Conversation at the Conservatory

Conversation at the Conservatory

The Garden of Secrets Launch for San Francisco Design Week

Prof. Philip B. Stark, Douglas Justice & Leon Wang
Lana Sutherland
Flowery Earl Grey

About this Session

On June 27 2019, TEALEAVES officially launched The Garden of Secrets documentary. The screening was followed by an intimate panel discussion moderated by TEALEAVES CEO, Lana Sutherland, with experts from UBC Botanical Garden, UC Berkeley, Singularity University and Biomimicry 3.8, held at the beautiful San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers.

UN Sustainable Design Goals Addressed

Why is it important to research the adaptations of plants through history? What can we learn?

Philip B. Stark: There’s got to be 50 different great answers to that question. At least. You’ve got one answer here [The Garden of Secrets documentary], which is to inspire design in various ways. Others are to understand the natural processes around us and appreciate the beauty of it and understand what we’re a piece of. I argue that some of this is to understand how we’re actually going to survive on a changing planet because as it changes, we need to adapt to it.

Leon Wang: From a biomimicry perspective, biomimicry is everything from literal to metaphorical. In the video, you see a lot of the literal aspects of how you can emulate plants, but there’s also this metaphorical piece of how we understand plants as a system and how they interact and support each other and communicate, which can also be a really good metaphor for our own organizations and communities.

If you look at old growth forests, each of those trees are connected underneath through an underground network of signals and not just signals with respect to chemistry but also being able to support each other by sending food or sending other resources where it’s needed. For biomimicry, it’s all about quieting human cleverness and starting to shift from learning about, to learning from the natural world.

Douglas Justice: I think we take photosynthesis for granted. When you consider that, what’s happening is that a photon of light is basically causing a reaction that’s happening in a thousandth of a second and creating chemical energy. Not investigating that, I think, is crazy. I think we’re crazy not to look to nature to not only solve the problems but to understand how things work. I think we have very little understanding of how things actually work and to me, that’s not daunting, that’s exciting. That’s really really empowering to know that we’re just on the edge of that kind of discovery.

How does nature inform the built environment?

Leon Wang: The most exciting thing for me that’s been going on right now, and Janine Benyus is working very heavily on this, is generocities. What they mean by this is: how do we begin to envision our built environment as functionally indistinguishable from the ecosystems that are surrounding it? What if we could take that further and make sure that just like in ecosystems, the water comes out cleaner and the air comes out cleaner than how they came in?

Interface Inc. is a great example. They were a carpet company in the 80s founded by Ray Anderson, who was a pioneer in sustainability. Ray had a quote that I love, which is “what’s the business case for destroying the planet?”. He took this in stride and redesigned his company to be one that’s more beneficial to life. And so if you look at what they’re doing now, they’re really figuring out how to shift their factories and their products to not just being carbon neutral but carbon negative. Being able to sequester carbon in their products. How do you redesign your supply chain to not just be local, but supportive? 

Using biomimicry, we need to look to all these different models and the ecosystem as well as literal adaptations that we can learn from for specific cases to really pull together a built environment that we can be proud of.

“What’s the business case for destroying the planet?”

Douglas Justice: I’m a botanist and so when I look at the ways that plants have evolved to respond, there are thousands of different ways to accomplish what appears to us to be essentially the same thing. When we look at the way that trees grow, there are various recognizable patterns and people who look at the architecture of trees have categorized various kinds of tree growth. What that tells me is that there are so many ways to actually accomplish the same thing! We can then better understand what the function of a tree is – a tree is a method of capturing light energy to create chemical energy and to give away oxygen. The notion that we’ve run out of ideas for building or for ways to build structures. That is crazy. We’re just not looking far enough into the forest.

Philip B. Stark: I think that we have this tendency to view the built environment as somehow out of nature. And one of the things that looking at weeds has done for me is wake me up to the fact that we actually live in an ecosystem. We tend to look at it as a landscape. It’s just undifferentiated green out there, it’s something somebody planted because they thought it was pretty. Recognizing that we really are part of a very complex ecosystem and that there’s food growing almost everywhere, this is really kind of remarkable!

Biophilia – why should we be interested in these things, why is it widely curious? Because we’re hardwired to do that! We are born naturalists and one of the things that the built environment tends to take away from us is this connection to nature because it is viewed as a landscape. And then recovering that connection and being aware of the green things and the insects and everything else that we’re walking through everyday will cause us to treat our environment in a very different way. If you realize that you could be eating from this thing that’s growing on the sidewalk, you are less likely to dump your litter there. And so as we move forward into designing more functional cities, integrating agriculture and the production of food and having productive ecologies in the Anthropocene rather than landscapes… I really think this is key to the sustainability of the species.

Do you think our relationship with nature will change in the future? And if so, in what ways?

Leon Wang: I’m pretty hopeful that having access to so much technology will allow us to not just observe, but begin to understand different perspectives of nature and different organisms in nature. I think that will bring us a little closer to not just having a human-centric worldview, but a biocentric worldview and understanding that we’re all part of life and we don’t stand outside of it. This really brings a different, humbling factor to how we start to view everything about us. There is a lot of research right now in terms of plant consciousness – we do lot personification of as we observe animals, what if, similarly, we saw the world from the perspective of plants?

Philip B. Stark: I hope our relationship with nature will change. I think that even at the individual level cultivating more awareness of the natural environment and everything that is alive in our environment is incredibly important for mental well-being. Our brains are wired to notice resources and threats and to see what’s going on. When we tune that out either because we’re paying attention to our devices or worried about something, we lose something that fundamentally makes us feel whole and happy. It really is just incredibly important for being well. And that’s separate from the consideration of nature and how you treat it in response. But I think just the very awareness, just paying attention is incredibly healthy.

What role do botanical gardens play in natural conservation efforts?

Douglas Justice: The role of botanical gardens used to be to entertain people. One hundred years ago, it was the English showing off the fruits of imperialism. Nowadays, like many zoos, many botanical gardens have grown up and have discovered that what’s important is that we educate people about biodiversity and that we provide the tools for people to learn about more than just biodiversity but about conservation for example.

I work in a fairly small botanical garden, where we are bringing examples of plants from ecosystems that might be endangered. We’re using those plants as a platform to talk about the greater issues of conservation and biodiversity.

Botanical gardens always struggle to reach people because most people walk down the garden and say ‘how do I know that plant is important?’. However, taking an interpretative approach seems to work. We use signage and we use lectures and tours and bring in researchers and they have lectures or whatever we can do. We want botanical gardens to be the place where you can go to get information. We don’t have a vested interest other than in trying to protect the planet.

And lastly, beauty! Botanical gardens are gardens. A garden is a place of respite. It’s a place where you go to fill yourself up with the beauty that you see around you. That’s really really important. People just don’t get enough of that. Beauty makes people happy. When people go to a garden and they come out in a better mood than when they went in. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Philip B. Stark: So three things stand out – botanical gardens are living libraries, places to go and see stuff, and they’re learning laboratories which is incredibly important for learners of all ages and walks of life. They’re repositories of biodiversity and that’s going to be increasingly important on the changing planet. Actually having things that are actively reproducing and learning. And finally, they’re a gateway drug – they tend to get people in touch with other naturalists and so they actually begin to view the environment in a different way.

Leon, could you elaborate on the metaphorical side of biomimicry as it applies to systems or people?

Leon Wang: For the metaphorical side, obviously there hasn’t been enough work on it, but I think metaphorical biomimicry is exciting because if you look at nature’s systems, not just individual organisms, patterns emerge. So what across the board does nature do? These are what we would call life’s principles, factors that we observe, for example energy and resource efficiency, or adapting and evolving to survive, and then break them down into more sub-principles. If we look at these from a metaphorical perspective, you can look at these models and adapt that to how we should start to think and evolve.

And this is not only for products but even for processes in our own organizations and systems. So for example how do we communicate, how do we lead? Is there something to learn from super organisms and how they have simple rules to abide by to create more decentralized organizations versus typical top down. Even in response to your question is not just how do we start to evolve these processes, it’s because we’re holding onto all these archaic approaches, and so how do we now take a new approach to start to adapt little by little by evolving our solutions to it, instead of holding strong to some of these larger systems, and particularly in the food industry distribution has been similar just because of the way it used to be.

You mentioned alternative crops and I think they don’t necessarily fit in food production, food distribution, even like the shopping habits of consumers. So how can those systems change to be more adaptable?

Philip B. Stark: That’s a really interesting and important question. I’ve been trying to address it partly by going to farms and talking to farmers, organic farmers in particular, to try to encourage them to harvest between the rows and at the margin. Every farmer has a very different relationship with their weeds. Some literally take a scorched-earth policy where they take propane torches and burn weeds as they come up, others embrace the weeds as cover crops that could help protect the soil erosion, and promote the soil microbiome.

There’s also the consumer end… How do you get people to eat something that has become unfamiliar even though most of these plants are in fact indigenous cuisine. They’ve been a part of human diet since before agriculture. Wild and Feral Food Week is trying to create a supply chain to solve what is called “the first mile problem”. Many consumer distribution channels face a last mile problem which is how do you get your product to consumer’s doorsteps? Our problem is how do you get them off the farm and into the food supply? How do you let farmers know that there actually is a market for weeds? That this is a resource not a liability?

So Wild and Feral Food Week is trying to get restaurants, chefs and eaters to create a market to say ‘we’ll take this, we’ll eat it, we’ll do something with it’. It’s trying to get consumers more familiar with these less familiar foods, some of which have strong flavors (something else we’ve bred for selectively is mildness and palatability – we’ve kind of lost our taste for bitterness). So how do we legitimize these things as food? By and large I think chefs are a great tool for doing this. I think that unfortunately it kind of feels very exclusionary or you know privileged that it’s high end restaurants that are kind of embracing this but it’s incredibly exciting to chefs to have new ingredients that have different flavors and textures to try to do something with and I think that that can gradually shift things in that direction.

I’m trying to work with the farmers to understand how do we get you to harvest the chickweed. What often happens is they say ‘oh we’re going to have to charge 20 dollars a pound for this and I can only get six dollars a pound for my organic spinach so there’s no way that this is going to happen’. I’m trying to sort that out, I don’t need you to sell me a pound of pure chickweed, can you have feral salad mix and exactly what’s going to be in that is going to be growing very seasonally and it’s going to depend on the companion plants that are growing. You might actually plant some of these deliberately because either they enrich the soil or legumes that makes nitrogen or because they have beneficial relationships or for all kinds of reasons that you might encourage people to harvest these things.