Biomimicry Design: The Answer May Be Zebra

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: 

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?”

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

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.

#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.

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. (

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

#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. (

#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. (

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.”

#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


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)



 [Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]




About the author

A dynamic social researcher, cultural narrator, future trendhunter and strategic designer, Jody Turner works and speaks globally via her west coast company and the London group Client engagements have included Apple, BMW, StyleVision France, Adidas, Starbucks, The Gap, Unilever Istanbul and multiple others.