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Two Steps Forward

Biomimicry @ 20: A conversation with Janine Benyus

It's been two decades since the launch of a book and a movement on harnessing nature's designs to solve pressing environmental challenges. How — and where — is it going?

It's been two decades since the book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," was published, in May 1997. And in the 20 years since, the author, Janine Benyus, has been spearheading a revolution in design thinking, getting companies, cities and others to look to nature and natural systems for answers to questions about how to harness nature's wisdom to create products, buildings, cities and other things that are nontoxic, closed-loop, regenerative and, as she puts it, "conducive to life."

Benyus' journey has taken her inside dozens of companies, including Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive, General Electric, General Mills, Herman Miller, HOK architects, IDEO, Interface, Kohler, Levi’s, Natura, Nike and Procter & Gamble. Surrounding her are an ecosystem of organizations and resources she inspired, including Biomimicry 3.8, her consultancy; the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute (full disclosure: I once served on the Institute's board); and the Global Biomimicry Network, which brings together thousands of students and practitioners working to use nature's teachings to solve design challenges. Along the way, Benyus has garnered two honorary doctorates and a clutch of prestigious awards and honors.

On the occasion of Biomimicry's 20th anniversary, I recently spoke with Benyus, who I've known for most of those 20 years, to get a progress report on the state of biomimicry. The interview took place while Benyus, characteristically, was enjoying a four-mile hike near her home in the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula, Montana, between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. (I was in my office in Oakland, California.) The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Let’s start with just a little back story. What led you to write "Biomimicry" in the first place?

Janine Benyus: I had written five natural history books. They were mostly about plant and animal adaptations, and nature’s technologies: how life has exquisitely adapted to its habitat through its behavioral and its physical physiological adaptations. I realized, as I was writing these five books, that here’s a sustainable world that already exists. It’s right here. And I realized that it was the same things the sustainability movement was looking for.

We humans were hitting the same limits that organisms have already hit, and that already figured out how to dance within those limits — being as efficient as you can with energy, working or bartering for everything you get. You learn that energy is valuable. You learn that materials are valuable because it all has to be local. You realize that the materials are going to be circulated within your ecosystem.

And therefore you need a chemistry that disassembles and assembles safely in life-friendly ways. Everything I looked at, from the technical and physical to the organizational and ecosystem level, I realized that the answers were there and I just asked the question: Who is consciously emulating technologies in the natural world?

Every time I’d find an example of scientists emulating something on purpose, I would put it in this folder. Over time, it got to be four file folders.
Every time I’d find an example of scientists emulating something on purpose, I would put it in this folder. Over time, it got to be four file folders. Every time I’d find an example of scientists emulating something on purpose, I would put it in this folder. Over time, it got to be four file folders. When I finally had to name it, I went to the dictionary and I looked up the Greek for bio and mimesis and I came up with biomimicry. I wrote it on the tab.

Whenever I walked by that hung filing cabinet, I said, "Well, this is crazy. There’s a lot of work going on here for a field that has no name." The book was reportage with the hope that research dollars would flow to this. It was about science, and I was shocked that the world read it.

And then the phone started ringing. It was GE, Boeing, Herman Miller, Interface, Nike, Seven Generation and all of these companies saying, "Bring your biologists to our design table, because we’re trying to invent in better ways, and we need to know how nature does it." They assumed we had a company, a consultancy. And so that’s when I met Dayna Baumeister, who had just read the book. She was doing her Ph.D., and she said, "Let’s do this." That’s how it started.

Makower: How do you describe what you do now?

Benyus: I would say the same thing. We are biologists. We call ourselves BADT — biologists at the design table. We listen very carefully to the challenges that people have around sustainability. Everything from the technical product or process challenge, all the way up to organizational challenges, how we network ourselves together.

We biologize that. We turn it into a functional question: How would nature recover fresh water from salt water? And then we go through the biological literature, finding not the answer, but answers — how nature has solved that problem over and over and over again. Every class of organism. We dig through nature’s patent database and we find the design principles.

Another thing I would call us is sleuths. We look for these deep patterns, these design principles that life has converged on, and then we try to emulate them. And the design principles are not just physical, they’re also processes like photosynthesis, or natural selection through genetic algorithms and optimizing. They’re biological network structures; how networks form, how they maintain themselves, how they exchange information or nutrients or whatever it is. And what can we learn from that about the systems that we live in?

So we basically ask the question: What in the natural world has already solved the problem that we’re trying to solve, and what can it teach us?

Makower: It feels like biomimicry is still one of those things that people have heard of but haven’t quite figured it out. And they know that there are a few companies that have done these things, but it still feels like a challenge to really get a company to think in these terms. How has changed in the last five years?

Benyus: I think one of the reasons it’s a slow adopt is that you really do need biologists to interpret how life works. You’re not going to become a biologist. Even if you’re a process chemistry engineer, you’re not going to become a biochemist. So it is a team sport. And biologists do not work at these companies, primarily. So it is a workforce issue, on one level. It’s a translation that needs to be done, so you need somebody who has the ability to search the biological literature.

There are principles about how life works — how life works with feedback loops; how it works with communication strategies. What are the rules of self-organization? What are the rules of mutualistic partnerships that maintain through time? Those are things that actually people can start to understand.

You hear them called regenerative principles, or living systems principles. That doesn’t seem odd anymore. I think there’s a hunger for it. But, as you say, a lot of people know about biomimicry and even know about living systems, but it’s not quite a must-have professional development piece.

And then I picked up Fortune in March. It was the No. 1 trend for what you needed to incorporate. In the article, it says, "If you’re not incorporating the most brilliant ideas from the natural world into what you sell, you’re leaving money on the table."

Makower: I would think that the notion of a circular economy would play right into your hands. Has it?

Benyus: There are a few movements I’m seeing right now. If you go back to the original circular economy document, the McKinsey document (PDF), there were two fundamental pieces of work that they based circular economy on, one of which was biomimicry. They knew that life knows how to do circular design. So it’s fundamental to the way of thinking. So, I’m excited about circular economy. I think they’re doing all the right things. And, of course, using Ellen MacArthur’s star power to get all of those corporations together. I mean, this is a woman who circled the globe on a small boat. And she realizes that’s all there is.

If we understand that as we try to move from a linear, mechanical kind of metaphor to a living systems one — a circular one — we actually have the chemistries and the best practices at our fingertips.
The innovation play for biomimicry is very big there. If we understand that as we try to move from a linear, mechanical kind of metaphor to a living systems one — a circular one — we actually have the chemistries and the best practices at our fingertips. So I think biomimicry is playing very well there. There’s an appetite developing.

There’s also an appetite developing in the field of net-positive. I think a lot of people are grappling with that right now: What does that mean? I just went to the SHINE conference at Harvard, and they were almost exclusively talking about products: How do we do net-positive products?

Since I’ve last talked to you, we’ve worked a lot at city levels, at large development levels, and lately, we’ve been working with Interface on the factory as a forest, which is the small-scale version of that. How do we turn that piece of the world into a net producer, a net-positive ecosystem? Water cleaner than it came in; air cleaner than it came in; biodiversity supported; soil held instead of eroded.

That’s a really interesting framework. And what I said to the people at SHINE is that these are the touchpoints companies have, the opportunities for net-positive. They’ve got their facilities and their headquarters. And they can make a plan and start to do design interventions that create positive outcomes, and then start counting them.

Makower: A lot of what you’re talking about starts with asking the right question. And one your many contributions over the past 20 years has been the website AskNature. What have you learned about asking the right questions?

Benyus: You’re absolutely right. It is about that. I mean, our work does start with trying to get people to talk about their issue in a way that breaks them out of the normal incremental solution path. So, for instance, somebody says, "We would like to get this toxic chemical out of our textile dye." The real question is: "Well, what are you actually trying to do?"

"Well, we’re trying to redesign our textile dye."

And I’m like, "No, really. Like down deep. What are you trying to do with your design?"

"Well, we’re trying to create the color blue."

So, the real question is: "How does nature create the color blue?" Because it doesn’t turn out to be a dye.

Then you break it open. There might be another way to create the color blue. So you come in thinking it’s going to be a question of changing a formulation slightly, but you wind up with a no-pigment structural color solution. That changes the equation.

I see the questions differing now. For instance, people were asking for years and years, "How do we reduce the amount of carbon in our products?" What they meant by that is the embodied carbon dioxide. Now, we’re trying to gently turn them to: "How do you get as much carbon dioxide as possible into your product? How do you have your product sequester carbon dioxide?"

That’s a very different question. It makes us think differently about carbon. It says: "We’ve got a carbon excess in the atmosphere. Can you make your polymer out of carbon?" Yes, you can. You can make all kinds of plastics out of carbon dioxide, out of methane, out of greenhouse gases.

Makower: Tell me about your next book.

Benyus: Well, it is a handful. I’m writing about all these patterns that I’m looking at: How does nature grow and scale? How does nature heal? How does nature optimize design? How does nature shape and maintain community?

They’re very interconnected in ways that I didn’t imagine. But the science that has come out is not in the public vernacular. We say we understand living systems thinking, but the latest science in the last 20 years is shocking even to me. The new design principles that we’re finding.

I mean, it’s really, really exciting. And it’s going to be the sourcebook for the next set of models that I hope that can learn from.

Makower: You sound as hopeful as ever. Are you?

Benyus: Well, you know. Sometimes, when I feel like we are going too slowly, I’ll suddenly be pulled up into a meeting at the Commonwealth of Nations, which represents 24 percent of the land mass and a third of all humanity. They’re taking on regenerative design principles to reverse climate change. So, they’re taking living systems thinking. What does that mean? Well, it means a network of 52 countries with a common law.

We’ve got the right tools, we’ve got the right mentors. It’s a matter of a community of people nodding yes at the same time about what’s important, and what we should be doing.
On those days, I’m extremely hopeful. And I can see exactly what we’ve been doing all this time — how we’ve been moving towards this. On the other hand, I know that the climate is moving quickly outside of life-friendly range, and I have a sense of urgency I’ve never had before.

But I’m optimistic that we’ve got the right tools, we’ve got the right mentors. And now, very much, it’s a matter of politics and will. It’s a matter of a community of people nodding yes at the same time about what’s important, and what we should be doing.

It’s definitely not a time for navel-gazing. It’s a time for putting out ideas in really clear, accessible ways, and then applying them as quickly as you possibly can.

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