IF11: How Biomimicry Applies to Innovation

IF11: How Biomimicry Applies to Innovation

Sometimes, talking about new ways of approaching business benefits from looking at some of the world's oldest ways of doing business.

At the GreenBiz Innovation Forum -- our three-day event focused entirely on bringing fresh ideas and fresh focuses on the concept of sustainable innovation within business -- we spent more than two hours looking at how nature can inspire innovation.

Biomimicry is no stranger to these pages, of course -- we've long looked at the ways that natural systems can make everything from buildings to fuel greener and more efficient.

At yesterday's sessions, Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild -- which is now rebranding as Biomimicry 3.8, a reference to the 3.8 billion years that life has existed on Earth.

In all that time, natural systems have figured out plenty about innovation.

At its core, "Sex is innovation," Baumeister said during the intro to her presentation yesterday. "Without sex, we get inbreeding."

You can also look at sex as the idea of mixing, getting out, sharing, "taking ideas from one place and spreading it elsewhere," she explained. That idea of going outside is central to harnessing biomimicry, because "outside" is where the roughly 30 million other species that we share the planet with make their homes and do their innovation.

"We're here because we want to do business differently," Baumeister said. "Sustainable means sticking around for 100,000 years. How does that happen? How do we go out and mix those genes?"

Over the course of a 45-minute presentation to the entire audience at the Innovation Forum, Baumeister showed attendees how biomimetic principles are working to make the world greener. From safer flame retardants to mercury-free vaccines, scientists and researchers are steadily scouring the natural world to find simpler solutions to complex problems.

Later in the day, Baumeister and her team hosted a nearly two-hour workshop that dug in a little deeper into the practice of biomimicry.

During that session, the group broke into small teams to try to put into practice the three ways that Baumeister said biomimicry is practice:

  1. Emulation: Learn from the natural world and apply it to a challenge.
  2. Ethos: The sustainability element is critical to biomimicry, Baumeister said, and approaching it with the intention of achieving some good in the world.
  3. (Re)connect: Connect back to nature, regain some of the early connections that almost everyone has with the natural world.

The practice during the biomimicry workshop involved digging through Baumeister's extensive collection of natural relics -- ranging from a shark spine to elephant skin to a marmot tail, as well as honeycombs, flowers, coral and many other fragments of nature. Groups were then instructed to take some of those items and figure out what nature could teach us about solutions to business problems.

The exercise itself doesn't convey very well in print, but participants -- myself included -- got engaged with the practice. There's something to be said at having some time to simply marvel at how nature has constructed beautiful and elegant solutions to big problems.

My group of four chose packaging as our challenge, specifically secondary packaging and wasted materials shipments to suppliers. And while we didn't come up with any really elegant solutions, we spent the better part of an hour playing with a flower's seed-pod, a rattlesnake skin, a seashell, a pile of moss, some bird feathers and the aforementioned marmot's tail.

In the process, we learned (with the help from Baumeister and her colleagues) that the honeycomb uses nature's strongest structure -- the 120-degree angle -- and the fact that hexagons are nestable with no wasted space in between -- and that auxetic materials can stretch and get thicker rather than thinner, which offers promising fixes to packaging problems.

Other groups during the session worked on managing temperature in homes and making public transit rides more pleasant; although none of us came up with million-dollar solutions, there was a real sense of a level of engagement and excitement from the exercise.

Here's how Baumeister summed up the most important skill to exploring biomimicry: "Quieting the cleverness and getting back into our childlike minds."

In short, asking the questions about how little things can work together on big problems is the core of biomimicry -- and a fundamental feature of innovation.