As most of you are probably aware, the Maker’s Bill of Rights is a manifesto for those who want the freedom to tinker with, remake, repair, recombine, and upgrade the things they own. Published by Make: in 2005, it articulates a list of 17 commandments that manufacturers should follow to make their products repairable and hackable.
When I started writing this series last year, Gretchen Hooker of the Biomimicry Institute and I began an interesting conversation about the Maker’s Bill of Rights and what it has in common with biomimicry and a set of biomimetic sustainable design guidelines called Life’s Principles. We’ve been mulling over these ideas for a few months and thought now would be a good time to share them with you.
First of all, we find the Maker’s Bill of Rights interesting because it’s largely about creating a resilient, open, and cooperative system — and that’s how life works, too. The specific commandments are a bit biased toward electronic design, but if we look at the underlying themes we find some core principles that could be applied much more broadly, and fit well into a biomimetic framework.
To show you what we mean, we’ve distilled the Bill of Rights down to the following four main directives, and discuss how each compares to how life works:
Share Information Freely
As we all know, in a competitive market place, many companies compete by keeping secrets. But in nature, organisms and ecosystems favor cooperation over competition. Sure, there’s competition in the short-term, but the most stable state is when organisms cooperate. In nature, cooperation results in innovation, which leads to greater diversity, which in turn leads to greater resiliency.
Sharing information also does something else we find in nature all the time: It uses feedback loops. One result of providing transparent information would be hearing back from users about how well the product or an owner’s manual worked for them (or didn’t), what they changed or replaced, and then incorporating that information into innovative new products.
Enable Disassembly, Reassembly, Repair, and Upcycling
Whereas many consumer products are actively designed to keep consumers from repairing or modifying them (see Kyle Wiens article in Make:40, the Right to Repair) nature favors the ability to repair and renew.
Not only does life not toss out what still has value, it doesn’t toss out anything. That’s manifested in this directive — we should be able to repair and upcycle our products, and we should therefore design for disassembly and reassembly. This ultimately results in much less energy and materials being used to make new products, mirroring how life optimizes its use of energy and materials.
Inevitably, many products we make or purchase will reach the end of their lives, either due to mechanical failure or outdated technology. We could throw a product out and start over, or we can accept that these changes occur and plan for those events, making parts easily replaceable and upgradable. Life is resilient to dynamic environments and conditions; that is, it’s adapted to be able to survive disturbances and disruptions. This directive in particular is similar to how life maintains its integrity through self-renewal.
Use Standardized Tools and Resources
While many companies like to differentiate themselves with proprietary technologies and specialized assembly tools, life favors relatively simple, universal building blocks over one-off solutions. Organisms use common building materials, such as the biopolymers chitin and keratin, to create a wide diversity of forms. These building materials meet multiple functions such as waterproofing and providing color and hardness.
In addition to using these universal building blocks, life uses modular and nested components—think of the cells in our bodies, the hexagonal components of beehives, the hierarchical structure of hair, or the microenvironments that are nested within larger ecosystems.
Be Reconfigurable/ Interchangeable
In the end, what makers really want are products that can work with each other in new and exciting combinations. This echoes how organisms and ecosystems favor cooperation and compatible building blocks. Life is interconnected and interrelated, and we can strive to make our parts, products, and systems do the same.
Life’s Principles can be used to find opportunities for creating more sustainable designs. For example, an adaptation life exhibits is creating amazing materials using low-energy processes. The nacre of an abalone shell is 200 times stronger than our toughest ceramics, yet instead of being heated to high temperatures, abalones construct their shells out of minerals pulled out of seawater at seawater temperature. The abalone is also an example of how life uses energy and materials that are common and readily available, not rare and from far away.
Another example is the use of chemistry that is not harmful to cells, tissues, and the environment. The rapid rise of 3D printing is one of those situations where we might need to think about life’s chemistry. Are we going to go crazy with all this new technology, as we have with our electronics, and turn a blind eye to the impact of chemicals on our environment and health? Or can we learn from nature’s chemistry how to lessen our impacts?
By comparing the Maker’s Bill of Rights to Life’s Principles, we’ve found a lot of commonalities. We think that makers are on the right track by advocating an open, resilient product system, because that system in the end supports sustainability goals. This means disrupting the current model, creating a new context for a more evolutionary, collaborative, and dynamic product system that will help us better fit into earth’s ecosystems.
Thanks to Gretchen Hooker, the Biomimicry Institute, for cooperating with me on this post.