Janine Benyus helped bring the word biomimicry into 21st century vocabularies in her 1997 book on the subject. Her company, The Biomimicry Group, encourages biologists at the design table to ask: how would nature design this? She says our human society will create a more sustainable world in part by emulating the natural organisms all around us, which have already gone through billions of years of trial and error to find elegant and amazing solutions to process and design problems.
Benyus spoke with EarthSky's Jorge Salazar:
What is biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. It’s the process of looking at a leaf and trying to figure out how to make a better solar cell.
Biomimicry has been going on for a long time. Think about the Wright brothers looking at turkey vultures to learn about drag and lift in flight.
Now biomimicry is becoming one of the ways that engineers, product designers, and architects do their work. It’s mainly because people are looking for more sustainable ways to do things—to sip energy instead of guzzle it, to save materials, to do things in less toxic ways.
Organisms know how to do these things. After 3.8 billion years, life has learned what works and what’s appropriate on the planet. And that’s what the people trying to redesign our world are looking for—so we can live here in a way that enhances this place.
What are some of the best examples of biomimicry?
I like looking at what organisms do that’s completely different from the way we do the same thing. For instance, take a peacock feather. If we were to make it, we would use chemicals and pigments. But actually, the only pigment is brown. It’s done with structural color and transparent layers. When light reflects back to us through the layers, it creates the color blue or green or gold to your eye.
There’s now an e-reader display screen that uses the same principle. It’s made by Qualcomm. It needs no backlighting, because it uses layers and the ambient light to create the different color pixels to your eye. So it’s an incredible low-energy way to do it.
Here’s another example. Life doesn’t use detergent to clean itself. If you think of things like leaves, that need to stay clean. How do they keep the dust off of them?
The famous example is the lotus leaf. That’s a leaf that grows in a muddy area, and yet it’s very clean and pristine. The way it keeps itself clean is it has bumps on its surface. When rainwater comes, it balls up. Dirt particles teeter on those bumps. The rainwater balls them away, pearls them away. And that’s been mimicked in building facade paint called Lotusan. The dry paint has that bumpy structure. And rainwater cleans the building, instead of sandblasting or detergents. It’s coming out in all kinds of products—like fabric. It’s called the lotus effect.
How do businesses learn and apply ideas from nature?
In biomimicry, we bring in biologists to the design table. And when a company is trying to develop, for example, a new way to package, we ask, how does nature contains liquids? How does nature repel water? How does nature filter? How does nature resist impacts?
We ask all these kinds of questions, and we do what’s called an amoeba-through-zebra report. We look through the biological literature. We find different ways that organisms do this, and then we present those ideas, those strategies to the inventors, to the R&D team. Very often they look at them say, wow,this is an amazingly simple and beautiful way to solve this problem.
For businesses, biomimicry is about bringing a new discipline—biology—to the design table. It’s not to write an environmental impact statement, as most biologists in business do right now. Instead it’s to go upstream in the design process and say: "How would nature design this?"
What businesses are finding is that the ideas from the natural world actually reduce risk because they use fewer toxins. They don’t use a lot of energy. They’re absolutely parsimonious with materials. Companies not only get a breakthrough product or process, but they wind up saving money. And they wind up being a lot more sustainable, which is what customers are looking for these days.
Biomimicry is a way of looking at 3.8 billion years of good ideas to allow us to leapfrog ahead without having to go through all those years of evolution. We’re able to benefit by emulating the organisms that have already gone through the trial-and-error process and come up with amazing solutions.
Businesses also use biomimicry to re-imagine their whole company. We use this thing called life’s principles, which basically is a list of the things that organisms on Earth have in common. The vast majority of organisms run on sunlight, for example. They do their chemistry in water. They use a small subset of the periodic table. They shop locally. And these principles, when applied at a company level, create a company that not only is environmentally sustainable but that’s resilient—that’s able to adapt and evolve and be locally responsive—and can collaborate in new ways.
It’s an interesting to see design principles in the natural world and say, what if my company functioned like a healthy coral reef or a healthy prairie or a healthy forest? It’s a new way of looking at things, especially now. The watchword right now is resilience in the face of change.
I think that these economic shocks that we’ve been feeling are going to be coming more frequently. They’re going to be lasting longer. And the companies that are truly learning companies, truly adaptive, truly resilient, truly diverse, and decentralized and network-based—like ecosystems—are the ones that are going to survive and thrive.
While in the beginning, you think it’s kind of a stretch to think of a company and a healthy forest as having anything in common, actually the closer those two are in terms of how they function, the healthier that business is going to be.
How can people get involved in biomimicry?
There are a lot of roles for everybody in biomimicry. If you work in a company, and you have an R&D department, hire a biologist to come into your R&D department.
If you are a student, and you’re looking for a whole new career and you’re interested in biology, consider being a biologist at the design table. Go to biomimicry.net. We’ve got lots of courses that we’re running, everything from a one-hour course all the way up to a two-year master level course.
If you’re a designer, an architect, an engineer, a chemist, material scientist—somebody who makes things for a living—consider getting a specialty in biomimicry. Again, go to biomimicry.net and look for our educational opportunities.
More and more universities are teaching biology to non-biology majors. You can find out about that at The Biomimicry Institute, which is our non-profit arm.
Or go on asknature.org. It’s a website that organizes biological strategies by function. Type in something like ‘how would nature lubricate?’ Up will come all kinds of interesting ways. And it won’t be oil-based lubricants.
If you’re doing biological research, upload your research to asknature.org. Become a curator of one of the pages. If you’re a designer, go to that site – and if you’ve got ideas that were inspired by a biological organism—let us know about it. If you’ve got a product inspired by an organism, let us know about that.
Janine Benyus’ 1997 book on biomimicry is called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
This interview is part of a special EarthSky series Biomimicry: Nature of Innovation produced in partnership with Fast Company and sponsored by Dow.