Our world is miraculous. All lifeforms on Earth are individually spectacular in form and function, and they’re also collectively brilliant. Earth’s ecosystems use sustainable models of life, death, and rebirth to maintain a delicate balance.
Janine Benyus coined the term “biomimicry” nearly 25 years ago and it refers to innovation inspired by nature. Biomimicry is a practice that turns to nature to help solve human problems. In doing so, biomimicry helps us evaluate and adapt solutions for the bigger picture, taking into consideration the entire ecosystem and long-term sustainability of the solution. Benyus believes that biologists should be sitting at the design table more often. She argues that too many designers are looking to other human-developed solutions when sourcing inspiration for their own new ideas, whereas looking to nature may provide better, longer-term, more sustainable solutions.
Paper, as we know it today
There is an excellent example of biomimicry right under our noses and it’s central to the printing industry: paper. Although paper was invented nearly 2,000 years ago, its ancestral form only vaguely resembles our commercialized paper of today. Paper was made using fibres from cotton and linen rags up until only a few hundred years ago. A more cost-effective and more easily sourced raw material was necessary for mass paper production and it was wasps that provided the inspiration. In the early 1700’s, French scientist, Rene Reaumur, observed that wasps chew up wood pulp to make their paper nests. Preliminary trials using wood pulp were not hugely successful and it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1800’s that wood pulp was used as the primary raw material in paper making, but once there was a winning paper slurry formula, it took off. So paper, as we know it today, is thanks to wasps.
Remixing Mother Nature
Few ideas in the world are truly original. The creators of products and services can’t help but be influenced by people, places, and the physical spaces around them. The concept of ‘remixing’ is nothing new, but with our ever-global existence and unparalleled access to the world’s ideas, remixing has become an important part of how new ideas are formed. ‘Remix culture’ refers to the encouragement of modifying, adding to, and otherwise editing existing ideas to create new work. Remixing is not the same as copying outright or plagiarizing; instead it’s using the original as a starting point with the acknowledgement that all things come from something else.
Even powerful innovators like Elon Musk believe strongly in this idea. On June 12, 2014, Musk released a statement declaring that all of Tesla’s patents would now be available to the public in the hope of accelerating the advancement of sustainable transportation: “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” In other words, he wants you to remix his company’s ideas to help solve the climate crisis.
Scouring the internet or attending a conference to see what’s happening in our industry is one way to build on and remix good ideas, but those who study within the field of biomimicry believe that there is an virtually untapped resource of great ideas just waiting to be remixed. Look up from your computers, take a walk outside, and look to nature for your next big idea! Mother Nature has come up with an endless supply of good ideas for us to remix, without concern of copyright infringement lawsuits. Mother Nature consists of the entirety of life on Earth and how each organism connects with the rest of the system to create sustainable, long term solutions. This is often where human solutions are lacking; we opt for short term solutions to satisfy our desires for short term profits or similar metrics.
Examples from the forest
There are three ways in which our human world can mimic successes found in the natural world.
- Form – mimicking the shapes and structures found in nature
- Process – how specific groups of animals or insects communicate and work together to achieve more than individually possible
- Ecosystem – a cradle-to-cradle system with no by-products, or by-products that can be upcycled into something else
Bees are amazing. These little buzzing friends seem to hold magical innate wisdom about everything from how to discover the specialized talents of individuals, to distributing authority, to design. In his book The Wisdom of Bees, author Michael O’Malley reveals how much can be learned about running happy, productive workplaces by observing bee colonies and their hexagonal honeycomb design. A mathematician at the University of Michigan showed that hexagons are the best shape to divide a surface because they maximize storage, minimize material usage, and they’re incredibly sturdy. In fact, 1 lb of beeswax can support 20 lbs of honey! Another important feature of the honeycomb shape is that it’s beautiful. So although it’s believed that form has to follow function, bees teach us that we can have it all. (I can’t wait for future office designs to feature ‘hexicles’ in place of ‘cubicles’!)
Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker is an author and evolutionary biologist who explains that we can learn a lot about optimal organizational structures from our Earth’s history. She argues that as organizations grow larger and they need ‘huge bones’ to support the weight of their structures. These huge skeletons add weight to the company, adding cost and slowing down adaptation to change. “Hierarchies can only scale so much—we can’t grow bigger bones forever.” Woolley-Barker explains that hard-working creatures like ants and termites existed during the reign of the dinosaurs and are still thriving today. She calls these creatures ‘superorganisms’ or species that employ specialized divisions of labour as a group to survive. She states that these types of organisms are made up of distinct individuals who all work together to accomplish a similar task as a larger organism, but with much less processing power. Collective intelligence and collaborative innovation is what powers these superorganisms to outlast the huge ‘untouchable’ dinosaurs (and maybe even humans). Although hierarchies in life and in organizations have their place, observing superorganisms in the natural world is an amazing opportunity to rethink the ‘necessary’ structures of our organizations.
Innovation through biomimicry can happen in just about any company in any industry. Take, for example, Interface, who manufactures commercial flooring. They, along with Biomimicry 3.8, have developed a methodology called ‘Factory as a Forest’ (FaaF). They are using nature as their ultimate benchmark to know when they’ve achieved ultimate sustainability. The idea is to take biomimicry to the next level, beyond just product design, to discover ways to emulate nature’s sustainable and productive ecosystem. This decision is based on the concept of becoming a ‘positive’ business, which aims to achieve better than carbon neutrality, with the aim to not just neutralize the climate crisis, but to aid in solving it.
Biomimicry thinking framework
So how can you begin to think about designing the next product, service or entire company with the power of biomimicry? Enter the Biomimicry DesignLens. The entire framework is underpinned by “Life’s Principles.” These are a set of tried-and-true lessons that have proved sustainable throughout the history of planet Earth. They include adapting to changing conditions, being locally attuned and responsive, using life-friendly chemistry, being resource efficient (material and energy), integrating development with growth, and evolving to survive. These are the design lessons that the Biomimicry DesignLens leans on to measure the alignment of human and natural design.
In the DesignLens itself, there are four overarching phases (and specific steps within each phase) to thinking about a design problem using a biomimicry lens: scoping (define context, identify function and integrate Life’s Principles), discovering (discover natural models, abstract biological strategies), creating (brainstorm bio-inspired ideas, emulate design principles) and evaluating (measure using Life’s Principles). The ultimate goal is that this framework will help organizations take inspiration from the natural world in order to innovate human forms, processes, and whole ecosystems in sustainable ways.
Turning to nature for your next big idea
Go ahead and copy, borrow, or outright steal one of Mother Nature’s ideas and apply it to your organization. Ask not “how might we…?” but rather, “how would nature…?” No one can argue that 3.8 billion years of research and development isn’t long enough. Let’s look to the past and tap into the natural resources all around us to solve the problems of today and future-proof solutions for tomorrow.
To learn more about biomimicry thinking, check out the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. To learn more about the Biomimcry DesignLens, check out www.biomimicry.net. To learn about specific ways nature has solved a variety of problems, check out www.asknature.org.