The Blossoming of Biomimicry

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by: Joel Makower

Much like a healthy ecosystem, biomimicry is flourishing.

Biomimicry, for the uninitiated, is based on the premise that nature has done everything human beings want to do, but without destroying the biosphere or mortgaging our future. It brings the biologist to the design table, answering the question "How would nature do that?" and tapping from a seemingly endless wellspring of solutions.

The emerging science of biomimicry — "innovation inspired by nature," in the words of natural-history writer Janine Benyus, who coined the word in her 1997 book, Biomimicry — is a relatively little known but powerful means of transforming industrial systems, creating efficient means of energy production and use, and solving problems on the scale of global climate change.

It’s not just theory. Over the past few years, biomimicry has emerged out of the lab and into the market. Among the innovators are large companies like plumbing giant Moen (which introduced an efficient showerhead whose spray holes are inspired by the spiral shapes often found in natural objects like the whorls of seeds in a sunflower), German manufacturer Ziehl-Abegg (which introduced to the U.S. an air-conditioning fan blade that mimics the serrated edges of the owl’s wing, reducing noise and energy use), Interface (whose Entropy carpet tiles mimic the random color palette of a grassland and a forest floor, resulting in easier matching of replacement tiles, fewer discards, easier installation, and less waste), as well as Herman Miller, Nike, and Boeing, and others. There are also dozens of smaller firms, such as Sto Corp. of Atlanta, which sells a "self-cleaning" exterior paint modeled on the lotus plant, whose leaves are covered with tiny points that hold dirt and moisture away from the leaf’s surface, cleaning buildings whenever it rains.

Biomimicry has huge potential to usher in a new wave of other such efficient products and services, though it is yet to reach the R&D folks at most companies. That’s about to change. A bevy of upcoming initiatives is destined to make biomimicry accessible to product designers, architects, and others. Many of these are being orchestrated by the Biomimicry Institute, the nonprofit founded by Benyus on whose board I have the privilege of serving. The institute is the nonprofit counterpart to the Biomimicry Guild, the consulting firm set up by Benyus and others to train biologists and designers, and help companies and entrepreneurs understand and harness biomimicry principles.

Among the activities in the works:

  • Development of a Biomimicry Design Portal — a digital library for biologists and innovators. It would allow designers to search by function — for example, how nature fends off bacteria — to identify the "critter" (the animal, insect, plant, microbe, etc.) and the principles of how it operates. An early prototype of the portal, developed in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute, is available online for alpha testing.
  • Nature’s 100 Best, a project to search the biological information available for the world’s 10 to 30 million species and ecosystems to identify the most promising technologies to emulate. This list of nature’s well-adapted designs and strategies is being compiled, developed, ranked, and voted on in cooperation with scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers from around the world. The final list of 100 will highlight the organisms and ecosystems around the world that have the greatest innovative solution potential in the areas of manufacturing, materials, health, energy, chemistry, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, building, economics, and more. IUCN-the World Conservation Union and the U.N. Environment Programme are among the partners in this effort.
  • Last week, the Biomimicry Guild announced a partnership with architectural powerhouse HOK to incorporate biomimicry principles into HOK’s designs for buildings, towns, and cities. The partnership has already begun work on a project in a series of villages in Lavasa, India, testing some of the most forward-looking bio-inspired ideas over an area of 21 million square feet.
  • The institute is partnering with Bioneers to produce a one-day conference, Biomimicry’s Climate-Change Solutions: How Would Nature Do It?, an adjunct to next month’s Bioneers conference outside San Francisco. The event, October 20, will look at "leading-edge of biomimetic solutions to climate change, modeled on nature’s operating instructions." It is designed for "action-oriented professionals from the fields of business, finance and investment, science, technology, public policy, education, media, and civil society."

There’s more. For example, Ask the Planet, a children’s album in the works — 16 songs with an underpinning theme of finding solutions to human problems from nature; a two-year Certificate Program in Biomimicry, the first formal program to give professionals the skills necessary to become practicing biomimics; and the ongoing a Biologists at the Design Table program, a weeklong training on how to apply biological knowledge to design challenges. A multi-million-dollar biomimicry "X prize" is being developed that would reward those who develop innovative solutions to pressing problems by asking "How Would Nature Solve This?"

Will biomimicry blossom, joining green chemistry among the burgeoning tools available to build the next generation of cleaner, greener products? It remains to be seen, of course, but biomimicry makes too much common sense to be dismissed as a niche or fringe activity. If we can marry the wisdom of millions of critters with human’s unbounded ingenuity, we’ll stand a chance of effectively addressing climate change, water and energy challenges, and the need to feed and house the global village.

And maybe a little of the wisdom that has allowed nature to survive and thrive all these millennia will rub off on us human critters, too.

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