From Neuroscience to Nature’s Inspiration

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Conversation with Arndt Pechstein, founder of Biomimicry Germany

Conducted 13th March 2015

Dear Arndt, wonderful that you are taking the time for this conversation. From the moment I read a short bio that explained that part of your journey was a PhD in neuroscience, a certificate in biomimicry and being a Design Thinking coach I felt so privileged to have been introduced, and could not wait to ask a few questions. Can you share a little what motivated the course of your journey?

I studied biochemistry/ biotechnology and followed that up with a PhD in neuroscience. This meant that what ever I was doing was related to basic research and always related to understanding: the basic mechanisms of biology, of certain aspects within cells within the nervous system; it was never something close to an application.

While I have been enjoying the practical work and understanding processes, what bugged me the most in this kind of academic and research environment was the fragmented and siloed thinking. Despite the fact that interdisciplinary collaboration is often a key aspect in research proposals, it is something that was not lived in practice at all, not across disciplines, not even between departments. Connected to the lack of serious collaboration is something I refer to as ‘fast science’. As there is a lot of competition amongst researchers as everyone is applying for the same, limited research grants, everyone is keen on getting results fast, and publishing quickly. However, it is actually proven that such speed lowers the quality and validity of science, resulting in the worrying fact that not everything that is published is true and reproducible; indeed, there is an alarming amount of research that is not reproducible.

A second aspect that bugged me was around communication – or rather a lack thereof.There are several aspects to it. The first is that I believe that basic research should translate into something applied and ‘translated’ into different contexts; this is not how much of basic research is being conducted today. A second aspect is that those who are paying for much of the basic research – the tax payer – do not have access to the research outcomes. Much of such research is being published in ‘closed’ journals and even if it is not, if it is easily available it is not so easily understood as it is written in highly technical language that can only be deciphered by insiders.

Last and most importantly: I was asking myself, what is the impact of the work I do? Is it enough as a good scientist to publish? Is this something that I want to dedicate my life to? Especially in light of a global system in which so many changes are urgently needed: people are starving, the environment is being destroyed; resources are running out. I felt that I needed to put my resources into these urgent systems rather than focusing on basic research and that my personal role should be a more active one. I want to engage with people, work with people, inspire them, transfer and spread my enthusiasm for certain topics.

Once you realised that, how did you go about translating intent into reality?

It was a really long process. During my PhD work I noticed some of the conditions of working in science: it was certainly not 9-5; while that is not an issue per se, it becomes one if you don’t love what you do and if it is a high pressure low reward context. Science has inherently a lot of failure which means that you need to have a lot of resilience. Even – or particularly – when you have interesting results you have to battle politics and long time frames so by the time you publish you don’t really care any more; you are just frustrated and tired of all the explaining etc. So I experienced it as a highly competitive environment in which it is difficult to thrive and where failure is not allowed. However, failure is such an important aspect for learning and creativity, and we need to embrace it! Fail early and learn from it.

The way you describe the attitude to failure in science immediately reminds me of senior management’s attitude towards failure. Most senior managers will say they want more innovation yet if you really want innovation you need to take risks, experiment and explore untrodden paths; without it you will never really discover anything truly new. And of course this invariably involves some dead ends and failures.

You need to give people freedom in terms of thinking and in terms of responsibilities in order to explore things; if you don’t, creativity and innovation cannot thrive.

So what did you do?

It actually took me a few years to seriously sit down and look at my options. I knew that I did not really want to go into industry. What I was interested was something around communication and science yet somehow never found anything really tangible, nothing that really grabbed my attention. Eventually I sat down with my then girlfriend, now wife, creating a mindmap of what I do and don’t want to do, what I think I am good at, and what other people think I am good at (which is not necessarily the same…), trying to figure out where all of this could take me.

In the end it was a coincidence; I stumbled across an article on biomimicry and even though I read it just briefly I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do. At the time I was not quite sure about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ but felt that it brought together all the aspects I felt so passionate about: science, creativity, collaboration, and potentially significant impact on the world’s challenges.

Investigating how to learn more about it I came across Biomimicry 3.8, a US-based organisation that was also offering a certification programme. Not deterred by the sound of exclusivity I applied, having to explain why I felt I was suitable and what I had to contribute. In April 2012 I started the programme which combined several in-person meetings with the other 19 participants in Boston with weekly online lectures and assignments.The programme definitely validated what I thought about and hoped for from Biomimicry.

How then did Design Thinking come into it?

That was a bit later. Also in 2012 and together with some friends I founded Biomimicry Germany, a not-for-profit organisation working on spreading Biomimicry in public and education as well as my agency – phi360 – offering professional training and coaching. Being based in Berlin I knew about the School of Design Thinking, the D-School, at the HPI in Potsdam and had an overview of what they were doing. Given that biomimicry is based on a very similar design approach process-wise, I was committed to merging these two fields. Design Thinking as a great method for human-centered innovation is not focused on sustainability by definition; bringing Biomimicry and Design Thinking together would ultimately generate a new quality of design and problem solving. During an Open Day in February 2013 I started talking to Claudia Nicolai, the academic director of the D-School about what I was doing and the fit I saw.Thanks to her curiosity and open-mindedness, I ended up running a 1⁄2 day workshop May the same year for students and faculty – who loved it. It was only half a year later that I started working as a coach at the D-School to bring in the sustainability/ biomimicry mindset.

I guess there is no such thing as a ‘typical project’ for you. Could you share a recent or current project that really inspired you ?

Actually, three come to mind.The first is a project where we took biomimicry into a primary school, spending 2 hours per week with them for 6 weeks. We found that it was actually rather challenging working with small kids! Mainly because I had never done it before and hence did not have the relevant pedagogic backdrop.While the challenge with adults is to get them back into a creative mindset, the kids are already there – but their attention span is shorter and you need to engage with them in a different way, having to gamify things even more. We covered a number of different topics such as sustainability, systems thinking, energy efficiency & transport. To give you an example, to prepare for one session we asked the kids to collect and bring some fruit and vegetable packaging to class; we then looked at where the fruit came from. Was it in season? If it was in season, was it grown locally or brought in from somewhere else? If it was imported, why would one do so? Nature would not transport things around the globe in such a way; using locally grown food makes so much more sense, it saves energy spent on transportation. We felt that we were not only impacting the kids but that as a side effect we also impacted their parents. Another topic we talked about was insulation. How does nature do it – hair / fur. We then asked the kids to build a shed applying some of the principles we had discussed in class. It was always: how does nature deal with this? How can we apply our insights and learning in a real life context.

I think this is so important, to immediately put things into practice – and I feel this is something that not only primary education but even more so management education is sadly lacking. We may have case studies and there are increasing attempts to work on ‘life projects’ yet there still seems to be a long way to go to integrate and anchor class room learning in the daily context for managers.

Absolutely agree; that’s why I have for example designed a game to illustrate how self-organisation works. (I actually tested it with the guests of my after wedding party!). It is quite simple: you have different teams, and you have pegs in different colours; People try to secretly attach the pegs on the other teams’ clothes without being tagged themselves. Soon, some team members will run out of pegs. How do they organise, how do they adjust their strategies? Very simple rules create very complex “swarm” behaviours.That’s what we call emergence in biology.

A second project was a workshop to develop an impact strategy for Cambridge University here in the UK and at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden. This was really close to my heart as it was building a bridge between education and real outreach: it was about how the universities could have a greater impact, beyond their boundaries, and how to work together creatively across departments and sectors. Here, I was able to draw on both Design Thinking and Biomimicry.

Having talked about the challenges of across-boundary collaboration earlier, what has made just such collaboration possible in this instance? Did the leaders of the universities suggest it? Is it because the right tools had become available? Was it a shared purpose?

I would say it was mainly a leadership decision which enabled it. It involved an initiative in Stockholm, the OpenLab. The Scandinavian countries are always spearheading such ideas, be it more social endeavours or environmental initiatives. The OpenLab is a joint initiative of the City of Stockholm, Stockholm County Council, Stockholm County Administrative Board, and Stockholm’s four main Universities: the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Södertörn University. Openlab is a creative centre that provides opportunities for finding solutions to challenges in society such as the ageing population and sustainable city growth and development. Funded jointly by these organisations they run workshops and do projects in which students from the four different universities work together. Given that Cambridge university already is a step further in having started connecting science to impact, Cambridge and Stockholm leaders came together to co-create ideas and strategies and learn from each other. The workshop I led was an overarching process and facilitated that design process – linking research, societal impact and sustainable, life-centred innovation.

So someone with the vision and understanding for the need was enabling it to happen and that’s what drew people in?

Yes; you need a few committed people to get things moving , and it helps if these people are at the top so people are listening to what they have to say.

Education has always been a particular focus of my attention, and concern too. Clearly, we need new and different ways to educate if we are to prepare the coming generations for the world we have created for them. One of my concerns is often: where will the teacher come from! Do those currently teaching have the mindset that is required to prepare for the future? In a world where any piece of information, much knowledge can be accessed within seconds, what is the role of teachers – and education? – There is a lovely animation of a talk Sir Ken Robinson gave at the RSA that is worth watching in this context. – I feel that the collaboration, cross referencing and integration – the holistic / systemic approach I believe is required does not sit too well with current teacher education and evaluation. What are your thoughts and have you seen any new / different approaches in this area? Where to start?

Yes it is difficult with the current teachers; the current conditioning – I think of it as conditioning rather than teaching – has happened through the old system. In order to move forward, people have to unlearn and relearn how to teach, and how people should be educated.We need to train teachers in how to change curricula and how to incentivise and work in more collaborative ways. This means we need to move away from individual testing and our standardised batch education which breaks down all creativity.

Indeed! I always like to say that if we would not teach creativity out of children we would not struggle so much in organisations go get it back into people.

Absolutely right! Current standardisation and conditioning have made people believe that they are not creative – even though they are. They are still creative yet they don’t apply it because they are lacking both the confidence and the methods. Regaining that confidence that we lost while we grew up is not hard at all; all it needs is the conviction that it is possible and some tools to practise.This not only leads to much quicker successes, it is much more fun too. Once they have overcome the initial barrier it is easier to get them to do it again and again.

It is like breaking through an invisible barrier. I believe it has also to do with being given permission. People seem to feel that if they laugh and have fun at work they are not taking it seriously. There are some deeply engrained ways of thinking about what is proper in a certain context and what is not.

The sad thing is, under the current mode of education, those people who are most creative are the ones who are not fitting into the analytical, fragmented way of learning and thinking and suffer the most. Ironically, they are just the ones we need the most if we want to solve the kind of complex problems we are facing today, because these complex problems cannot be solved through analysis and traditional approaches; they have to be solved in a divergent, creative, and cross-disciplinary fashion. That is why we are struggling so much with the problems we are currently facing: we can see the problems but we cannot solve them because we are trying to solve with the same mindset that has created them – as already pointed out by Einstein in his well known quote.

Indeed! You mentioned three projects, the first your involvement in primary school education, the second about across-university collaboration and impact, and the third?

Ah yes. Last year I worked on a team taking part in Audi’s Urban Future Initiative, the particular topic we were working on was the future of mobility; how could mobility look like in a city in 30 years time, considering that more and more people will have moved into major cities, with the resulting increase in traffic, pollution, noise and all these side effects.

In our team, we were not thinking about what a future car might look like, but how we might deal with mobility more generally. This notion was supported by Audi but even more so our intention to move away from thinking about cars in favour of thinking about the wider system.We were asking ourselves how we could generate a more liveable environment in the city, how we could leverage collaboration between private and public, how can we blur the boundary between individual and public transport, and in the process create new social opportunities and regain the urban space for public use. If you look at cities now, everything is concrete – 60% of the public space not covered by buildings is used by cars, stationary or driving. If we look at the utilisation rate of cars it is 5%! At the system level it is crazy! Cars use up all the space, tie up so many resources that are not really being used. During rush hour in Berlin up to 1⁄3 of traffic is just drivers looking for parking space. This is crazy and such a system would never survive in nature, it would break down in a very short time. It is just not sustainable and it does not make any sense.Yet if you think about where the focus today is: it is about tinkering with fuel consumption and creating more efficient lighting. We were perhaps a little too ambitious and too radical with our submission for a still fairly traditional car company, which meant that we did not win. Of course we wanted to win but we did not want to compromise on the message we wanted to send.This was a very important thing for us to do. Always start with the ideal and then only compromise as little as necessary to make it happen!

We definitely need more people who think beyond the moment, beyond wining right now and the immediate reward; we need more people who understand that right now it is more important to consider the implications for the long run. A really fascinating project and for those who would like to find out more about the proposition of Arndt and his colleagues, here a link that describes the project and and a short video.

That brings me to my last question. I just love the way you bring Biomimicry, Design Thinking and System Dynamics together, and bring them to bear on the challenges we face today. How do people react to that? How do business people, particularly people in large established organisations react to your approach? Are they ready to embrace it and engage with it?

I have not been working with corporate that long, so my sample is limited. What I find though is that they are most interested to hear about biomimicry and its potential. I believe there are several reasons. Firstly, it is still new. Secondly, biomimicry can change everything from products to services. Plenty amazing and very convincing case studies that are out there make them realise this potential.

I actually try to avoid talking about sustainability – it is something we humans have invented! Nature does not need to talk about it, it simply is sustainable. I also believe that the way sustainability is currently defined is not enough. The widely used definition just says that we should not compromise the future in the sense that we should not do things that compromise future generations ability to live on this planet. Sustainability should incorporate more than that; rather than aiming for a zero negative impact why don’t we talk about a net positive outcome? Why can we not think about having a positive footprint rather than not having a negative one? If even a tree can, why can’t we?

Whenever you talk about these things and say that sustainability and revenue streams are not mutually exclusive, that is something that sounds interesting, especially if you have case studies that support that. If you show statistics of the availability of rare metals and rare earths, and show that we are beyond peak for most of these substances and that prices are only going up, yet we are not recycling these materials from the products we use; that gets their attention. They start to appreciate the opportunity that lies in retaining ownership of products rather than transferring ownership to the customer because retaining ownership of the products means retaining control of the raw materials. It also means that you are creating more touch points and contacts with your customers. So why not be more responsible, and why not take more care of the resources? Why not move to a business model that might cannibalise your current business model but will ultimately lead to a more economically sustainable future for your business. People see that and are open to listen.

What advice would you have for someone who would like to start this journey into holistic thinking and sustainable innovation, and understand better how Design Thinking and Biomimicry can help with that – in addition to contacting you of course :-)?

There is an entire global network out there, including Biomimicry 3.8 and an increasing number of similar organisation within European Countries. Another good place to look is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In terms of books I can recommend the following:

  • ‘Biomimicry:Innovation inspired by nature’ by the fonder of the movement, Janine Benyus (see also
  • ‘The ecology of commerce’ by Paul Hawken who was also co-author of ‘Natural capitalism: creating the next industrial revolution’ which he wrote together with Amory Lovins (see also
  • ‘Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things’ by Michael Braungart and William McDonough (see also
  • For those who would like to read a little more there is also ‘The shark’s paintbrush’ by Jay Harman (see also

Absolutely fantastic, Arndt, thank you very much.

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