Biomimicry vs. biophilia: A primer
This story first appeared on the blog of Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability consulting and strategic planning firm.
You know you’ve crossed a special threshold in sustainable design when one of your biggest pet peeves is people confusing biophilia and biomimicry. I’m going to put my greeny geekiness on full display by dedicating a whole blog post to straightening out this common confusion.
It’s easy to mix up these two terms — biomimicry and biophilia are similar in many ways. They sound similar, they were both born out of the environmental movement and they both relate to nature. However, they define different concepts with different aims. Understanding how they differ and what issues they solve is key to unlocking the breadth of solutions nature has to offer — from sustainable, innovative designs to improved human health and wellbeing.
So what's the difference?
In a nutshell, biomimicry is the "mimicry," or more accurately, the emulation of life’s engineering. In contrast, biophilia describes humans' connection with nature and biophilic design is replicating experiences of nature in design to reinforce that connection. Biomimicry is an innovation method to achieve better performance; biophilic design is an evidence-based design method to improve health and wellbeing. Biomimicry is more heavily used in technology and product development circles; biophilia applies more directly to interior design, architecture and urban design.
Essentially, these two concepts draw upon nature in different ways. Biomimicry recognizes the innovation potential of life’s tested-and-true "technologies." Biophilia recognizes the health benefits of mankind’s biological connectedness with nature. Together, they show the diversity of inspiration we can derive from nature. Still confused? Let’s dig a little deeper into each concept.
noun | bio·mim·ic·ry | \¦bī-ō-¦mi-mi-krē\
Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of natural forms, patterns and processes to solve technological challenges. It leverages nearly 4 billion years of nature’s evolutionary problem-solving to create high-performance and generally more sustainable designs and technologies. It is, in essence, an alternative method to innovating where the first step is to understand how nature overcomes similar challenges to the design or engineering challenge encountered and then to apply that knowledge.
Biomimicry is one of several terms — along with biomorphism and bioutilization — that falls under the umbrella of what Terrapin calls bioinspired innovation. Biomimicry and other forms of bioinspired innovation can be used to tackle challenges at many scales and across industries (see the interactive infographic in Tapping into Nature to explore over 100 bioinspired technologies and their associated industries).
One of my favorite examples of biomimicry is Blue Planet’s carbon-positive cement and building materials. Blue Planet’s technology mimics corals’ ability to use dissolved CO2 in ocean water to build their hard calcium carbonate skeletons, a process called biomineralization. Blue Planet’s process starts by extracting CO2 from flue gas (the stream emitted from coal plants and other combustion sources) and combines it with a source of calcium to create cement, aggregate, pigments and roofing tiles. This low-energy chemical process sequesters carbon in a durable form rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. By emulating how natural organisms use CO2 as a resource, Blue Planet has created a unique carbon capture solution.
noun | bio·phil·ia | \ˌbī-ō-ˈfi-lē-ə, -ˈfēl-yə\
Biophilia, although most commonly known as the title of a Björk album, is garnering a lot of interest from the design community. Biophilia, which translates to "love of life," signifies humans’ innate biological and emotional need to connect with nature. Biophilic design endeavors to forge this connection by leveraging or inserting instances of nature, natural patterns or spatial conditions into the built environment.
Biophilic design sounds great to nature-lovers such as myself who crave hiking through natural landscapes or visiting the local aquarium. But what’s the significance of biophilia to the rest of the population who would prefer a spa weekend to a camping trip? Research in environmental psychology and neuroscience continues to demonstrate that certain elements and conditions in nature have significant benefits to our health and wellbeing. Biophilic elements have been shown to reduce stress, improve cognitive performance and support positive emotions and mood. Biophilic design applies the science in order to create healthful spaces in a variety of environments, from schools and workplaces to hotels and urban streetscapes.
Because it’s difficult and unnecessary to plant a forest in your office, Terrapin instead works with the 14 patterns of biophilic design to create targeted instances of nature in spaces. Each pattern refers to a specific natural element that has been shown to have beneficial health effects. Some patterns are intuitive, such as Visual Connection with Nature, which can be achieved by having indoor plants or water features. Others are less obvious, such as Prospect, which refers to spatial conditions where one can survey a space or has a view across an expanse. The Cookfox office (PDF) is a great example of a space that demonstrates both patterns.