“Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world – that’s the switch. That’s the profound switch.” ~ Janine Benyus
Biomimicry has the potential to save the human race and the planet. That’s an attractive offer at a time when COVID has turned everything we know and thought we could count on, on its head. Crises are a wake-up call, a chance to reconnect with passion and commitment to what matters, to practice resilience, and find ourselves sparked by finding great opportunities in challenges. It’s also a chance to press reset and move forward with different methodologies. We have before us the opportunity to completely redesign how we do business, and biomimicry is that path forward.
“How do we make the act of asking Nature’s advice a part of everyday inventing?” ~ Janine Benyus
What is biomimicry? The simplest explanation is that it is design inspired by nature. By studying individual fauna and flora forms and natural systems, designers, businesses and engineers are creating viable new systems and products. Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute based in Montana has been pioneering biomimicry for over twenty years. Have you ever marveled at a dragonfly caught in the rays of the sun and then noticed a striking similarity to helicopters? Or sat on a plane and realized that if not for the study of airflow over a bird’s wings, we might never have taken flight?
It sounds so simple when you think about creating innovative solutions from nature. In the report the Institute just released, The Nature of Fashion, the authors outline the fact that nature has perfect production, consumption and decomposing systems, emphasizing the point that we have been given a “perfect world,” in which every plant, every animal, insect and bird is perfectly designed to flourish. One of the founding principles of economics is scarcity. What a contradiction to the abundant planet where every form of life is perfectly constructed to balance every other life form in its habitat. Pause for a moment to marvel at the complexity and beauty of life on this Earth and try not to feel awe. Even we humans are engineered with a level of sophistication we can only dream of mimicking.
Increasing numbers of companies are researching natural structures, processes and systems to create solutions for better products, recycling, and economic systems. The Shinkansen Bullet train, the fastest in the world, was creating serious noise pollution. The engineers looked to the beaks of Kingfishers who can dive almost silently into water to redesign the train’s nose. PowerCone Wind Turbines looked at maple tree seeds to design better air flow. We’ve learned how to send messages through water from dolphins. NASA has designed a robot that can stick to tough surfaces in space taking inspiration from a gecko lizard’s feet. In the recent documentary Fabulous Fungi, we discover that mushrooms are one of the oldest living species and have interconnected systems capable of healing and regenerating the Earth. Trees use them to communicate, and mushrooms are being discovered that cure cancer and boost the immune systems of bees.
Most would say that science is what has led us to where we are now. The truth is that science does not lead. “We knew how to breed animals before we understood genetics. We knew how to create catapults before we understood gravity,” says MIT innovation Teams professor Luis Breva. We have everything we need if we would only be humble and look.
Founded in 2006 by Janine Beyrus, the Biomimicry Institute is working hard to turn biomimicry into a global movement. The non-profit has several programs, including its Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge that introduces middle and high school students to nature-inspired, STEM-based innovation. It also hosts an annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge for university students and young professionals, in which finalists for the Challenge are inducted into the Biomimicry Launchpad – an accelerator program for up-and-coming entrepreneurs who will bring these products and services to market. They work with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation in hosting a $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize® for startups that are pioneering new, nature-inspired solutions., And they also created the world’s only curated online library, AskNature.org. that features free information on over thousands of natural phenomena and hundreds of bio-inspired applications to help designers and students ask nature how it would solve challenges.. In March, in response to COVID, they launched the 30 Days of Reconnection, a daily journaling experience of biomimicry in which participants observed nature and sketched ideas. The goal of the program was to provide stress relief, inspiration, and hope during the pandemic.
Last year’s High School Youth Design Challenge winners created a Moist Brick as a solution for keeping buildings cool. They were inspired by the action of capillary hairs on plants and the Texas Horned lizard, which can move water from anywhere on its body to its mouth. The brick collects condensation at night and during the day as water evaporates it cools. One of this year’s Ray of Hope Prize finalist, EcoConcrete®, creates and designs coastal infrastructure projects that mimic the local marine ecosystem, and Helicoid Industries studied Mantis Shrimp, discovering that they are able to “punch” their prey at speeds faster than a bullet hundreds of thousands of times without damage due to the helicoid structure of their fibers. They are now applying this to composite materials.
“For every problem we have, nature has the answer.” ~ Janine Beynus
Janine also works with a growing number of companies who are looking for solutions for the future. She has introduced millions to biomimicry through TED talks and numerous documentaries such as The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, which aired in 71 countries. She co-founded the world’s first bio-inspired consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8 (formerly the Biomimicry Guild) and she has received several awards, including TIME magazine’s “Hero of the Environment Award” in 2008 and the United Nations Environment Program’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Technology in 2009.
Still others are exploring biomimicry in other ways. Neri Oxman of the MIT Media Lab Mediated Matter Group, and her team, are creating a new field bio-informed design in which “buildings with biological materials can adapt, respond and potentially interact with their surroundings.” (Surface Magazine) They created a Silk Pavilion using a robot to build a framework and then having thousands of silkworms spin the covering, a small dome made entirely of natural materials and zero construction. She has a framework for her work that outlines the relationship between four principles: science, engineering, design and art. “Science translates information into the language of knowledge, engineering translates knowledge into the language of function, design translates engineering into the language of behavior and art translates the language of behavior into culture.” Through this lens, bio-informed design has the potential to be the next industrial revolution, a bio-inspired one. It cannot come soon enough.
Others are looking at nature through an accounting lens with the idea that current economic models are failing to account for a wide number of factors such as offsetting future costs and the value of biodiversity. One of the persons at the forefront of this area is Pavan Sudhkev, special advisor to the Secretary General of the UN who helped create a “green accounting” project for estimating the value of biodiversity in India. According to Pavan, fail to factor in cost offset/benefits like biodiversity and tourism. For example, a little known fact is that 25-85% of pharmaceuticals come from biodiversity. Parks are essential for millions of dollars in tourism revenue. Tearing out mangroves opens up coastlines to storm destruction which can cost billions of dollars to fix. And when people are displaced from livelihoods they’ve had for hundreds of years like fishing, they can become dependents on government dollars.
In a recent Biomimicry Fireside Chat with Azita Ardakani at MIT and hosted by the Biomimicry Institute, Janine describes biomimicry as an “empathetic, interconnected understanding of how life works and ultimately where we fit in.” While companies are embracing design thinking and words like empathy are now okay in board rooms, the truth is that we still have a ways to go when we talk about using nature as our blueprint for every part of our infrastructure. The good news is that there is a lot of interest now. Bloomberg estimates there are 1 Trillion VC dollars in the US today looking for sustainable projects to invest in. We just need to keep finding better ways to put biomimicry into viable and functional terms that everyone can understand, and that’s part of what makes Janine and the Biomimicry Institute so effective. They don’t see using biomimicry as an “either or” choice in the way that a lot of sustainable efforts have been presented. The Nature of Fashion report, outlines practical ways the world can model its policies and economic structure on nature’s producer, consumer and decomposer model in which everything that is produced is designed with the capabilities for its decomposition built into its structure.
“We have not been successful with recycling. After 40 years of trying we have not been able to make it work.” ~ Dame Ellen MacArthur
Circular economy is a term you’ve probably heard of a lot in recent years and while today’s circular economies are a vast improvement over old industrial models, they still face a significant hurdle in that they still produce waste. Recycled products tend to degrade in quality and re-usability over time, resulting in materials that still go into landfill and pollute the planet. For example, plastic bottles can be broken down and spun back into garments, but the goal is still the same end product. In nature’s model of producers, consumers and decomposers, these three natural “stakeholders” work seamlessly tandem with each other to ensure that what is produced has decomposition “built-in” to its structure. If we could model nature and ensure that the “next use” and decomposition were built into products we would no longer have waste. It’s a groundbreaking concept that has the potential the human race and the species we are wiping out from extinction.
“There is one huge advantage the fashion industry has over other industries, it’s carbon based.”
For centuries, the fashion world has been taking inspiration from nature with butterfly dresses and floral prints. How ironic then, that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter on the planet. After years of fast fashion an estimated 60 billion units of clothing go into landfill or are burned releasing more C02 into the atmosphere. Organizations like the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute have led the way for sustainable practices, but the truth is, if we want to survive as a species, our efforts are not good enough or fast enough. The Nature of Fashion report looks to the fashion industry as a place to start in terms of implementing this producer, consumer, decomposer model by producing fashion materials and garments in tandem with other industries rather than the current global model in which hundreds of thousands of units are made in China or elsewhere and shipped by boat and truck, adding C02 to the atmosphere at every stage. In a local model, cotton producers could work with local farmers with rotating crops and agri-bio farming which combines food growing with animals like cattle that can then fertilize the soil. This same concept is being explored in the timber industry with agri-forests. Another advantage of local production is that waste from products from farming, like corn can be turned immediately into materials.
The key to all of this happening is material innovation, and this is a fast growing field. North Carolina State has one of the best programs in the country. Its program works with the science lab so that materials can go beyond the loom to redesign materials at the molecular level. It’s in bioscience that decomposition can be built into materials at scale, but we need more companies to invest in this type of research. The potential profit is immense. Materials being developed now are making way for entirely new capabilities in healthcare, for the military and construction. Imagine producing materials people can wear that also work with their biometric systems to improve health and afterwards disintegrate into fertilizer that can be used on farms?
Every innovation starts with a dream of the impossible. Pioneers envision these possibilities despite derision and doubt and then in twenty years we wake up to what now seems normal and wonder how we ever lived without. If we invest in biomimicry now and insist on using natural design for our products, services and economic models, there’s a good chance we could wake up to a world in twenty years that is both beautiful and safe for our children and grand- children.
Given the potential to flourish and survive, given the simplicity of following nature, it is difficult to understand what has taken us so long and why so many are still resisting. A nature enthusiast since childhood, nature has always been a source of design inspiration and stress release. What causes this dichotomy of the human race, our need to worship the man-made over the natural? It’s a topic I’ve pondered for years. Even when it comes to our emotional health, we tend to favor a “be tough” approach rather than honoring the natural flow of emotions. Therapy focused on PTSD, finally shed some light. While nature is bountiful and beautiful, it is also fierce, terrifying and harsh. A thousand, even two hundred years ago, we did not have the means to protect ourselves and bring ease into our lives as we do now. We were completely at the mercy of nature. It is possible that 3 million years of fear has transpired into a desire to bend nature to our will. What else explains our destructiveness? Like a trauma survivor frozen in fight mode, are we locked into adversity with that which sustains us. Forest Bathing is a good way to heal and building indoor green parks like Amazon is doing are a good way to find our way back into partnership with the Earth.
When our ancestor Lucy stared up at the sky, what was she thinking? Was she awed by the vastness of darkness and stars at night? Did she feel a presence as she walked through the tall Savannah grasses? Next time you walk in nature, try looking up, instead of down, at the trees and notice how the light flows through the leaves see if you feel a sense of ease. Studies have shown that twenty minutes a day in nature can prolong your life. If we stop for a moment to appreciate the incredibly scientifically advanced methods by which the Earth’s live computers sort data, turn food into energy, light into colors and the “smart” systems that hold the answers to everything we need right in front of us, you may find a way to “make that switch” make biomimicry a part of our everyday lives and feel the same awe that our ancestors did.
Watch the film Promise of Biomimicry here.
Purchase the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature Here.