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Biomimicry Design: The Answer May Be Zebra


Our last blog was about the change makers co-working space housed at the called Per its mission, it is here I met Cameron Matthews. Cameron is currently working on a green start up at The Hub and has kindly reviewed the latest Biomimicy talk given by Janine Benyus: 

            "Two hundred or so architectural and civil engineering students and professionals put their hands down. The white noise of shifting folding-chairs and latecomers trickling in echoed in the high ceilings of the darkened auditorium.

"…and how many of you are biologists or biology students?"

            Again, nearly half of the hands in the room went up. Clearly I was in a very small minority or even alone in the audience and I was starting to think I didn’t belong.

I was attending Janine Benyus’ talk, Biomimicry in the Built World: Consulting Nature as Model, Measure, and Mentor, sponsored by the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. As the founder of an early-stage electronics startup and with a background in economics, I was skeptical of the relevance to my own interests, aside from my boyish curiosity of cool animals which had brought me in the door. But as the presentation began and the screen behind her lit up with brilliant panoramas of diverse ecosystems, then zoomed down to wildly imaginative macros of plants, animals, and fungi custom-built for survival, synapses fired and a storm cloud of ideas gathered strength. Nature, it seems, is an expert in efficient systems. By observing these systems and the problems they solve we can tap into millions of years of evolutional R&D.

Lesson #1: Learn from the lowliest

            … like slime molds. Ms. Benyus (who is NOT one of the "lowliest," but hey, nobody’s perfect) is considered by many to be the "mother" of the biomimicry movement and is passionate about slime molds. In fact, she has a thing for all organisms seemingly tiny, insignificant, and grotesque. These organisms often have some of the most "clever" ways of solving systemic problems.

            Slime mold spores start out as individual organisms scattered about the forest, but as a rich food resource like a delicious dying log becomes known to a few, thousands converge into a single colony. The distribution and structure of the organisms as they come together is remarkable. In still unknown ways, they communicate to form efficient nutrient transportation pathways. These distribution patterns can be used to model other systems like subways, city planning, and electrical grids… and they can do it in a matter of hours. (

            Other lowly idols include limpets, velvet worms, and slugs, whose natural slime was studied by Nike in development of their non-toxic shoe adhesive.         

Lesson #2: Resource aggregation is a key to moving past exploitation and exhaustion

Many organisms have adapted ways to collect and aggregate dispersed resources. Nowhere is this better displayed than in the desert, where scarce water is focus of life for many. When fog rolls in, The Namibian Beetle climbs to the top of a dune and stands on its front legs with its rump in the air, condensing moisture from the air on its textured shell. The design of body and head promote aggregation and flow of water directly into the beetle’s mouth to "drink" the fog. (

Dew capture is an ancient practice, but has gained larger-scale momentum lately with organizations such as FogQuest building condensation systems around the world. (

Lesson #3: Design better systems, not better components

… and reduce redundancy! The question is, "Why design a better cleaner when you can design something that doesn’t need to be cleaned?" This principle is everywhere in nature and is starting to be picked up by designers. Slow moving Galapagos sharks keep bacteria and organisms from growing on their skin with special texture that doesn’t allow microorganisms to attach. A company called Sharklet Technologies has turned this concept into several products, including anti-bacterial surfaces for hospitals and anti-fouling hull coatings to reduce drag and improve efficiency on ships. (

            Other examples include butterfly wings and lotus leaves, whose micro-textures don’t allow dirt to adhere and are cleaned by rainfall or other moisture. Applications for these micro-textures abound, from solar panels and building exteriors that self clean to fabrics, airplanes, and beyond. (

While this first generation of biomimicry is changing the field of product and civil design, adaptation of these principles to business processes can’t be far behind. If a healthy economy is simply an efficient system of exchanging scare resources, and a healthy business is an efficient business, then it only makes sense to optimize efficiency by modeling our systems on the millions of examples found all around us, from the microscopic to macro Earth ecosystem.

How might nature solve the problems that businesses and governments face today? What might nature be able to tell me about an optimal growth rate for my fledgling (see? the language is already biomimicked) company or how to differentiate in a saturated/overcrowded market? What about shipping & logistics, or where to manufacture in order to minimize shipping? What might nature suggest about whether to acquire or develop a new technology in-house? What is the efficient allocation of resources between IT infrastructure, R&D, manufacturing, marketing, etc? How does nature do marketing? What does nature say about employee relations and company culture?

It was just two weeks after Ms. Benyus’ talk that I met Jody Turner of Culture of Future. She was hosting a workshop at The Hub in Berkeley ( on trend research and strategy and I was, of course, in attendance. The workshop was great and worthy of a separate discussion, but there was one thing in particular that caught my attention. We were talking about how to listen to feedback and not to dismiss ideas as irrelevant. "If someone says the answer is ‘Zebra,’ don’t tell them it’s not Zebra; listen to what they are saying and add onto their answer if you have a difference of opinion."

Lesson #4: The answer may in fact be "Zebra"

Coincidentally, two weeks before, Ms. Benyus stood at the lectern and explained how the black and white stripes of a Zebra create variations in air temperature just above the surface of the skin, which in turn creates an air current and natural cooling system surrounding the zebra on the sweltering savannah. "Skins" are coming into use in architecture as well (like the Phare Tower in Paris, for thermoregulation, water collection, energy harvest, and self cleaning surfaces.

There are many unanswered questions to systematic problems throughout business, civic planning, and design. The answer to some of those questions just might be Zebra."

*                                                            *                                                            *

And if we at were to add on a Lesson #5 it would sound something like: Hang out in the question … Create the posture of being open to all possibilities. We are dealing with such wild complexity of variables there is no right answer. We are looking for field sets of viable solutions, being open to all ideas is critical in terms of creating new pathways forward. Primarily we can’t use our old thinking or assumptions at the surface and it is fundamentally impossible for one person to track the depth of what is going on today. Collaboration gives us infinite edges off of which to generate a new emergence, which is the fuel of all creativity and innoventive (made up word) thinking.


 [Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]