Rethinking Nature with Professor Maurizio Porfiri

Green leafy eye

“It is our responsibility to foster design mindful of the environment,” declared NYU Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Maurizio Porfiri during a panel discussion devoted to the practice of sustainability.

The event culminated a compelling exhibition entitled Rethinking: Learning from Nature, which was on display at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering between October 5th and October 25th, 2015. The exhibition and panel were organized by the cross-cultural nonprofit organization Goethe-Institut New York, which offers the public opportunities to interact with issues relevant to German society and beyond.

In addition to Professor Porfiri, the panel also featured Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute; Colin Beavan, a writer noted for his environmental blog,; and Patricia Culligan, Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics from Columbia University in New York.

The talk was moderated by Kristen Day, Professor of Technology, Culture and Society and Associate Dean of Academic Administration at NYU Tandon, who is recognized internationally for her expertise in sustainable design and behavior. The question and the overarching theme of the event—“What Makes Us Think?”—guided Professor Day and the panelists in their critical examination of the environmental status quo.

Deceptively peaceful at the start, the discussion turned decidedly heated as it progressed. The panelists quickly abandoned discussion of workaday concepts like recycling, in favor of speculating on the allegedly impending environmental apocalypse. “We have to fall, fall hard, in order to rise again,” declared Assadourian, much to the dismay of the audience.

Others were not as quick to dismiss the modern, industrialized world completely, but agreed that in order to prevent large environmental catastrophes in the future, we need to rethink our relationship with nature now. Professor Porfiri’s answer as to how to do so lies in the practice of biomimicry—an approach that seeks sustainability thorough emulating nature. (He explained that his current project involves building biologically inspired robots that might be able to influence real animals.)

Porfiri would like to see a focus on sustainability across all engineering disciplines and in the earliest stages of engineering education. “[All engineering professors] need to integrate sustainability studies into our standard classes,” he suggested, much to the approval of the other panelists. Beavan, who holds a doctoral degree in electrical engineering, concurred. “[Back when I was a student], we were taught to be neutral towards the work we are doing,” he asserted. “That needs to be changed.” 

Anna Bialas 
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication
| Class of 2017