The woman who asked the question worked at a company that made the hardwood palettes we use in packing and shipping. She said that a palette is completely functional - and works fine as it is...Are they supposed to redesign it? Do they need to consider a change?
Franco Lodato, the expert on biomimicry, was not in the audience that evening. But I think biomimicry holds a better answer to her question.
Lodato explained that biomimicry is not about creating a table in the shape of a leaf. Rather, it is about understanding deeply how a natural process works. Often this results in innovative solutions.
In design school, designers study that form follows function. However, biomimicry studies the whole system ; in nature, form and function are inseparable.
When he was asked to redesign an ice pick for mountain climbers back in the '80's, one of the things that Lodato studied was the woodpecker. How did it bore such a precise hole that the surrounding area was undisturbed? The icepick needed to be able to create this kind of precision so as not to disturb and fracture the surrounding ice.
He came up with all kinds of observations - the woodpecker balances himself against the tree with his tail, holds air and blood his head to maintain stability, hits the tree 25 times in a second - to name just a few. His deep observations contributed to his design of the ice pick. You can see it in the lines of the finished product - still selling to mountain climbers today.
So, what is design?
I believe design us fully understanding how a thing works and how it works in its context; deeply understanding how its form and function are intrinsically related.
So, the woman missed the point of the summit - that design is about looking at something very deeply and understanding completely how it works. Then she could answer her own question.
I typed in Franco Lodato and got this article here when he worked at Motorola- gives you some history on Lodato.