Biomimicry: Learning from our biological elders how to build sustainable and generous systems

DiscovHer speaks to Janine Benyus, Co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Since the book’s 1997 release, Janine’s work as a global thought leader has evolved the practice of biomimicry from a meme to a movement, inspiring clients and innovators around the world to learn from the genius of nature. In this article, she shares her insights and knowledge with DiscovHER.

Defining the field:

Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. It’s an innovation method in which we learn from nature’s best designs and strategy in order to create a more sustainable world.

I had written books about the different mechanical, chemical, morphological, and other adaptive mechanisms that organisms had in relation to their environment, and at some point I said to myself that since there already is a sustainable world, then surely there was a field to which you could refer when you wanted to make a pump that works the way nature pumps, for instance. I was shocked to find there wasn’t one. There was no institution, there wasn’t even a name for this! So I started to collect any paper I found on biomimetic practices. I ended up with four drawers of papers and thought and decided the field should have a name.


Methodology and application:

This is a relatively new field, but in those ensuing years [between 1997 and the present], we have created a methodology around it because companies and organizations come to us and say, “We have a problem that we need to solve. Can you bring us nature’s best practices around this problem?” Say we’re working with the designer of a desalination project. So we go in and learn about the best practices that humans are currently using. We then go back and look at what we’re actually trying to do, and reduce it to a function. So they might ask us to create a better membrane, but if we go back to the first principles of what they’re trying to do, we realize that what they’re actually trying to recover fresh water from concentrated volumes of water which contains other substances. Identifying the function gives us a question we can ask when we go back to the biological literature. We then go through a process we call amoeba to zebra, going through all the kingdoms to figure out how everything, from bacteria to animals, recovers fresh water, because life has had 3.8 billion years to optimize and come up with these really elegant solutions, and so there are many different approaches. We begin to see the similarities and differences, and put this into a catalog of design principles. We then go back to our clients and say “here are the design principles that nature has come up with to do what you’re looking to do,” and what happens is it usually is a low-power, toxicity-free, local [happening in or near the organism] solution, and lacks that industrial force that ours usually do. These solutions are often simple, elegant, built with local materials, sustainable, and novel. Those are the ideas and challenges that we focus on to do redesign everything from cars to cities!  The other thing we work with is life’s principles where we also thought it would be interesting to look at what all organisms have in common because we figured that if we could find best practices that most or all organisms use, then that would be a hint to us about how we should be modeling our designs.  So these are everything from how nature only uses a small, safe, subset of the periodic table, all the way to the fact that life collaborates and is interdependent in order to get things accomplished. These life principles become nature’s eco-checklist against which we then measure a new product or solution, and we attempt to get this as close as we can, using the best practices we used to design it. People are learning from plants how to make biodegradable plastics, making limestone in the same way how nature does, and the idea that we’re starting to learnt that carbon dioxide is less of a poison and more of an ingredient is very biomimetic of us!


Mainstreaming Biomimicry:

It’s been interesting to me to watch, year after year, as more realms of human endeavor become interested in learning from natural models. When I first started it seemed quite fringe and there was a lot of backlash from engineers who thought “how can an octopus teach me anything?”, and it’s almost hard to remember those times, because I think in the last 20 years we have gained a larger respect for the natural world, perhaps as the unintended consequences of our own technologies have come home to roost, and as science teaches us more and more about how nature works. So I think now you’re much more likely to find pages of biomimicry, biomimetics, and other synonyms, on the web, whereas before you had nothing. You’ve got tens of thousands of labs in universities around the world that are doing biomimetic research, two-year masters and PhD degrees, investment funds and and an economic index (the Da Vinci Index), all for biomimicry. Fortune Magazine even named it as one of the top strategy trends that businesses needed to pursue in 2017. So these are signs that it’s becoming institutionalized, if you will. I never would have imagined this and yet in the past five years, what I see even as I go into companies across the spectrum, is a willingness to look at living system’s models, not just to come up with new products, but also now to see how they organize themselves. So there’s a renewed look at organizational development, the question of how nature networks, and are there best practices to be found there. Are there models in our economy about cooperation versus competition that we can learn from successful systems?


One of the most successful petri dishes for how we incorporate this into a system has been in working with city planners who want to know what a bio-inspired city is. The answer lies in how it functions. What we have are metrics that challenge cities to perform like wild native ecosystems and that are essentially based on what these “generous” ecosystems produce: clean air, clean water, biodiversity, soil-building, nutrient recycling, flood mitigation, temperature control which a bio-inspired city should also be able to provide. So biomimicry is interesting as it essentially goes from, “can we make a membrane that desalinates water” all the way up to to “can we make a city, or even a city block, that functions like an ecosystem”. I think it’s at the level of those frameworks that we begin to see not only how to tweak one product line, but also, how do we run our company, or our city, like a living system. It’s at that point that we become functionally indistinguishable from the wildlife next door. And if our cities functioned like natural ecosystem, it would be a fabulous place to live: we’d feel more at home in optimal conditions, and would for sure improve public health and human well-being.


Biomimicry and climate change:

I honestly believe we can enhance some of the places that we develop. So when I think about climate change, my goal is to reverse it and get back to the livable dome we evolved in, and that means learning from this planet how to absorb that carbon dioxide. One of the things I learned is how different our chemistry is from nature’s chemistry, and one of the major building blocks for the planet is carbon dioxide, whether for a plant or for sea life. So combatting climate change is the perfect opportunity to apply biomimicry, to figure out how to reabsorb all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


I choose to remain optimistic because I think it’s a better strategy for us. I think we have a lot of the answers, and what we need to do is cease emissions and pull down carbon dioxide to pre-industrial revolution levels. And this will involve creating biomimetic systems because the more an agricultural system works like a native system, the more carbon dioxide will be pulled down and stored over centuries of time. Carbon sequestering practices are finally getting on people’s radars, and once they get into incentive structures and consumer demand, they lead to an aggregate effect across the whole supply chain, and hopefully, the policy will shift to reflect this.


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