How bat wings and bundt cake will solve the problems of tomorrow….


    Todd Jacobus, our USA based GIS Developer, created this week’s blog. With such a curious title, he’s definitely got our attention!


    Todd began his career in Geology, studying Sedimentology and Paleobotany at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Since then, he has studied English literature and creative writing while working as an educator. Furthering his education of Geography and GIS at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado, he pursues the application of hard science to creative design.  He now works with TCarta to design and develop software and web applications under the banner of GIS and Geographic Science.


    How bat wings and bundt cake will solve the problems of tomorrow….


    If you are a teacher, or have ever taught a course which included a final exam, you should be familiar with the feeling of disappointment when your students ask, “is this going to be on the exam?”  The answer given by Dr. Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, is probably the best answer. “Yes, this is on the exam, but it might not be my exam.” Your student will roll their eyes and probably take your snark literally, however, Dr. Markman here is speaking metaphorically about how we solve problems and our ability to innovate and create something new.

    “You have to know a lot of things about a lot of stuff,” Dr. Markman says in his podcast, Two Guys on your Head, because we come up with new ideas by calling upon knowledge of disparate ideas.  In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. At least, the “thing” isn’t what is new, it’s the connection between things that is new.  

    It might not make sense to take a tour of a saw mill when you are tasked with developing a better vacuum. however, studying how dust and debris is sucked away in an industrial cyclone lead James Dyson to develop the first prototypes of his famous design.  Or, another beautiful example of design by analogy, Dr Richard Dryden of the University of Plymouth, UK, recently patented a design for a retractable sail based on the anatomical structure of bat wings, which could save shipping companies on fuel costs while lowering emissions.  But if you set out to increase fuel efficiency in international shipping, you probably wouldn’t begin by calling up your favorite Chiroptera anatomist, or googling bat species!


    Bat-wing-inspired sail design by Dr Richard Dryden of the University of Plymouth, UK. (Linsey et al., 2007).


    This year TCarta was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the American National Science Foundation.  SBIR grants have been helping businesses develop technologies that are especially risky and unproven. TCarta’s Project Trident funded by this program, takes bathymetry-related technologies and combines them in a way no one has attempted before.  We will have to find solutions to known problems, and also to problems that have yet to take shape.

    The truth is, you can’t know what you don’t know, or anticipate what you will need to know to solve the problems of tomorrow.  So how can we best prepare ourselves in a way that is not simply reading each volume of a dusty old Encyclopedia Britannica, hoping we’ll collect some interesting, applicable tidbits?  Maybe, this time, try bees instead of bats...

    “Designers frequently base their concepts on ideas they have seen and experienced previously,” Markman writes in his 2007 paper on increasing innovation. Semantic memory is a distinct way that humans store factual information, which is separate from episodic memory (how we store experiences) and procedural memory (how we store skills, like playing the violin).   The semantic memory can be modeled as a network of concepts that are related to each other, for example when a concept such as “bed” is remembered, nodes such as “sleep” will be activated. The likelihood of a connection being made weakens, however, with distance from the source activation because each node only passes along a fraction of its activation.  When one thinks of “bed”, in other words, it is probably more likely that “sleep” will also be recalled and much less likely that “bundt cake” will be recalled too, unless there’s a unusual reason for a connection within that person’s experience (I may have eaten a delicious bundt cake in bed once).

    The obvious answer is to just know more things, but you cannot go back in time to pay more attention in your fourth-grade biology class!  You can, however, increase the likelihood that relevant connections are made between nodes in the body of knowledge you already have. According to Markman’s study, increasing the number of retrieval cues will increase this probability and, thus, make it more likely novel solutions to unknown problems be found.  This can largely be done by representing the problem in different ways. “The right representations have the potential to increase a designers’ probability of success by up to 40%,” he writes.

    One way to force a designer to re-represent a problem is to constrain a problem to a particular space.  Often the biggest constraint is time and money, which often encourage people to be creative in novel ways.  If you’re a filmmaker and only have $60,000 you might go on to create The Blair Witch Project, a cornerstone example of the “found-footage technique”, which grossed nearly $250 million and is regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.  But given a limited budget and timeframe (which will always be limited), there are still other ways to reproject the problem into a new space.


    Space and connections...

    Forcing your brain to make connections to seemingly dissimilar concepts by reading books outside of your subject area is also effective, while sketching solutions may be more effective than verbal discussions. The “verbal overshadowing effect” may make later retrieval of information that may lead to important analogies more difficult.  It only takes one person to mention “bundt cake” for the entire discussion to be about bundt cake and, before you know it, everyone is hungry and dissapointed because no one is talking about anything new. This effect implies that talking about a problem may constrain design to a particular space and new ideas will more likely be limited to that space.  “Brainstorming”, then, is a process of reducing a problem, not necessarily a good way to come up with new ideas and make new connections.

    There is a lot of research, and expensive programs, pointed at helping people increase their ability to design by analogy.  Google Scholar lists almost 150 articles published this year on the subject. It seems like a sort of madness unique to humans that compels us to find solutions to...finding solutions, but as with most problems, there seems to be at least one, apparent, simple solution:  Read more books about a lot of different things, have an open mind, and approach a problem from many different perspectives both with colleagues and on your own. In short, it’s a good idea to be a rocket scientist, but perhaps a better one to be a Jeopardy wizard, or a champion of your local pub trivia if you’re trying to be creative, squeeze gold from lead, or figure out what bat wings have to do with bundt cakes…


    Project Trident, as mentioned by Todd in his blog, seeks to transform existing satellite derived bathymetry (SDB) techniques by leveraging machine learning and computer vision technology to enable accurate depth retrieval in variable water conditions. If you would like to know more, you can visit the Project Trident dedicated webpage and also contact us to get involved!

    Todd’s blog answered many of our questions, but here in the UK office we have one more question…! What is bundt cake? Click here to find out more: Bundt cake - Wikipedia


    Further reading related to Todd’s blog:


    Linsey, Julie S., et al. "Increasing innovation: A trilogy of experiments towards a design-by-analogy method." ASME 2007 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference. American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 2007.

    “Wings Take to the Water,” 2000, Tuesday Nov. 7th, BBC

    News,, accessed 12/2018.

    Schooler, Jonathan & Fiore, Stephen & Brandimonte, Maria. (1997). At A Loss From Words: Verbal Overshadowing of Perceptual Memories. Psychology of Learning and Motivation - PSYCH LEARN MOTIV-ADV RES TH. 37. 291-340. 10.1016/S0079-7421(08)60505-8.


    You may also be interested in the following TCarta topics:


    What is satellite derived bathymetry?

    TCarta Delivers Satellite Derived bathymetry for Hydrocarbon Exploration Project

    TCarta Delivers Satellite Derived Mangrove Health Assessment to Abu Dhabi

    The Evolution of Geospatial Data