Biomimicry vs. biophilia: A primer

Interface, "Cut the Fluff"
Interface's office are designed with biophilia in mind.

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.

Biomimicry

noun | bio·mim·ic·ry | \¦bī-ō-¦mi-mi-krē\

USFWS Pacific Region

Corals use dissolved CO2 in the ocean to build their skeletons. Blue Planet’s technology mimics this process to create carbon positive materials.

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.

Biophilia

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.

Some similarities

Now, some of you familiar with these fields may argue that the difference between biomimicry and biophilia is not always clear-cut. Biomimicry and biophilia do overlap. Most commonly, biomimicry and biophilic design come together in biomorphism, or the mimicry of natural forms. Take, for instance, the striking Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall by Achim Menges at the ICD Universität Stuttgart, which derives its lightweight form and paneled construction from the sea urchin’s shell morphology of interlocking bony plates. It is certainly biomimetic because its structural characteristics were inspired by the sea urchin. It is also biophilic because it possesses characteristics of Pattern 8: Biomorphic Forms & Patterns.

However, not all biomorphic designs are necessarily biomimetic or biophilic. If the design does not adhere to biological principles that imbue it with superior performance, we do not consider it true biomimicry. Likewise, not all biomorphic forms are biophilic. If a biomorphic form mimics creatures such as snakes or spiders that are perceived by humans as dangerous, they can elicit a fear response — a reaction termed "biophobia."

Such designs do not support positive health benefits, and therefore we do not consider them biophilic. In ambiguous cases, what is considered biomimicry or biophilia can become a matter of opinion. Ultimately, what truly matters is whether the design, technology or product achieves the desired outcomes, such as high-performance, sustainability or positive effects on health and wellbeing. Using these terms of biomimicry and biophilia gives us a common language and accepted methodologies that consistently yield effective designs.

Rooted in the same philosophy

In addition to some similar outcomes, biophilia and biomimicry are also both founded upon a deep appreciation of nature. Each concept recognizes that nature provides us with an untapped source of solutions to our most dire issues. Biomimetic technologies such as Blue Planet provide solutions to reverse climate change. Biophilic design counters the adverse health effects of urban environments, a critical issue in light of rapid urbanization.

More deeply, these concepts represent a collective reaction against the ill effects of the industrial age and our perceived dominion over nature. Biomimicry, biophilia and other offshoots of the sustainability and green building movement herald a paradigm shift in our relationship with nature. We have begun to realize that our current mode of living is unsustainable and that we deeply depend on the health of natural ecosystems and the planet to survive and thrive. The early successes of biomimicry and biophilia demonstrate how working with nature is the next logical step toward establishing restorative systems that help us create a more prosperous future. 

Do you know the difference between biophilia and biomimicry? Take the quiz at the original Terrapin Bright Green story here.