To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
— Mary Oliver
Almost 20 years ago, the science writer and naturalist Janine Benyus gave biologically inspired design and innovation a new name: biomimicry. Since then her work has communicated this long tradition to a mainstream audience outside the circles of a few dedicated ecologically and biologically inspired designers, engineers, material scientists, chemists, biologists and ecologists. Her humorous and engaging story-telling style and her well-chosen examples of nature-inspired, sustainable innovation do not cease to ignite the hearts and minds of corporate leaders, clean-tech investors, researchers and technologists alike.
There is something that just feels intuitively right about biomimicry-based design and technology. Janine Benyus has brought the central lesson of a regenerative culture to the point: “Life creates conditions conducive to life”.
In ‘Biomimicry — Innovations Inspired by Nature’ (Benyus, 2002), she brought together a wide range of inspiring examples and stories of inventors that herald a new era in the process by which humanity designs ways to meet its needs. This new era resonates with ancient traditions of learning from nature. The technologists and scientists mentioned in the book draw on a long legacy of pioneers in ecological design, bionic engineering and ‘design with nature’.
The publication of Biomimicry might well be regarded as another watershed moment in our species’ re-awakening to the need for re-integration of human affairs with the life-sustaining cycles of nature, just as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or the publication of Limits to Growth marked quantum leaps in understanding our ecological impact on Earth.
Janine Benyus and her team have brought nature-inspired design to schools and universities all over the world. They have inspired national innovation strategies, and worked with many successful corporate leaders, among them companies like HOK, Nike, Patagonia, Seventh Generation, Natura, General Electric and NASA.
The biomimicry revolution is spreading around the planet. Universities, R&D labs and professional networks are taking up the call to create solutions to our most pressing human problems, by following life’s basic principles. We are re-learning to see, as she puts it, nature as a mentor, as a measure, and as model to emulate. The ‘Biomimicry Guild’ was set up in 1998 and followed by the non-profit ‘Biomimicry Institute’ in 2005. The Biomimicry Guild eventually transformed into Biomimicry 3.8.
More recently, a number of new network-based consultancy groups with experience in biologically and ecologically inspired innovation have set up across Europe and internationally, among them The Symbiosis Group, Biomimicry NL, Biomimicry Europa, Biomimicry Iberia, and Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI), and Biomimicry Switzerland. All of which are now in the process of creating the European Biomimicry Alliance. There are also biomimicry networks in South Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
In addition, there are a number of parallel networks and businesses focused on biologically inspired, technological innovation (without explicitly aiming for increased sustainability). Rather than using the word biomimicry, they tend to refer to their practice as biomimetics, bionics and bio-inspired innovation [more].
All of them combine biologically inspired, technological innovation with a strong commitment to sustainability, including in some cases biologically and ecologically inspired business transformation. Among them are the German BioKon Network, Biokon International and Swedish Biomimetics 3000®. These networks and enterprises are not in competition, rather they are collaborating to meet a rapidly growing demand from businesses and organizations worldwide for biologically inspired design, technology and business strategies.
In 2012, Theresa Millard, an R&D specialist working for Kohler, brought a group of inspired biomimics — designers, architects, engineers, biologist and technologists — from around the Iberian Peninsula together to promote this approach in Spain and Portugal. Together, we co-founded ‘Biomimicry Iberia’ in early 2013.
Individually and collectively we are now beginning to work in a range of engagements with business, universities and public institutions to build capacity and apply biomimetic innovation. Like our colleagues and collaborators across Europe, we are witnessing a keen interest in this emerging field. Biologically and ecologically inspired innovation, design and technology offers practical pathways towards a regenerative economy and culture.
Here are some of the questions that collaborative R&D teams can ask themselves in their pursuit of creating biologically inspired innovations. This list of questions is based on the evolving list of ‘Life’s Principles’ collected and developed by Janine Benyus and her colleagues at Biomimicry 3.8.
Which longer-term survival strategies have worked so far and how can we replicate them?
How can we make sure we stay open to the unexpected and to new insights?
If we reshuffle the information and capabilities we have and look at it with new eyes, can we generate new insights?
In what way are we incorporating and safeguarding diversity?
What strategies help to maintain systemic integrity while simultaneously ensuring continuous self-renewal and transformative innovation?
How can we optimize resilience by designing redundancy, variation and decentralized vital functions into the system?
Are we making the most of cyclical processes and leveraging the systemic benefits of regenerative resource cycles?
Are we creating solutions that use readily available (local) material and energy sources in a renewable way?
Which systemic feedback loops should we pay attention to and/or design into the solution?
What are the cooperative and symbiotic relationships that we can cultivate and nurture to create a better solution?
Can all the products we use be broken down into benign components without requiring excessive time spans or a lot of energy in the process?
What is the optimal small set of constituent elements we can combine to create the desired solution?
Are we making sure we employ water-soluble, non-toxic chemistry?
What low energy processes can we employ to create the solutions?
How can we design multi-functionality into the solution?
Are all the materials employed in creating the solution recyclable (preferably at the local and regional scale)?
In what way is the proposed solution fitting form to function?
Is there a way to design self-organization and feedback into the proposed solution?
Are we making sure to build from the bottom up?
Can the combination of modular and nested components improve production and offer flexibility and adaptive capacity?
(The above questions are based on Life’s Principles by Biomimicry 3.8, the 2014 version, and have been adapted into questions.)
These questions can inform ‘biomimicry thinking’ and in multi-disciplinary design teams they can unlock innovation inspired by biological and ecological form, process and systems. The list of inspiring examples of biomimetic innovations is growing every year. It ranges from improvements in the energy use and aero/fluid-dynamics of trains, planes, cars and boats based on the optimal shapes of birds and fish to methods for carbon dioxide sequestration inspired by coral reefs or photosynthesis; from the creation of powerful non-toxic glues inspired by mussels to paints and surfaces inspired by shark skin that keep hospitals sterile, or reduce the fuel consumption of cargo ships.
Biomimicry at the ecosystem level is teaching us how to weave different technological processes into industrial ecosystems that mimic the nutrient cascades in a natural ecosystem, thereby building on one of life’s principles: that the waste from one process is the food of another. We will revisit this insight in the chapters on industrial ecology and the circular economy.
… (continues with examples of bimimicry in product design, architecture, planning, industrial ecology, circular economies, etc.)
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016. This excerpt has been slightly altered, adding some more links, the three images, and a two paragraphs that were edited out to create the printed book.]