What is biomimicry? Discussion on biomimicry and its applications to tackle climate change
Interviewer: Antoine Rondelet, Founder @ Ganddee
Guest: Lex Amore, Communications Director @ Biomimicry Institute
The Biomimicry Institute is a non-profit organization that promotes the use of nature-inspired solutions to address human challenges. The institute offers educational resources and tools, to help people learn about and apply the principles of biomimicry in their work. It also conducts research and works to connect people and organizations interested in using biomimicry to create more sustainable and resilient products, systems, and practices. (More info here)
Lex Amore is the Communications Director at the Biomimicry Institute. She holds a MSc in Biomimicry from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Georgia State University. Having received extensive training from the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and worked with a multitude of industry leaders across the globe, Lex now leads the Institute’s outreach and communications strategy to further biomimicry education and application across industries and audiences.
Antoine: Could you briefly explain what is biomimicry?
Lex (Biomimicry Institute): Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of the time-tested strategies that nature has evolved since Earth has been around. It is really this idea that you’re using a science-based practice to understand how nature functions and then emulating those strategies to inform better design solutions, to be more sustainable and regenerative. An easy example could just be how solar panels generate electricity using energy from the sun: that’s how a leaf uses photosynthesis. It’s a process that is being emulated in design.
I love this solar panel example. That makes it seem so straightforward. What is the history of this discipline? How long has it been around for? Has it evolved over time?
I would actually say the oldest practice of biomimicry, and let’s take off the term for a moment and just say “learning from nature and then emulating nature’s strategies”, dates back from our ancestors but in such an organic, natural way, mimicking the way that our elders lived on the land, cultivated food, learning how other species functioned in their environments etc. This is indigenous wisdom. It’s traditional ecological knowledge.
It’s learning about a place and then designing for it, which has been done for as long as humans have been around. That’s actually the more natural state, but in the newer form of design as we would call it, we could look past the Industrial Revolution, where we changed the relationship that we had with nature. We could look back to the early 1500s, during which Leonardo da Vinci wrote Codex on the Flight of Birds, which considered that human air travel could be modelled after the mechanics of bird flight. Throughout his life, Leonardo da Vinci produced so many works and over 500 sketches that were specifically dealing with the mechanics of flying and the nature of air. You could also look to around early 1900s, I want to say 1903, when the Wright brothers’ craft, modelled by wings control mechanism and using air currents to gain lift and change direction, first lifted. In 1955, Velcro was one of the most popular inventions that hit the markets, and it was inspired by the Swiss engineer George de Mestral who was hunting in the Alps few years earlier and who got inspired by seeing his dog covered in burrs. The seeds’ tiny hooks helped him envision Velcro.
The first time “biomimicry” was actually published was by the American biophysicist Otto Schmitt, who invented an electrical current that was modelled after the impulse systems of squids back in the 30s. He published that term, “biomimetics”, for the first time.
Fast-forward to 1997, Janine M. Benyus, published her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. A few years after that, she formed the Biomimicry Guild, which, then split off into Biomimicry 3.8, which is a consulting agency that works with many different companies across different sectors, and the non-profit, the Biomimicry Institute, which is where I work. We’re all about supporting education and furthering this work, helping connect global leaders around the world, which has taken a lot of different forms over the years. Biomimicry as a practice today, we can look at it like a methodology. There is an actual step-by-step process for learning from the natural world and then designing. Biomimicry is also a philosophy. It’s a way of looking at life, of perceiving, the world around us where we are part of the natural world. It’s really about learning how to adapt to changing conditions, it’s considering all the elements, the cycles, the seasons, all these things that are inherent for us being on this planet earth.
We’ve seen many examples of biomimicry over the years. Look at sharks for example, their skin looks really smooth and they look clean all the time. How is that? Sea turtles, for example, are covered in algae. To find out, you really have to look at the function and ask, “what do these organisms need?”. A sea turtle is slow moving, up against the rocks trying to eat the algae, etc. A shark, however, has to be quick to get its preys. When it maneuvers quickly, it can’t have drag. And so, if you study their skin with a microscope, and look at a shark’s back, you can see all these tiny little bumps that actually repel dirt and all sorts of bacteria formation on their skin, explaining why their skin looks clean. Turning that into design, a company called Sharklet Technologies mimicked that exact form structure and started making catheters that prevent bacteria build up. This structure also lead to the creation of bandages, surfaces for hospital doors, and all sorts of different products such as yoga mats and baby products that are antibacterial and antimicrobial. This is an example of a process that’s been followed to translate a shape or particular natural organism design, into a design and product. Now, what we’re seeing is even bigger. We’re looking into processes like the idea of photosynthesis or evapotranspiration and ask “how can we model these?”. Even things like chemical enzymes. There are companies mimicking the way that our liver enzymes clean, in order to use the same kind of technique to design actual cleaning products that don’t have toxic chemicals.
The biggest element of this concept of practising biomimicry is the systems level perspective. We are now looking at very big things like “How would an entire city function if it was modelled after, like, an ecosystem or a forest?”. One of the questions we’re working on at the Institute is “How would the fashion industry function if it worked like an ecosystem?”, and one of the biggest things that was missing was decomposition. So, it’s looking at all the waste that’s built from all of these fashion garments around the world that end up in places like Ghana and Chile that are part of the millions of tons of used garments that just don’t go anywhere. How do we decompose these? How do we inform brands to think about decomposition from the beginning? How do we think about clothes made with recycled plastics that leak microplastics into our waterways and into our systems when they get washed in the washing machine? We need to really think about all the elements here that are affected in this system, and that are so intricately connected, and ask “How can we design to consider how life would do this? What would nature do here? Are we exposing ourselves to different kinds of hazards and unintended consequences?”. It’s really just coming back to that conscious emulation, that intentional design of what we’re doing. So, it’s a really long way of talking about the history and where we’ve come to today, but hopefully these are good examples.
Yes, this is amazing. You answered many of my follow up questions, which is perfect. It’s so fascinating, I feel like I could hear people talking about this for hours to be honest.
Well, that’s how I got into it. Biomimicry is about hope. I faced years of climate grief, thinking that there are so many wicked problems that are so intricately complex, and dynamic. Learning about biomimicry is just about saying, “What’s the context here right now? What aspect of this problem can we solve? Let’s solve that, and then we’ll pick on this other piece, and then this other piece, etc.” and, ideally, we end up looking at the whole system. One of the things that I have to stress and underline about the concept of biomimicry, especially as it comes back to the example about the Wright brothers, is the way that we, at the Institute and others in the biomimicry community, the way that we look at this concept. It’s not just about designing inspired-by-nature’s elements. There’s an underlying ethos. We look at three essential elements that are part of biomimicry. Is it creating conditions conducive to life? Because if we’re really looking at nature’s patterns, nature doesn’t follow the nest, nature has no concept of waste, you can’t just mimic a design in nature and then assume that it’s going to be sustainable. We could take the Wright brothers as a really great example. Yes, it helped us get into the air and travel, but there are so many problems with air travel. The carbon emissions, the very fact that years after we had commercial planes, we were then using those same inventions to drop bombs out of it. Like, that’s not what nature would do. Then, when we’re thinking about biomimicry in true form, there’s the emulate piece that we’ve talked about, but there’s also this reconnects element that says “Antoine, you’re an animal. I’m an animal, we are animals on this planet”. Like, this is really a coming home to reconnecting with the natural world and recognizing our place here. And then, very importantly, the third element is ethos, it’s our moral responsibility to look at all the repercussions of what our actions could have. It’s not to say that we have to be perfect because that would never get any invention out the door, but it is a spectrum. We have to ask, “How well can I support the natural world around me? Am I supporting the ecosystem? Am I creating a manufacturing facility on a piece of land that is going to regenerate rather than take?” There are so many different parts that we can look at. Biomimicry Life’s Principles is a great tool for that. It’s 26 principles, 6 main principles and 20 sub-principles, that help you think about what you are actually trying to model here, what nature does really well, etc. Nature uses life-friendly chemistry, nature is resource efficient both in materials and energy, nature uses water as a solvent etc. These principles are helpful to identify what we can do better to mimic and model nature.
My next question was: “do we need to reconsider our position in nature to practice biomimicry?”. Like, does practicing biomimicry require to acknowledge that we are only a small part the natural world as opposed to being the masters of it all? I think you’ve just answered it quite clearly. I feel like humans have a tendency to see themselves as mastering nature and chairing on top of the “food chain” or natural world. Life is not a pyramid though, but just a circle in which we reside along with all other species. Acknowledging that we are just part of the whole is probably where it all starts. Then, we can be in a good position to learn from the natural world. You probably don’t want to learn from something that is inferior to you, but once we re-establish the fact that we are only one amongst many other - equally worthy - species, then we open the door for learning from our surrounding ecosystem.
Yes, absolutely, and as a note on that, I would point back to Frans de Waal. He wrote this amazing book called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? There’s this level of intelligence that is, yes, both humbling and coming back to the “we are also animals”. Going back to biology class.
Somewhere along the way we decided that we wanted to conquer, and there are so many reasons why in terms of our evolution if you really took a look back at how humans have evolved in the way that they have. I don’t place blame on the Industrial Revolution, for example. Sure, we’ve made so many mistakes, but that’s always been the case. Humans, and all species, we all make mistakes. It’s part of our nature. The difference is that we know better, now. We didn’t know what we now know then. We can’t, you know, just cast all this blame to all these major corporations unless they know better, unless they actually are choosing to move ahead and create some of this destruction that they’re doing despite having the facts. That’s when we can be, like, “no”, we have to change our ways. But, there is this deep humbling feeling, and curiosity, that comes when you start to look through the lens of “how nature would do this”. Because one of the best things that you can do is just quiet that brilliant brain of yours, and sit outside in a meadow or wherever you may be. And I also fully recognize that part of what I’m talking about with biomimicry and bring it into different places around the world is not as simple for a lot of people. A lot of people have grown up in cities that are surrounded by concrete and wouldn’t have been exposed to nature as much. That’s part of our efforts for youth education, where we’re trying to teach teachers how to teach their kids to observe and learn from nature in the absence of natural environments around them. In these circumstances, you can turn inward and ask “What can you learn from your own immune system, your gut microbiome, etc.? How can you emulate your kidney to detoxify and cleanse water and filter particulates?” Like, there’s all this amazing “ah!” and wonder that comes when you start to look from this lens. Can young students get to a market and get an apple, and start to question, “Where did that come from? How does it, you know, give seeds and what is the function behind the protective mechanism of the skin and the components that hold the seeds?”. There are so many elements, and then you start to open your mind to all the genius and amazing wonder around you. If we can turn the kind of grief, anxiety, pain, and sorrow related to climate change, and the wicked problems that are intricately around us, into awareness of what’s happening in the world. If we can learn about that one organism that is in our backyards, we might be able to grow empathy for said, organism, for said, ecosystem, and with empathy, then you’re way more compelled to act and do something about it, and care more. I’m not trying to say that we can get into everyone’s homes, and say “you need to eat organic, you need to do all these things” when they’re struggling to keep a roof over their heads or supply for their families, or with many that are fatigued by chronic pain and depression and anxiety in the world that we live in today. You can’t just expect them to change their ways and change their behaviors. So, where can we meet them where they’re at? That starts with that, coming home to the natural world and recognizing that “Hey human, you’re enough because you exist on this planet, full stop. You’re alive, you’re worthy, you’re an animal.”. That’s where we start, and then from there, depending on who we’re talking to, inspire them to get connected deeper into that natural sense. How can we inspire them to design their lives? Because everyone’s a designer. You choose the way that you live every day. You choose what you eat. You choose what you wear. All these different components empower you to be able to make these kinds of decisions that are creating conditions conducive to life, all Life, with a capital L.
You listed a couple of examples of how we can learn from nature. You mentioned solar panels and other things which directly to connect to mitigating climate change and transitioning to a more sustainable way of living. You also mentioned that they were steps and a methodology to apply in order to learn from nature. As a complete novice in biomimicry, assuming I am researching ways to, I don’t know, reshape the energy industry to produce energy sustainably. How do I search, in nature, the designs that may be interesting to my particular problem? The example you provided about the shark skin is great. I would have, obviously, not thought about it. This is all fascinating to me. However, as an outsider, it almost feels like a random walk, where you’re observing nature, you discover something, and then, maybe, once discovered, you can apply this discovery to a problem that exists. Now, if I have an existing problem, how do I apply biomimicry to find a solution? Nature, seems like an infinite encyclopaedia, and I’d need a good way to navigate it.
Yes, absolutely. So, there are a few different elements here. There are two main avenues practising biomimicry. There’s this idea of Biology to Design. This is basically like: “I was outside, the winds were so crazy yesterday, and I was watching these palm trees. How is it that this palm tree can withstand all this wind, while all the houses and the buildings that we designed toppled? How does it do that? How does it withstand winds? How does it hold that structure?”. Then, I’d go and find answers to these questions. I’d learn about this tree, its components, find out and research what actually makes it that resilient, etc. Then I’d basically go to scientific journals or asknature.org to understand how this mechanism works so I can then in turn create a biomimicry design solution. The other one though, that we more so talk about, is what we’re talking about here: you’ve got a problem, and we want to look to nature to find different solutions. The first thing that you have to do is get really clear about defining the problem. What are you really talking about here? It can’t just be like, “How would nature solve climate change?” that is a massive problem. You can’t easily ask how would nature solve climate change? Climate change has many different elements that are so interconnected. You have to break the problem apart and be very specific. In this case, there are two different ways at which you can look at biomimicry. Whether you’re looking for a novel solution, something that’s totally new, or whether your problem relates to improving something and make it better. Take wind turbines for example, they’re doing well in renewable energy technology, but they could be better. Energy capture could be more efficient. So, if we say that we have wind turbines, but they’re not as effective as we’d like them to be. Defining our problem would then be, for example, “how does nature efficiently generate energy from wind, or, passively flow?”. We’d have to get that function, and get really clear about what is the function we’re trying to ask nature about. So, let’s say that we come up with a specific defining problem, we’ve got the context of the situation, where is it going to be designed, we know what are all the elements, etc., and get very clear about that function. In the next step, we basically “biologize” it. We have to translate our design problem into what biology would do. So, you’d have to take out all of the design/engineering terms. We wouldn’t be talking about wind turbines anymore, we’d say something like “how does nature generate energy? Or, how does nature manage wind flow, or currents?”. Then, we go into the phase of discovery. We’ve created asknature.org pretty much for this, so you could go there and be like “How does nature communicate? How does nature manage structural forces like tension or impact?”, so that you don’t have to be a biologist or chemist or anything. We’re basically trying to do all the work for you, so designers can go there and be like: “I’ve got this problem. What do I do?”, and you discover all these different ways that biology has solved said problem. And then, once a solution has been found, you abstract it. This is basically meaning that we take out all the biology terms, and we turn it back into design language so that you can hand it to your engineer who doesn’t have to know about the biology. They’ll just know that a particular element has been taken from nature, and then they can start creating. This is the Emulate phase where they’re creating these concepts, these designs, inspired from nature. The final phase is the Evaluate stage. You come back to your scoping of the beginning, defining the problem, and ask “Did the solution meet the performance needs? Is it creating conditions conducive to Life?” etc. In the case of wind turbines, they often lose power due to root leakage, when an area of low pressure develops at the center of the turbine between the blades. It basically is losing energy before it gets out and is able to be captured. So, Biome Renewables is a company that looks to nature to see how nature moves through fluid. These can be, you know, air, water, gas, and that can then be translated specifically to air. And so, they added and designed a retrofit to go on turbines, that was modelled after the maple seed, the way that it falls in the air and the way it spins. And just by the initial testing, just this retrofit of the initial designs, it’s generating six percent more energy. It’s not a huge number, but they’re still on the lab working on this kind of thing. They’re also looking to the kingfisher bird to understand how it is able to go straight into the water, using the form of its beak. So, basically, you need to go through this process in many iterations. We call it a spiral at the Institute, because you’re not just actually clearly going through this one direction. You’re going to go back to find and discover more solutions. But, the way to find solutions in nature is to get really clear about that function that you’re interested in, figure out what all the constraints are, your requirements, and then ask the right kinds of questions to nature through academic literature, asknature.org, through talking to biologists etc. In a dream world, if you’re working on a project for a facility or some kind, like decarbonization technology or, desalinization of seawater, bring a biomimic, bring a biologist, bring the engineer, bring everyone to the table and be like, “Hey, we got this problem, and we want to talk about it. What do you think?”. By having all those creative minds come together to come up with a solution, we can avoid so many repercussions on the road that we could have anticipated sooner.
This makes a lot of sense. I think having diversified teams is really important for any aspects in life in general. I really like all the examples of biomimicry you’re providing, the maple seeds etc. I’m just like, “okay, we’re surrounded by solutions!”. We just need to open our eyes.
Exactly. That’s where the hope comes in. That’s where it’s like, “Okay, we can do this”. We don’t have to actually have all the answers. We just have to know how to ask the right kinds of questions and, by chopping our problems in bite-sized pieces, we can make them way more attainable. That’s part of the reconnect element, coming back full circle to that. You’re an animal, go out and spend time in your natural origins. Heal your body, heal your mind. There is science confirming what it’s like to be in an outside environment versus never having that kind of contact, or walking down a busy street. Do like nature does. Nature rests, nature hibernates, nature takes these kinds of breaks. The society that we have today is like, news non-stop in your pocket, all the time. We have to redesign the way that we’re behaving in this world. From there, we’ll be able to make better choices.
Totally. We need to become children again, re-become curious and question things with an open mind. This is by asking “how” and “why” that we we are going to discover things.
Thank you so much for all these answers Lex. Is there anything you’d like to mention or share with the community? (a book you’ve written? A paper that got published? Something, on climate, you’d like more people to be aware of?)
Well, we have free resource available at https://toolbox.biomimicry.org/. It is literally giving you step-by-step practice of to apply biomimicry to any kinds of problem. We have also put together 30 Days of Reconnection, which is a program to give people a chance to get closer to nature. There are options to do it inside since we’ve actually designed these days of reconnection when Covid happened, but of course, it’s never the same as being outside to do some of these activities. Generally, there are so many case studies examples available on our website. We’ve got short two/three-minute animated videos of biomimicry in action that can be taken to your boardrooms in your companies to show how it works. A new batch is coming out in February. We also have material to support startups and offer training for biomimicry, for working on a nature inspired product, etc.
The study of the shark skin: https://asknature.org/strategy/skin-reduces-biofouling/
It’s commercial application: https://asknature.org/innovation/antibacterial-film-inspired-by-sharks/
Biomimicry toolbox: https://toolbox.biomimicry.org/
30 Days of Reconnection: https://biomimicry.org/30days/
We originally published this interview on OCRA, a climate forum and community that we started. This interview has been moved to our blog following the closure of the OCRA forum.
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