TED Talk: Michael Pawlyn – Using nature’s genius in architecture

Seminars are a great way to learn about the latest research direct from the horse’s mouth. Academics are constantly traversing the country to give invited talks at various universities and colleges.  During their visits, they meet with other professors to exchange ideas in a sort of research cross-pollination.  Then they stand in front of an audience of 50-500 (the size depends on how famous they are and winning a Nobel automatically upgrades them to the big lecture hall) and sum up an exciting project or two that they’re working on.  Sometimes the speaker will show unpublished data, which is very compelling because it’s like he or she is telling you a secret.  At the very least, you learn about cutting-edge research and where a field of science is going.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) began as yearly conferences in the 80s and 90s, but it has risen to prominence over the past few years thanks to our friend, the Internet.  You can watch TED talks on their website, iTunes, iPod, iPad, Netflix, etc.  The revolutionary part of TED talks is not in their availability, however; the presenters always talk in “big picture” terms.  One problem with seminars is that speakers can get caught up in minutia, which is problematic for neophytes.  TED speakers show their most impactful work and ideas, and it’s nearly always inspiring or moving.

As an undergrad, I never attended a seminar outside of a conference.  I attribute this to not knowing when/where they occurred.  It’s a real shame that my professors didn’t utilize these opportunities to move beyond the textbook.  Now with TED talks, seminars can happen on demand with nearly any topic from the sciences to the humanities.  Each talk comprises a couple major points, but they can be used for demonstration purposes for students.  I plan to share interesting and potentially useful TED talks with ideas for how they can be used in the classroom.

Michael Pawlyn – Using nature’s genius in architecture

Michael Pawlyn is not your usual architect.  He doesn’t draw up plans for a suburban subdivision or a squat office building.  He draws inspiration from the natural world, not only for pleasing aesthetics but also to save energy and cost.  Nature has billions of years of experience under her belt, so we should take a page from her book to help build our future.

Pawlyn illustrates this point with a few examples of biomimicry.  Taking it a step further, he discusses replicating entire ecosystems to make “closed loop” resource models.  Humans make a lot of waste in our day to day activities, but if we could utilize this waste as a resource instead of hiding, burning or burying it, we would protect the environment and save money.  His Mobius Project is a restaurant in a greenhouse where food scraps are composted to produce heat and electricity.  Waste water is treated by plants and microorganisms to become fresh water.  Fish are raised on compost and worms and eventually served in the restaurant.  A cafe would recycle its coffee grounds to grow mushrooms to also feed into the restaurant.  Food that makes waste that makes more food.

His fight against Saharan desertification (not the process of turning things into chocolate cake, that’s dessertification) pushes sustainable design even further into restorative design.  By drawing on the desert’s abundant sunshine, Pawlyn proposes a vision of solar-powered oases whereby we can turn arid landscapes into farms and jungles.

This TED talk emphasizes thoughtful design using multidisciplinary sources of inspiration.  We can solve many of our current environmental, hunger and power problems by working with biology.  Show this talk to students (or assign it as homework) to demonstrate innovation in solving environmental issues.  There is an art and a beauty to crafting buildings and systems.  It’s also a good example that humans can use biomimicry, albeit in a different way than other organisms.  We can connect people to their food and the environment to make them part of the sustainability movement.

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