In the 1990s, Janine Benyus, a natural sciences writer and the author of several wilderness guides, began to pay close attention to how various organisms adapted to the ecosystems around them. That led her to wonder if similar strategies couldn’t be applied to the human problems of the day, and whether any such strategies were already being used. Benyus discovered that while people were looking to nature for advice sporadically, it was not a formal part of any design process.
all photos Courtesy Biomimicry Institute
“I began collecting examples, as writers do, and at first it was a folder and then it was a drawer, and pretty soon it was an entire file cabinet, and I was looking at it, thinking this thing is getting pretty big and it doesn’t even have a name,” Benyus explains.
She called this emerging discipline “biomimicry” and in 1997 gathered her various examples of it in a seminal book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Now, just over a decade later, it’s fair to say that biomimicry has changed how many people think of both biology and technological innovation. The process has informed the design of everything from solar panels to ceiling fans.
Following the publication of her book, Benyus began to get calls from companies and organizations wanting to consult her on various ways in which they might look to nature for solutions. In 1998 she started both the for-profit consulting firm, The Biomimicry Guild, and the nonprofit, education-focused Biomimicry Institute. Today, Benyus and her colleagues are building a network of consulting hubs throughout the country, helping to create biomimicry-focused programs at universities, and launching the Biomimicry Institute’s own online education program. The goal is to get humans asking one simple question as a first step to designing any product or tackling any problem: What would nature do?
How did you make the leap from noticing how nature handled various things to thinking about mimicking nature’s approach?
What I started to think about was: What is it that we’re really trying to do here? And then think about how nature would do it. How would nature filter water here? Or how would nature protect from impact here? You know, how would nature manufacture this? How would nature ship? How would nature package?
We became students rather than conquerors, and began to learn some things about how to live. We valued nature in a different way.
Then I started wondering, does anyone ask that question? How would nature gather sunlight, turn it into energy and store it?
Actually on that question at least I thought, Well, if there’s one thing that we’ve probably mimicked, it’s a leaf in a solar cell. And then I researched it and I realized we didn’t even consult the leaf in the making of solar cells; they’re nothing like leaves. The solar cell is a space-engineering thing, but it has nothing to do with how life happens on Earth. And this was such a blow to me. It was like, wait a minute, isn’t this just part of first principles in design and engineering? And it’s not. As much as you read about Leonardo DaVinci and how he looked at birds, and how Wilbur and Orville Wright looked at birds, we weren’t doing it consciously and there was no formalized practice around it.
That made me kind of crazy, and I thought, It’s gotta be somewhere. So I began looking through scientific literature and started to see faint signals – this was in 1990 – of scientists who indeed were studying leaves and were trying to come up with ways to consciously emulate life’s genius.
At what point did you go from being an author to being a biomimicry consultant?
After the book came out, companies began to call. And organizations. And they’d say: “Hey, we’re trying to think through some things and we love the idea of nature as a model, but we don’t have biologists right here, and we’re inventing this thing and we’d like you to come over and give us some examples of how nature would do this.” Then [biologist] Dayna Baumeister had read the book and she was doing a PhD at the University of Montana. She came down one day and we talked for 11 hours in my living room. And she said, “I want to do this as my living.” And I was like, “Do what? What are you talking about?” And she said, “I want to do biomimicry.” And now, all these years later – that was 1998 – we have a firm that has consulted with Fortune 50 companies around the world.
Then we also began an institute because we realized that our job in the world – or at least, we assigned ourselves this job – was to naturalize biomimicry in the culture so that it was a common practice and a household word and a second nature among designers.
When you first started out, what sort of outcome were you hoping for?
Our real, internal mission statement was to increase respect for the natural world through the practice of taking nature as a model for design and decision-making. And that’s still our North Star. That still guides us.
What I realized as a conservationist and as a biologist was that our emotional connection to nature had become rather weak. For the most part we were in a guilt relationship or we were pitying nature. And I realized, when working with people in biomimicry, that through the process of studying a leaf and trying to emulate it… I mean, there’s nothing like trying to emulate a leaf to make you tremble every time you walk through a forest. You just go, “Oh my God this is so astounding.” So what it did was increase people’s respect for these organisms and ecosystems. They saw the false boundary between them and this organism fall away and they realized that at the heart of it, we’re all trying to perform certain functions to allow us to thrive on this planet. If you bring it down to the level of function, you realize that these organisms have been trying to work these functions out for 3.8 billion years, some of them, and we’re new at it at 200,000 years.
So you’ve got this very young species trying to figure out technologies that are well adapted. And here you’ve got all the models sitting right there that we’ve been autistic to all these years, as Thomas Berry says, and all of a sudden we woke up to it. And what happens when people do that is they become ardent conservationists. At least that’s what I’ve seen. So for us respect for the natural world was something that we thought was a turnaround strategy, you know, for the human race. That it began with a sense of respect and we then became students rather than conquerors, and began to learn some things about how to live and, at the end of the day, we viewed and valued nature in a different way. That respect of a peer or an elder, I think, translates into good behavior, into policies that also are respectful of the natural world. I mean, that’s our hope.
At the same time, biomimicry is a very practical process by which lots of companies are now coming out with more sustainable products that use less energy and materials, and fewer toxins, because they’re based on organisms that have had to fit those criteria for millions of years. You know, the design brief that a modern-day designer now has looks a whole lot like what organisms have had to do all this time.
Biomimicry seems like such a common-sense approach. Why hasn’t it been embraced before? Why do you think that now seems to be the right time for it?
It’s one of those things that seems so obvious, and I ask myself that question a lot: Why now, why not always? I think we’re in a humbled state as a result of seeing our unintended consequences. You know, all that excitement and enthusiasm in the fifties when the atomic symbol was a really respected brand symbol that everyone would want. We had this period of just cluelessness. And as we realized the situation we’re in I think that we’re finally open for some help. Even if it comes from an octopus or a rhinoceros instead of a Rhodes scholar, we’re open to it. And then there’s also all this science that’s been gathering and snowballing all these years about how nature works. Not that we’re anywhere close to understanding or comprehending it completely, but there’s a little more knowledge and there are enabling technologies that now allow us to actually mimic what we see, or at least the design principles of what we see. You know, when we try to mimic spider silk we’re not trying to actually mimic the silk. We’re saying: What are the design principles that allow the spider to make a high-performance fiber in water instead of organic solvents – toxic solvents? And at room temperature or body temperature, not 1400 degrees Fahrenheit? And with common raw materials like crickets and leaves? We’re at the point where we’re able to look at that biochemistry and go, I wonder if we can mimic that? It’s existing proof that fibers can be made in ambient temperatures with benign green chemistry.
Are there any natural processes you’re surprised companies haven’t necessarily looked into more?
I’m really surprised that CO2 is not seen as a feedstock for materials. Because plants are made out of CO2 and everything that is hard and shell-like in the ocean is made out of CO2. It’s really surprising to me.
That’s interesting because it seems like the only way people have thought of CO2 as a useful substance is to use it to grow algae and then maybe make biodiesel.
But you see, that’s what always happens. Our default technology is domestication of another organism. Algae is now our milk cow. Because we don’t yet know how to take CO2 and turn it into fuel, we ask algae to do it for us.
Now, there’s a company called Novomer – a group in Ithaca, New York, run by Jeff Coates – that has found a recipe by studying plants. They’ve found a way to take CO2 with a catalyst and get it to react so that the carbon hooks up into a carbon chain, a sort of carbon backbone, and creates a polymer called polycarbonate, which is what’s in your CD cases and your sunglasses and things like that. So he’s making a tough polycarbonate that is biodegradable at the end of the day, but he’s making it out of CO2.
Bottom: Wildxplorer, flickr; Top: Baka Onigiri
Another cool example of this is a concrete company called Calera, Brent Constance’s company. Brent was a coral reef expert, and he said he heard that for every ton of concrete made, a ton of CO2 was released. Somewhere around 6 to 8 percent of all CO2 emissions come from the manufacture of our largest building material, which is concrete. And it’s because of the Portland cement, which has to be baked and baked and baked, so a lot of CO2 gets released. And Brent said that’s crazy because a coral reef is basically a cement structure, and it sequesters CO2 in its manufacture. So he borrowed the recipe and he has this company, Calera, that’s taking CO2 and turning it into concrete. Right there at a utility plant, he’s taking CO2 out of the smokestacks, spraying seawater through it, and out precipitates a limestone aggregate mixture that doesn’t need Portland cement to glue it together. So suddenly you’ve got long-term, geologic CO2 sequestration in a building material, in a concrete block.
Has there been any use of biomimicry that you’ve been disappointed to see?
Of course. Biomimicry’s an innovation process, right? So it can be used to make anything. Including studying penguins to make a better torpedo. We started to think about this question and said there’s really shallow biomimicry and deeper biomimicry. We talk about three levels of biomimicry. First, there’s form, and it’s pretty easy to mimic form, like you can mimic the form of the penguins in your torpedo, right? Or let’s talk about another example: fan blades. There’s a company in Canada that has taken the shape of the scalloped edges of a humpback whale, and when you put them on a fan blade or turbine blade it can rotate at low wind speeds that it wouldn’t have turned at before. That’s mimicking form and it’s really, really cool. However, if you really want to get biomimetic, you’ve got to look at process too, which is: How do we manufacture this fan blade? What do we manufacture it from? What’s the lifecycle of the material choice? Am I making something useful for the whole? And then, how am I packaging it, marketing it, shipping it? Is it really affordable for everybody? You start to get into the ecosystem level of thinking that says, what are the other repercussions of doing what I’m doing? And is this truly well adapted at the whole-Earth level and not just in my particular market and for my particular need?
When you talk about a torpedo from a penguin, there’s another thing we talk about and that is the role of nature in the process. It’s nature as model, but it’s also nature as measure, and nature as mentor. So you go, okay, if nature is model then what would nature do here? Then when you’re thinking about nature as measure, you think: What wouldn’t nature do here? That’s important as well. Is this necessary? Would nature create this torpedo? Why? Why not? That’s when you start to get into nature as mentor – why would you do it this way, or why don’t we see this in nature?
Where do you see biomimicry heading in the next few years?
It’s an emerging discipline, and we have sort of found ourselves as the clearinghouse for a lot of information. We’ve been teaching biologists and designers for about 13 years, and we’re at the point now where we need to amplify. We’ve created so much demand. If you take biomimicry and its synonyms, it’s like 28 million pages on Google. So we’ve begun this “professional pathways” program that will provide e-learning around biomimicry. People can take a course for an hour, they can take a course for a week, they can come to a workshop, they can do a certificate course, or we have a 2-year masters level course.
The other thing is we realized that we were in danger of boutique-ing this, in the sense that we’re a small group and there’s a lot of demand for our work. So we needed to make more of ourselves, needed to reproduce. We realized that we needed to get biomimicry into science classes at the K through 12 level, and we needed to get it into engineering classes and architecture classes and chemistry classes, and that’s all happening now. We’ve got a really vibrant group of faculty teaching biomimicry at universities. We have three universities that have announced a minor in biomimicry.
And then we said okay, the big bottleneck is usually access to biological information in the form that designers need, which is functionality. They don’t say, How do I make a filter? But, How do I filter? So we have this site called AskNature.org that we launched in 2008. It’s open-source, it’s a moderated wiki, and it’s public domain forever. That last part is pretty important because our fear was, if you can patent a life form, what’s gonna keep you from patenting the way a gecko walks, and then locking up that science so no one can create an application from it?
We’re basically midwifing a new discipline. So we need K-through-12 education, university education, training, trainers, and all of those things repeated in different regions. It’s stunning to me how quickly this has spread as a discipline.
Amy Westervelt‘s writing has appeared in the Journal, Slate, Sunset and Consumers Digest. Her website is amygaga.com.