Inspired by Nature, Optimising the Future: Prashant Dhawan
Starting from the velcro in our bags to the aerodynamic shape of an aeroplane, humans, over aeons, have drawn inspiration from nature. Practical replication of natural models, structures and elements are called Biomimicry. While being fairly popular in the western countries, this concept is nascent in India, and one man intends to lay the foundation of Biomimicry in India, Mr. Prashant Dhawan, founder of Biomimicry India. Driven by his quest and curiosity to find his passion, he has scrounged many a field, like Architecture, Business Management, and now Biomimetics. His free-spirited attitude towards life and clairvoyant philanthropy further enthralled the audience in his workshop at ASME EFx relating to Biomimicry and Nature-inspired design. Team Monday Morning caught up with this ingenious nature-lover who carries an air of zest coupled with his zeal to seek out everything around him, on a pleasant Saturday evening.
Monday Morning: Share with us your memories of childhood and schooling.
Prashant Dhawan: I have had a lot of enriching experiences throughout my childhood, but if I were to pick out some of the defining moments, it would be an incident around 1994. I was involved in a project of documenting old monasteries and went to Ladakh for the same. We were three students who became fast friends and went to an ancient Buddhist monastery in Ladakh for a month. That period of virtual technological detox in all forms coupled with the quaint experience brought in a lot of perspective in my thought process. Such was the extent of its influence as I wrote an article based on it titled “Saving the Saviours”. The title was such because that we might not fully comprehend if we are trying to save the sculptures and culture or are trying to find meaning and a sense of purpose in our own lives.
I think moments such as this help me strike a balance between the economic reality and what is truly relevant.
MM: How was your interest fostered in the field of architecture? Was there never any parental or peer pressure to join conventional career options like medical or engineering?
PD: I don’t think that it was a conscious decision of mine to follow my passion. Coming from a bourgeois family, I was expected to offer financial support and make both ends meet owing to the ill-health of my father; that demanded of me to step up, be responsible and get into some profession. Being a decent student and given the context, I appeared for all the entrance examinations. Fortunately or unfortunately, I managed to qualify to study in IIT Roorkee, BIT Mesra as well as Delhi School of Planning and Architecture (DSPA) (chuckles). However, Engineering as a career option did not interest me much, and Architecture seemed like a holistic course, so I convinced my family and opted for the latter of the three.
MM: How would you describe your college life at Delhi School of Planning and Architecture? What were your career options back then after graduating from there?
PD: I was never too convinced of the way we were going to structure the society. When I opted for Architecture, I did not have a perfect choice, but that was the best out of the available ones. I think the realm of architecture allowed me to look at problems holistically since DSPA, at that point in time, did not have a structured curriculum so that one could experiment and explore one’s interests. I got involved in making a small audio-visual movie with my seniors on Tribals which was beyond the scope of the syllabus. That movie transformed my thinking about what human development is.
Besides, a dissertation of mine on low-cost houses was going well when a realisation dawned upon me. I understood that the real problem in implementing that concept is not in the architectural aspect but the economics and poverty. These moments call for a cognitive metamorphosis and bring about a change in our approach. I was convinced that these projects are not fruitful because the problem and solution lie somewhere else.
MM: Could you share your experience at Indian School of Business and your stepping into the business world.
PD: By that stage in my academic career, I made a conscious decision of joining that institute primarily because they had a slogan called ‘Leap’ which encouraged students to become entrepreneurs. However, I feel I was restrained due to my degree and designation of an architect as well as a designer. The retail design was one of my interests, and my clients suggested that I had the potential to give management consultancy. My first breakthrough was by a sublet design called Lintas Media Group. I attended their client meetings then and observed my dexterity, Meghna Modi, the head of that company, asked me to prepare their retail strategy. The short and the long is, I could never see design in isolation.
In a small section of my corporate life, I was working with LML where I was fortunate to be under the guidance of Ravikanth who eventually went on to become managing director Vice-chairman of TATA Motors. He advised us that the prime motive of life is to solve real problems, irrespective of one’s degree. So it helped me become free-spirited and easy-going, and I feel Life has been nudging me in this direction.
MM: Walk us through the concept of Biomimicry and its applications. What led to the sudden transition from MBA to this unique career option?
PD: Biomimicry is defined as the conscious emulation of nature’s genius. If we come across a problem in human society, in addition to looking for solutions in the human system, we could ask as to how nature could solve it, be it a plant, an animal, a microbe or any ecological process or system. By seeking solutions in that direction, there is a high degree of likelihood that the solution is sustainable and has minimum unintended consequences since it has survived for 3.8 billion years without disturbing the ecological balance. It is the most prudent thing to integrate it into our system.
It is more often than not that we talk about ready-applications of biomimicry because people call for evidence, so we give ideas about how packaging changes with colour and other things. However, my insight is that we have to look at it in the system level, that is, the organisation of society, the creation of an architecture of exchange, creation of the social system and so on. If we look at nature in a coherent fashion with all the scientific trigger we possess and frame our problems, most problems might go away.
It is my inherent belief that looking at Biomimicry as one common integrating lighthouse that creates conditions conducive to life is the need of the hour
MM: Is there any way that Biomimicry can be inculcated in our respective careers?
PD: I would think there should be a foundation course relating to Biomimicry in institutes about engineering, business and governance (colleges that train students for Civil Services and State Government posts). The policy-makers should at the least begin a conversation or a debate as to why it should be inculcated.
Ignorance is a big key issue, and people have a generalized idea about this concept instead of a holistic viewpoint. So we have to persist to get that opportunity to educate the general masses, and we are taking steps in that direction.
MM: How did you go on to on start your Biomimicry lab? What are the challenges you had faced during that time?
PD: As mentioned before, I was an architect, so I was always into innovation. I was, in any case, dog designing all sorts of things for various entities. It was during one of the lectures delivered by Peter Head where I was introduced with the concept of Biomimicry and life-centred design philosophy, that was the “aha” moment for me.
It was a kind of an epiphany after which nothing else made any sense and pursuing biomimicry as a way of life and a career was what most interested me.
Along the way, my wife got involved in this as well, and together we started formulating our approach towards Biomimicry. We knew that it was next to impossible to sustain it from a nascent stage in India, we would not be provided with the platform, and if we were to be in tandem with another field, then we were risking on missing out on the native science of Biomimicry.
There’s a term called Island evolution, where a species has to sustain and evolve on its own, without external support.
Taking this piece of inspiration from nature, we prepared ourselves for the hardships and set out to set up a Biomimicry lab on our own. You can say that I had almost mortgaged my house(nervous chuckle). This lab helped us understand a lot of problems we never knew existed in Indian society, the undercurrents which went undetected to the common eyes. For the seeds of Biomimicry to grow up to become a tree someone had to till the soil, I suppose myself to have tilled the soil, hoping for the future to sow the seeds and reap the benefits.
I’ve been fortunate to have come across many great minds , people who have come up with many ideas that have contributed much to society. What always surprised me though was that but for their work, they were just ordinary people like most of us. That is when I realised it’s the ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
MM: How was your overall experience at NIT Rourkela so far?
PD: In the limited time I’ve spent on campus, I can say that the beauty of NIT Rourkela, coupled with the beautiful weather, has made my experience here is very pleasant. Because of the packed schedule though, I couldn’t explore much of NIT Rourkela. So what I can firmly say is that my experience within the BBA Auditorium was good. What I found good here is that there is a sense of entrepreneurship budding in the youth of NIT Rourkela, a prime example of which is this restaurant where we are currently (SLR), another example is that of Ovotees. To me, this represents the real work the students here can achieve.
MM: How was your overall workshop experience at NIT Rourkela?
PD: The overall workshop experience has been very satisfying. The number and standard of questions being asked throughout the workshop were good. Even before the workshop, I got to meet some people who are genuinely interested in Biomimetics. Before this workshop, they had followed me on LinkedIn and followed up on my work. I had a nice and insightful chat with them.
MM: Are there any suggestions you would like to make regarding incorporating biomimicry into the current syllabus?
PD: I would strongly suggest that the Institute takes thought-leadership and make Biomimicry as a foundational course. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-fledged subject, but they deserve to be introduced to the concepts of Biomimicry to let them know the vast scope this field of study has to offer. Akin to natural evolution, If it gathers enough steam then we should continue with it if it doesn’t then discontinue it. Just as evolution doesn’t give up on an idea without trying it out, neither should our education system.
In my assessment, though I feel that the time of doubt is over as biomimicry has proved itself. Now is the time for thought leadership, for someone to take the bold step and do something. Because the problem with today’s education system is that the technology is changing faster than the curriculum.
MM: In this hectic schedule and constant lookout for opportunities, are there any hobbies that you have picked up in your leisure?
PD: I have an eight-year-old daughter, and looking after her daily needs take a chunk of my free time. Apart from that, I like listening to music and would ideally like to travel in my free time though(chuckles). Honestly speaking, for me distinguishing between biomimicry and hobby is very difficult. It has brought coherence to my being. When you know where you are headed, you tend to enjoy every moment of it. So sometimes even when I’m not doing anything, I’m at peace, enjoying the present.
MM: What are your future plans?
PD: Every day I wish and pray that I find some revenue or resources to establish a Biomimicry lab and studio(laughs). Right now I do now know how I’ll achieve it, but I believe that if past and present are the yardstick of innovation, then how are we ever going to move forward. Even if I have a strong sense of intuition, I cannot hold my efforts, justifying them with my understanding of predictability but have to continue my struggle. Who knows, perhaps we will be able to have our institute even! (beaming)
As a wise man has said that the best way to discover yourself is to lose yourself, so right now I’m in the “discovery part” (Laughs heartily)
MM: What message would you like to give to our readers?
PD: In today’s world, there is no dearth of people busy doing nothing meaningful and pretending. So someone has to take the courageous step of challenging the conventional notion and do some meaningful work, work which enhances life, and the world at large.Whatever we do, regarding our careers, our academics, our design and our professions we should be guided by one guiding condition, which is creating conditions conducive to LIFE (Life with a capital ‘L’ – all of life , and not just human life). If this message piques your curiosity as to how do you do that, then Biomimicry can help you.