UN Sustainable Development Goals Addressed

  • Goal 3: Good Health & Wellbeing

  • Goal 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities

  • Goal 13: Climate Action

2021 Global Design Challenge Finalist

This design concept was developed by participants in the Institute’s Global Design Challenge. The descriptions below are from the team’s competition entry materials.

Location: Savannah, GA, United States
Team members: Gwen Krage, Brittany Snyder, Charlie Vazquez, Qingyang Wang, Chengjun Li

Full sun and shaded demonstrations of paint on the side of a building
Image: Project Team / Zooza: Cooler Communities. Brighter Futures / Copyright © - All rights reserved

Innovation Details

Most often, Urban Heat Islands impact the most vulnerable communities in a city. Zooza is a cooling strategy and community implementation approach inspired by a couple organisms’ abilities to change color in response to UV rays; the microstructure of the white scarab beetle, which scatters light of all wavelengths, creating a brilliant white to keep cool; and the bottlenose dolphins’ peer-to-peer information-sharing network. The Zooza concept design is a two-layer thermochromic paint that encourages community-driven mural events. The first layer aims to consist of micro-cellulose scales, and capsules in the second layer would dissolve in response to a rise in heat, allowing the bright white scales in the first layer to return to fully saturated color. The solution adapts to the seasons, heating and cooling when necessary to lower demand for energy, and mitigates the effects of Urban Heat Islands.

Define the problem being solved.
The problem space focuses on the intersection of the environmental and social issues around Urban Heat Islands. Urban Heat Islands (UHIs) are pockets or “islands” of extreme heat in a city. UHIs occur when there is little green space and more heat-absorbing surfaces, like concrete and asphalt. Green spaces keep cities cooler while paved surfaces absorb heat during the day and re-emit it overnight. UHIs pose significant concerns for humans’ health and wellbeing, environmental quality, and climate change, as energy demand for air conditioning means more burning of fossil fuels. Most often, UHIs impact the most vulnerable communities in a city due to decades of discriminatory policies, like redlining. The team aimed to develop a cooling strategy and a community implementation approach, both based on biological strategies in form, process, and system.


What organisms/natural systems helped inform this design?
To inspire the design, the team studied the form, process, and system of three organisms. First, the team was entranced with the mushroom anemone’s ability to change color in response to solar energy. The corallimorphs of the genus discosoma change color to protect itself from UV rays while and to attract algae, called zooxanthellae, to support a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. Secondly, the team explored how the microstructure of the white scarab beetle’s exterior refracts light, creating a brilliant white to keep cool. Lastly, the team was inspired by the bottlenose dolphins’ peer-to-peer information sharing network. Learning strategies from other young dolphins, not just their mothers, allows the dolphins to better innovate and adapt in rapidly changing environments. All of these organisms informed the ideation and proved to be vital components of Zooza’s success.


What does this design do?
Zooza is a biomimetic for community resilience. The product, a two-layer thermochromic paint, along with community-driven mural events, are the conduit for climate change awareness and resident ownership. While the design solution begins at the ground level, Zooza’s ultimate goal is to foster a community’s ability to learn together and adapt to the effects of climate change. Zooza paint consists of two layers; the first layer consisting of micro-celullose scales. Pigment capsules in the second top layer dissolve in response to a rise in heat, allowing the bright white cellulose scales in the first layer to show through and reflect light. In cooler temperatures, the capsules reform, allowing the thermochromic paint to return to fully saturated color. The solution adapts to the seasons, heating and cooling when necessary to lower demand for energy and mitigate the effects of urban heat islands. The mural events act as catalysts for conversations around climate change and a strengthened sense of agency. The team aims to inspire the community to think creatively about how and where to apply the paint. While the solution begins on walls, the possibilities expand to other surfaces, such as benches, bus stops, railings, and more. Zooza encourages users to expand their thinking about how a city can adapt to its surroundings. The team followed the Diffusion of Innovation framework (by Everett Rodgers, 1962) to guide the design’s long-term impact. Zooza inspires a paradigm shift around the perception of color-adaptive exteriors and surfaces. The team hopes that in the future, buildings, cars, and all types of city elements change with the weather to better adapt to the growing concerns of climate change. Even more importantly, the team hopes this shift evolves from the decisions and voices of the most vulnerable communities.


How does this solution address the problem or opportunity?
It’s nearly impossible to disentangle environmental issues from societal issues. The solution needed to address the social injustices embedded in areas facing urban heat islands. Zooza paint offers the opportunity to lower or raise a surface’s heat absorption depending on the climate. While this adaptability is a sustainability win, the real win is Zooza’s implementation. Rather than make a decision for a community, the mural events promote shared learning and foster a community’s sense of agency. The Zooza guidebook educates residents how to apply the paint, encourages creative applications, and puts the decision in their hands. Zooza addresses the environmental concerns of urban heat islands in the short-term by lessening temperature increases. In the long-term, Zooza promotes a societal awareness of urban heat islands and climate change through shared learning and co-creation.


Element: How compatible is this design with all surrounding living systems? Is it safe? How is it more sustainable than the alternatives?
Zooza is conscious of its surroundings as it is safe both ecologically and socially. Zooza paint is durable and resistant to chipping. It does not need to be replaced often nor will it flake onto the ground or into the waterways for organisms to ingest it. The color-adaptive feature of Zooza paint allows it to serve two purposes in seasonal regions: reducing energy demand for heating in the winter and AC in the summer. Zooza mural events are implemented in an intentional, collaborative way that promotes community self-organization. The act of engaging and connecting with neighbors over a shared well-being fosters a sense of belonging and agency. Over time, this sense of belonging will sustain community organization and awareness. Rather than impose a silver bullet onto a neighborhood, Zooza works from the ground up to ensure lasting change.


(Re)connect Element: Describe how this innovation helped the team connect with the natural world.
While the team strives to be stewards of the earth, they also realized it is just as important to be a student of the earth. Observing and learning from the natural world expanded appreciation for the multitude of ways that organisms evolve, adapt, interact, and innovate. By understanding the mechanisms present in an organism, the team gained a more holistic view of not only that creature but also the context in which it lives. Learning about one species led the team to learn about another, and another, and another, in an expanding interconnected web of life. The forms, processes, and systems of thriving organisms will continue to inspire the team in their work moving forward.


How were Nature’s Unifying Patterns or Life’s Principles applied to this design?
Many of Life’s Principles apply to Zooza paint and the Zooza’s social engagement. All of the principles under the category “Be Locally Attuned and Responsive” apply to the solution. Zooza builds off of the existing social networks in vulnerable communities and reinforces them through shared experiences. The team is also “Integrating Development with Growth,” as they aim to enrich the quality of life in neighborhoods affected by urban heat island effect. While the solution plans for scale and the quantitative growth of more mural events, more importantly, the team hopes to foster a regeneratively thriving community with a secure well-being. Just like an organism adapts over time to survive, vulnerable communities have the potential to thrive amidst the growing uncertainties of climate change.