasible design principle. By incorporating prototypes into knowledge transfer and collaboration tasks, biomimicry practitioners can manage risks of poor alignment between collaborators in biology and design and uncertainty of the actual performance of hypothesized biomimicry design principles. Prototyping as a designerly skill set should be taught and utilized among biomimicry practitioners in order to effectively do biomimicry in three-dimensional design.



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Loughborough University

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© Erin Rovalo

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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John McCardle ; Mark Evans

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  • PhD

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  • Doctoral

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