Biomimicry’s growing web of opportunity

For all the fascination many people have with biomimicry — the design and production of materials, structures and systems modeled on biological principles and processes — the field hasn’t generated a lot of products to show for itself. True, a handful of companies have created products or materials that mimic, or are inspired by, nature. A few of those — notably, Interface’s line of Entropy carpet tiles, inspired by the question of “how nature designs a floor” — have become big business.

For most sustainability professionals, however, biomimicry (or bio-inspired design, as some prefer to call it) remains a fascinating discipline to which they may be intellectually or emotionally drawn, but for which they haven’t yet found common purpose in their work.

That’s changing somewhat. Over the past year or so, I’ve seen a budding number of efforts to integrate the wisdom of nature into the design of products, buildings, communities and even investments. Together, they represent hopeful signs that “the conscious emulation of life’s genius,” as biomimicry has been described, finally could enter the mainstream. And they suggest that bio-inspired design could move from one-off projects to more systemic changes in how we design and build our world.

Biomimicry emulates nature’s form, processes and ecosystems to design things — from materials to institutions — that hew to life’s principles: they use “a simple set of common raw materials, procured locally, manufactured at body temperature and pressure, and processed silently in water,” writes Janine Benyus, who popularized biomimicry with her 1997 book of that title. “At the end of their useful life, these materials are regathered and reconfigured by other organisms, upcycled again and again with the energy of the sun.” (From 2006 to 2012, I was a board member of Biomimicry 3.8’s nonprofit institute, of which Benyus is the founder.)

Designing things this way is a tall order, but a worthy one as we enter an era of limits to natural capital. But can biomimicry take wing? The field still lacks a “killer app” — a signature product or material that captures the public imagination in a way that the field rapidly catches fire.

But a killer app may not be necessary. Recent efforts to embed biomimicry principles into designs and systems are emerging, albeit behind the scenes. As they develop, they could give the field lift.

Two examples:

The Genius of Biome is a recent report designed to give designers, architects and planners the tools to integrate nature’s innovations into the design of buildings, communities and cities. “By examining the strategies that plants and animals have used to thrive over millions of years, we can begin to conceive a completely different built environment — one that’s restorative and resilient and that works with nature,” the authors write in the preface.

The report was created by Biomimicry 3.8, Benyus’ company, and HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. The two firms had been working together since the early 2000s, engaging in “genius of place” exercises to help clients understand the local ecology “and see what sort of insights that we could glean that would change the way we would design,” Thomas Knittel, a senior designer and biomimicry expert in HOK's Los Angeles studio, told me recently. It dawned on them that “Rather than us generating this information over and over and over again on a project-by-project basis, and since we had multiple offices in the temperate broadleaf forest biome, that we would produce a guide and make that available to kickstart the process, even if we didn’t have a client who was necessarily wanting to fund that work.”

The 178-page Genius of Biome (which can be viewed at no charge, but for which a purchasable downloaded version soon will be available) divides the world into 18 biomes, defined as a region (or “global biotic community”) characterized chiefly by the dominant forms of plant life and the prevailing climate. Examples include arid deserts, monsoon forests, grass savanna and tropical rainforest. The guide shows how nature provides heating, cooling, shelter, food, water and a diversity of plants and animals — and the implications for designers.

Benyus explained to me how all this might work. “We look at the place where a development or a city is being built, even just a building, and we say, ‘Okay, what is the ecological story of this place? What are its realities? Is it a fire regime? Does it get four seasons? Is the Achilles heel of this place that it’s got water scarcity, it’s about to lose its aquifer?’ Believe it or not, for most architects and builders and developers, that is something that gets skipped over. They know the solar angle. They may know what kind of soil they’re going to put their building into. But that’s about it. They don’t really know what makes the place tick and what could flip the place into losing its resilience.”

For example, an HOK project in Brazil needed a design for an atrium roof “that needed to solve for water collection and control heat gain and provide thermal barriers,” says Knittel. The team wondered, “What would a structure that physical structure be that might be informed by nature?” The solution borrowed from the Voronoi diagram, “what (we) see in something like butterfly wings — really incredible, extremely lightweight structures.”

There’s great wisdom in each place, if only we know where to look, says Benyus. “We find the patterns from these organisms. They are really best practices, but instead of being best practices on all organisms on earth, they’re the best practices of the organisms in that particular place. It’s a very place-based adaptive strategy of how to live well in that place over the long haul. So if you’re in Phoenix, you’re going to be looking at a cactus, and if you’re in the coastal New Jersey, you’re going to be looking at beach grass and how it holds down the dune. It’s going to be different depending on where you are, and that’s important.”

The notion of “place-based design” has been kicking around for years, although most of the thinking has been aesthetic or cultural — how to design things that look like they belong in the place they are built. Says Knittel: “I don’t think architects and engineers can solve this by themselves. Truly place-based design has to be a very broad discussion with people who have specific training and understanding, and that once those conversations start happening I think whole new design conversations emerge.”

Appropriately, the Genius of Biome work has filtered down to Biomimicry 3.8’s regional networks, where local groups around the world gather monthly to share their work in nature-inspired design. That engenders hope that this type of thinking could propagate across borders and biomes.

'We hold this biological truth to be self-evident'

The other recent project that caught my eye was the Principles of Ethical Biomimicry Finance, “a turnkey guide for investors in vetting companies based on the biological truth that the human species is interdependent with all other life forms on Planet Earth.” It’s another inspiration of Benyus, this time in partnership with Hazel Henderson, a futurist and economic iconoclast who has been described as “a brilliant, self-taught, systems thinker [and] ‘anti-economist.’” Henderson’s environmental activism dates to the 1960s, and her pioneering work in socially responsible investing to the 1980s. Today, she heads Ethical Markets, a media and research company whose mission is nothing less than to “foster the evolution of capitalism beyond current models based on materialism, maximizing self-interest and profit, competition and fear of scarcity.”

A few years ago, Henderson and Benyus began looking at the disconnect between investments and nature. As Benyus recalls: “Hazel would say, ‘We’re much more likely to invest in derivatives of derivatives of derivatives than to invest in, say, holistically managed ranchlands.’ She felt that it was time to get living principles back in front of the people who are making economic decisions, especially now that there are so many of us now moving into impact investing.”

The two started with Life’s Principles, a piece of thought leadership created by Benyus, “which is a list of best practices that all organisms have in common,” as she puts it. Together with a group of environmentally minded economists assembled by Henderson, the two last year created created a Statement on Transforming Finance Based on Ethics and Life’s Principles, a document that begins, “We the signers hold this biological truth to be self-evident that the human species is interdependent with all other life forms on Planet Earth.” The statement is the basis for a much more in-depth document that will be licensed to investors to use as an investment screening tool.

The principles embody “strategies universal to all organisms that should provide the basis for all production and exchange of goods, community structures and services. This includes the design of monetary systems, investments, banking, financing, bartering, reciprocal exchange, payments, crowdfunding, compensation and unpaid gifting, sharing, cooperatives, provision of public goods, infrastructure, collective health, education and life-supporting services.”

“We had a fabulous time,” Henderson recalled to me recently, “and we just decided to pull out all the stops — you know, say, ‘Okay, finance is going to have to drop all of this ideology and all of these normative models that they’ve used for 200 years and start with the science. How is it that financial people don’t understand biomimicry?’”

For economists and fund managers, says Henderson, “the term ‘biomimicry’ is sufficiently mysterious and obscure that: a) they’ve never heard of it and they don’t know anything about it, and b) it’s sort of intriguing because of the fact that a lot of corporations see this as the leading edge of innovation. A lot of trustees and pension fund beneficiaries are going to be knocking on the door of asset managers in institutional endowments and saying, ‘Hey, why aren’t we investing in biomimicry-type companies?’ We thought there was a huge opportunity to create a trademarked knowledge system that would be a turnkey for them to get up to speed very, very quickly.”

Henderson acknowledges that significant investor demand for such guidance doesn’t yet exist, but is quick to add, “We think it’s coming on like a freight train because of the fact that so many companies that Janine has been working with now see it as a sort of innovation and repositioning.”

From products to platforms

I asked Benyus to talk about that “freight train” — that is, how the perception and uptake of biomimicry among the corporate set has changed in recent years.

“The companies that we’re working with now are much more open,” she began. “Instead of just tweaking their original products, they’re saying to us, ‘Let’s have a completely new look at this.’ They’re also asking, ‘Can you solve something that’s a platform? If you solve this as a platform, we’ll move it across our entire product line.’ A platform might be something like, ‘We use dyes in everything we do.’ It used to be, ‘Can you just get the cadmium out of the yellow dye?’ Now it’s, ‘Can we re-conceptualize color across our entire product line? What if we were to do a completely new approach to color and not use pigments at all?’”

Moreover, Benyus and her team at Biomimicry 3.8 are not the only group working with business in this way. Over the past couple years, for example, the Centre for Bioinspiration at the San Diego Zoo has been holding “innovation workshops” with Sprint, Procter & Gamble and NASA, among others. Over multiple visits, clients are taken through ideation and product development processes. Next month, the centre will hold its annual Bioinspiration Conference. At the event, the group will release an update to a 2010 economic impact report charting the growth of the field.

There’s more, including a small library of new and forthcoming books, such as The Nature of Business, by Giles Hutchins, on applying the principles of biomimicry "to the development of a new business paradigm”; architect Michael Pawlyn’s Biomimicry in Architecture; and another by Tamsin Woolley-Barker on “Life’s Principles” and transformational change in organizations.

It’s all part of an encouraging evolution. There may not always be biomimicry-based killer apps to point at as a sign of success, but — much like with nature itself — there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Photograph of spider web by Hellen Grig via Shutterstock