Bio…what? #biomimicry

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A blank polite stare followed by “Bio…what?” is the most common reaction I get from people when they ask me my area of expertise. I’ve gotten pretty good at the one-sentence response. I’m sure the look of blissful surprise on my face when someone has actually heard of biomimicry is priceless. It’s indeed not the most common area of study, but it is in my opinion by far the most hopeful approach to (re)imagining our future.

What is “biomimicry”?

If you’ve arrived at my site, you’ve likely heard the term biomimicry. But if you haven’t, we’re talking about solving challenges – any kind of challenge in any industry, from how to filter water to how to rethink our financial system – by learning from and emulating proven solutions evolved in other species and systems on this planet. You might also hear similar terms like “nature-inspired solutions” or “bio-inspired” or “biomimetics” or “bio-utilization”…the list goes on. There can be distinctions and nuances to these terms, but that’s for another blog post.

For now let’s agree on “biomimicry” with the caveat that I am talking about digging deep into understanding and staying true to the biology throughout any given design and development process. This last bit is important – it’s not sufficient to just be inspired by biology and continue on our merry way with our usual cleverness: there will be critical opportunities for radical innovation that will likely be missed.

When using biomimicry in any innovation process, the more you can understand and apply the lessons learned from biology, including the context in which that biological example exists, the more truly revolutionary your innovation has the potential to be with significant positive ripple effects throughout associated systems.

We need more of that.

Why bother?

We are all designers – designers of programs, products, systems, infrastructure, architecture, organizations, education, you name it. We are also all consumers. Every design and purchasing decision we make has an impact. Right now there are a lot of poor designs out there that do not take into account the larger context of our reality. In other words, these designs rely on human activities that trash, rip up, and eliminate the very life systems that support humans in a multitude of ways. But failure of these non-human systems means failure of human systems, something we cannot afford. I’m talking about humans on the path to destroying our ability to meet our very basic survival needs of clean drinking water and food. And this is not just in developing countries. This is a first world problem too.

To illustrate the extent to which we have created significant challenges for ourselves let’s look at water. Fresh water is central to all life – without it there simply is no life. There are an incredible variety of biological strategies for managing water depending on the context, including at the ecosystem level (think rainforest versus desert).

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Acacia tree, Costa Rican rainforest. Photo: Rachel Hahs

Water flows at the ecosystem level ensure local species have water in times of drought because plants can’t just up and move away – water is local. Humans rely on those same ecosystem processes to provide fresh water. However, we have been systematically removing vast areas of native ecosystems for decades, which changes the capacity of these same ecosystems to stabilize and create the weather patterns and water resources we rely on. 

For example, rainforests create their own rain – a lot of it. Cut down the rainforests for raw materials or (very poor) grazing land and keep using water the way you always have (wastefully), and the rain doesn’t fall and you don’t have water anymore, just ask Brazil. Or another example – prairie plants are masters of capturing water from the air and from breathing plant roots, hardly ever letting it go and building up groundwater reserves. Replace the prairie with till agriculture, grass and impermeable surfaces, and install a first world water infrastructure system that sends all the stormwater to the Gulf of Mexico, and you have looming water shortages. Just ask Chicago. In the end, around the world we are disrupting the very systems that regulate hydrological (water) cycles we depend on for providing fresh water to us. We are not somehow separate from these systems, but a part of and dependent upon them. Maybe we have not been so smart. 

Products and mindsets generated out of a culture and economy that covet the new and dispose of everything else further perpetuate the problem. Few consumers ever consider, let alone truly comprehend the magnitude of the amount of energy, water and raw materials that go into the new phone model or piece of clothing or food they purchase and then throw away (multiplied by 7 billion people doing the same thing). Very few connect their lifestyle to the destruction of native habitats let alone the drought in Brazil or California or South Africa.  

As Albert Einstein is famously quoted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Even the conversations around “sustainability” are one-dimensional – it’s not enough to just conserve while still operating within the paradigm of consumption, disposal and unlimited growth. As designers it’s our responsibility to (re)design in a way that changes the underlying paradigm, and it seems increasingly unlikely we will get there in time relying on our own ingenuity. We need to restore and regenerate at all levels, including our own thinking. But how?

Why look to biology?

When we start to study and learn from non-human systems about how water, materials and energy are managed, we can see a completely new alternative of how those flows might occur in human systems in a way that benefits everyone – yes, everyone including all other species. It’s hard to fully comprehend what that might look like (although there are many efforts underway to do just that, such as the Ellen MacAurthur Foundation’s circular economy push). And it may be even harder to begin to figure out how to make that transition. A part of that transition effort can and should start with understanding and learning from existing and highly successful alternative strategies and mechanisms, and rethinking and redesigning our own systems accordingly as we learn.

The biomimicry concept gives me hope because it looks to solutions already proven to work on Earth – we do not have to flail around in the dark. Life’s been on this planet for a  l_o_n_g  time and the goal of Life is to survive. And not just to survive one lifetime, but to survive for generations. Which means, to paraphrase Janine Benyus, Life needs to create long-term solutions for taking care of the place that’s going to take care of future generations. Life is damn good at it. Over billions of years, Life has evolved countless intricately connected strategies to survive in every habitat on Earth, and those alive today know how to live under current dynamic conditions (think real-time market testing, with failures resulting in extinction).

How do species survive? They are efficient in everything from leveraging form to achieve a function (instead of engineering the hell out of it like we do – see the picture below), minimizing the amount of material to just what is needed for the functions the material serves, or using existing free sources of energy, like, say, from the giant hot fireball in the sky or the air currents that dance through our atmosphere.

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Can you see the size and diameter of that stoplight post? That is what you might call over-engineering (!). (Central Ave. bridge over I-55 in Chicago, IL)

But Life doesn’t stop there. Species use readily available abundant materials (like carbon dioxide) as building blocks for just about everything. They use chemistry that is life-friendly (even animal and plant toxins/poisons break down into benign building blocks for new life). They respond and adapt to the constantly changing conditions around them and they don’t grow faster than their context allows. They surprisingly often don’t just struggle through disruption, but leverage the sudden change to create opportunities for new growth. And their actions interweave with the actions of every other species around them to create conditions that allow a diversity of life to not just live, but thrive. For billions of years!

So, survival means a species carries on, generation after generation even as conditions change (which they do, constantly)…this sounds a lot like the definition of two hot topics recently flooding the mainstream – sustainability and resiliency.  Biomimicry says perhaps we might solve our sustainability and resiliency challenges not by relying solely on our own ingenuity, but rather by looking for completely new alternatives right under our noses: if we could just quiet our cleverness and look outside we’d find that there are existing solutions to pretty much all of our challenges.

So how do we find and learn these valuable lessons? The biomimicry methodology provides a path forward for doing just that – it is the ultimate “How-to Guide” to sustainability and resiliency. Not that the process and results are or will be cut and dry, and certainly there will be times where our own scientific understanding, technology and cultural systems are not advanced enough to emulate the amazing strategies we find out there. But using the biomimicry methodology to discover proven alternatives is a good start.

The Takeaway

If there is anything to glean from a first glance at biomimicry, it’s that we have a lot to learn. I cannot even tell you all the absolutely mind-blowing biological strategies I’ve discovered through project research. I will have to include some blog posts about those for you; and check out a great resource for some really cool biology in a biomimicry context in Inhabitat’s The Biomimicry Manual.

There are, of course, many significant takeaways for us humans in approaching the future through a biomimicry lens. Here are my top three:

  • First and foremost, humans behave as if the rules don’t apply to us. We are not adhering to Life’s deep principles that provide a blueprint for how to live sustainably and resiliently on Planet Earth. And while it’s great to be innovative – and as a creative species we have innovation coming out of our ears – it will get us nowhere if we don’t innovate within the context of our reality.
  • Second, Life operates on the principles of abundance and generosity. It is not just “net zero” but “net positive” – regenerative – an upwards spiral of increasing complexity supporting a greater diversity of life. Imagine if we change our story from being the scourge of the earth to being conscientious participants with the capacity for creating conditions that result in abundance and generosity for all other living organisms so they can do their thing, which turns out to allow us to do our thing too. By taking care of our place now, we are taking care of our future generations too.
  • Third, there is hope for us if we can stop, listen to, learn from and consciously choose to emulate the profound genius all around us. Life, from the smallest organism to the largest, has already figured it out. All we have to do is ask, “how would nature…?” We can make that choice. Now is our chance.

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