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Tapping into Nature: The future of energy, innovation and business

This is an excerpt from the Tapping into Nature report by Terrapin Bright Green.

Nearly all living things rely on diffuse and transient flows of energy and materials. And yet, life thrives. Organisms are able to procure materials and assemble themselves — essentially constructing "technologies" — using only resources that are locally available.

Increasingly, innovative companies are looking to the living world for inspiration and direction. Nature provides a rich yet largely unexplored library of technologies that process and manage information, materials and energy.

Abstracting ideas from this catalog opens the way to technological breakthroughs and profitable innovation that are often unattainable using conventional approaches to product design and development.

"Bioinspired innovation" encompasses two distinct categories. One, bioutilization, is the use of organisms or biological materials to fulfill a human need.

The other, biomimicry, is the abstraction and translation of biological principles into human-made technology; it is also a method of assessing whether a design concept is likely to "create conditions conducive to life."

The terms are related yet distinct. Either approach can be implemented in a way that benefits society and the environment.

Blueprints for innovation

Life can be thought of as a long-running research and development program that has yielded invaluable design ideas.

Long before human beings began tinkering in labs, organisms had developed carbon capture and sequestration systems, water harvesting techniques, water transport systems, adhesives, colorfast materials, electronic circuits, distributed energy conversion systems, color displays, light absorbers, insulation, thermal dissipators and information storage, along with countless other designs.

Companies that learn from nature are increasing revenues, mitigating risk, reducing costs, and supporting the development of a sustainable society.

All of these are blueprints for technologies that not only are useful to society but are also integral to the global economy. Companies that learn from nature are increasing revenues, mitigating risk, reducing costs and supporting the development of a sustainable society.

To understand how the biological world works — how it builds material, creates form and constructs intricate systems — is to understand the inherent physical constraints of our planet. Organisms have operated within these rules for nearly 4 billion years, and human technology operates using the same rulebook.

Through bioinspired innovation, companies not only can discover design ideas in nature but also emulate nature by embedding sustainability into the development of new products and processes. By doing so, businesses can begin to see environmental challenges such as climate change as opportunities rather than economic risks.

Accelerating innovation

A flurry of innovation occurred in the 20th century that had a positive, transformative effect on economies and societies. Today, however, many companies and private investors develop and invest in "widgets [and] irrelevances" that neither produce healthy returns nor address pressing societal needs.

To develop the world-changing and profitable innovations of tomorrow, companies and investors need new sources of ideas.

Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter recently said that before innovation proves successful, it is merely “somebody's wild idea that competes with every other wild idea.”

Indeed, technological innovation is an exercise in risk. Many businesses attempt to innovate by reformulating their existing products or emulating a competitor's product. However, these avenues often only provide incremental value to both businesses and society, not transformative breakthroughs.

Creating an entirely new product category that alters or creates markets (so-called "disruptive innovation") requires insightful strategy, serendipity or both. Bioinspired innovation offers a real opportunity for companies to create products and processes inspired by proven designs: the attributes of organisms that perpetuate in nature because they solve particular challenges.

Companies that leverage bioinspired innovation can increase revenues, reduce costs and meet global needs. They also can increase their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) rating, attracting investments from the $45 trillion managed by firms supporting this trend in financial markets. By looking outside the bounds of their traditional disciplines, companies are able to transform markets and increase returns.

Bioinspired innovations

At Terrapin, we believe that natural systems offer solutions to industrial challenges. We believe that bioinspired innovation transforms businesses and industries, improves quality of life and enhances the natural environment. This paper is a product of our experience developing bioinspired technologies and a testament to the potential we see in a bioinspired approach to research and development.

Terrapin works with companies, academic researchers and governmental organizations to transition biologically inspired technology into the market. Among our services, we:

  • Introduce organizations to the biomimetic design process through presentations, case studies, and brainstorming workshops;
  • Provide biological research;
  • Evaluate technologies;
  • Partner with teams to co-develop technologies;
  • Advise on market needs and marketing language;
  • Connect research teams with strategic partners; and
  • Assist teams in securing funding for projects.

Market readiness of bioinspired innovations

The infographic below displays select bioinspired innovations, ranging from early concepts to fully commercialized products. Please visit the full-size, interactive version here

These innovations are sorted according to the paper’s cross-sector topics and connected to the various industries they influence. While many innovations are already commercially available, many more are in development and have the potential to create or disrupt markets.

This is the first in a series of Tapping into Nature articles, which will appear in full here.

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