How do I use #biomimicry?

Biomimicry is a concept so big that the possibilities seem endless. For this very reason, it might be hard to know where to start. Yet it turns out that for each and every project, the biomimicry processes are really the same. Of course there are varying depths to which a project team might go, and some examples of biomimicry really just scratch the surface while other more robust examples embody exactly why people get so excited about biomimicry.

In this post, I discuss two general general ways in which biomimicry is used. However, I feel I can’t proceed without first touching on how biomimicry at its core demands more than just pick-and-choose technology transfer from biological to human design.

Going Beyond the Technology Grab

I previously wrote about how biomimicry is the “emulation of nature’s genius” – i.e., learning from and applying the solutions embodied in other organisms to solve our own challenges. Per Biomimicry 3.8, captured in that simple statement are really three elements – the “Essential Elements” of Ethos, Reconnect and Emulate – that define what the term “biomimicry” encompasses.

Used with Permission from Biomimicry 3.8.

And while “Emulate” gets all the glory in the news media through reporting of research or commercial product innovations, the other elements of Ethos and Reconnect bring the conversation around from just emulation to the questions of, and solutions to, how we live on and in relation to this Earth. The biomimicry Ethos and Reconnect elements guide how we proceed during emulation. In other words, while it can be very impressive, it’s not enough to copy a “technology” from an organism and apply it to a product. It’s also a matter of taking the additional steps of learning and applying how that “technology” is achieved and why – learning from and emulating the materials, processes, systems – so that the interactions and relationships within and between human and non-human systems become more sustainable and resilient as well. Only then will we really begin our journey towards changing our human story, not just creating a headline-grabbing innovation.

This additional possibility that then hangs in the balance – this juxtaposition of what is now versus what could be – is what I think really ignites people’s imagination when they learn about biomimicry. Ceramics that are harder than anything we can make but are made at low temperatures with abundant materials using life-friendly chemistry in water? Whaaat? Can we do that? How do we do that? When can we do that? Why don’t we do that right now? Who’s working on that? Do you realize the energy savings? The human and environmental health benefits? Do you realize that entire supply chains will no longer exist? The complete shift in thinking it would require to understand how that manufacturing system would be structured?…” And the mind explodes… It’s powerful. And that’s just one example!

Thus biomimicry demands that the implementation methods described below must include not only a discussion about innovative technology, but also how sustainably that innovation can be sourced, produced, brought to market and brought back into the fold.

Implementation Methods

There are really two ways in which biomimicry is usually implemented. Most often, it’s presented as an innovation methodology, providing access to a treasure trove of untapped resources for inspiration. Another way it can be used is as a sustainability evaluation framework, although this is rarely, if ever, discussed in articles about biomimicry that I have read.

Innovation methodology

As an innovation methodology, the concept is relatively straightforward. This is the “emulate” portion of the Essential Elements wheel – you are trying to apply solutions found in nature to human challenges (not using the organisms themselves, but their strategies for solving for the problem). The process might start with a human challenge, or it could start with unique biological strategies that might solve any number of human challenges. In any example, at some point you are taking biological strategies and mechanisms that describe how the organism achieves that function, and translating that information into language designers/engineers/etc. (in any relevant field) can use and apply to their solutions. (Learn more about the biomimicry innovation methodology here).

I’ve found in my experience that many examples of biomimicry focus solely on form to achieve function. This is the most direct way to use biomimicry. It doesn’t require new materials or supply chains, and it often allows you to continue doing what you already do, but just do it much better (though it still can take years of research and development!). For example, a water bottle that is still a water bottle with all the issues that plague that topic, but a bottle nonetheless that uses less plastic. Or the often cited Shinkansen Bullet Train which is much quieter and efficient too. Examples like these are also visually appealing for people new to biomimicry because you can see the form translated to human design, achieving a function more effectively and efficiently. For some of these biomimicry applications, the jaw-dropping leaps in efficiency of some products can make them seem unreal. As Jay Harman described in The Shark’s Paintbrush – no one believed the science behind the products he presented because it was so radically different and more efficient, it didn’t seem possible to trained engineers.

But while impressive, many of these applications of biomimicry only get us so far towards disrupting our current unsustainable paradigms. It’s when you start getting into not only new forms but the materials that go into the form, and then the systems that support those raw materials and supply chains, that you really start to see completely radically innovative paradigms emerging that can deliver the same function, but in a completely new and much more sustainable way. The vaccine stabilizers from Nova Labs and the flame retardant from Trulstech are both examples of biomimetic products that not only rethink the technology, but present new paradigms for delivering the same services (functions) by also using totally different materials, supply chains, delivery mechanisms and product end-of-life health risks. Then you also have examples like the Sharklet technology that completely redefines our approach to bacteria management – shifting from often toxic chemicals to changing the micro surface structure!

“Sharklet is the world’s first technology to inhibit bacterial growth through pattern alone. The Sharklet surface is comprised of millions of microscopic features arranged in a distinct diamond pattern. The structure of the pattern alone inhibits bacteria from attaching, colonizing and forming biofilms. Sharklet contains no toxic additives or chemicals, and uses no antibiotics or antimicrobials.” – Sharklet Technologies, Inc. Photo credit: Ellas Levy on flickr (CC by 2.0)

This gradient of use of the biomimicry methodology is important. Innovation and design teams from startups to established companies have different constraints and opportunities to consider during the innovation process. But if given the opportunity, use of the biomimicry innovation methodology in which whole systems are considered and emulated can result in the types of striking paradigm shifts we need. The Nova Labs, Trusltech and Sharklet innovations are radical technologies. These and others like them are the promise of biomimicry.

Evaluation Framework

Throughout any design process that uses biomimicry, Life’s Principles (B3.8) or Nature’s Unifying Patterns (The Biomimicry Institute) should be used as an overarching set of design principles that help to evaluate a design against the rules for living sustainably and resiliently on this planet (the rules that say whether life will survive). They serve as guidelines for checking to see if, after all your translating of biology to design, your design really does hold up against the gold standard (because the natural model you’ve chosen by definition does exemplify these principles). Thus, in using these deep patterns in the biomimicry process we start to round out the discussion to bring in concepts of sustainability and resiliency into the design or project – the “ethos” portion of the Essential Elements wheel.

Used with permission from Biomimicry 3.8.
Used with permission from Biomimicry 3.8.

This step is important because it can drive a design team to dig deeper not only into the design, but also the context surrounding the design, including the materials going into it. Take the LP “Recycle all materials.” This applies not only to the materials going into the product, but the product at the end of its life cycle. Can you design it to be easily taken apart at the end of its useful life and recycled if there is more than one material involved? Can you get rid of materials in the design that can’t be recycled? Can you just use one recyclable material and change its properties to achieve function through structure? If there aren’t systems in place in cities to recycle your product, can you take it back and recycle and reuse it yourself? If you start to collect your products, are there others you can take as well? If you are using a recycled material like fishing nets collected from the ocean, what programs can you also put into place to change the system to disincentivize dumping of fishing nets into the ocean in the first place? And the questions go on!

There are 25 other LPs! They can really broaden your thinking if well understood and used throughout the process. They can also be used as a stand alone evaluation tool for any type of project, regardless of if you are using the innovation methodology. The LPs hit the usual sustainability points like using low energy processes, less material and non-toxic chemistry. But they also bring in many many other aspects of sustainability and resiliency that we don’t usually consider, such as incorporating feedback loops and appropriate response mechanisms, incorporating diversity, leveraging cyclic processes, building from the bottom up, and embodying resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization. All of these deep patterns contribute to sustainability, not just efficiency (which is what dominates the sustainability discussion today). Use of the deep principles as an evaluation framework can help broaden and strengthen the sustainability and resiliency of any project and product design.

It’s worthwhile to take the time to understand each LP or Unifying Pattern. At face value many are self-explanatory and you can easily begin to think about how they can inform your design. But others not so much! In later posts I’ll talk about the LPs. In the meantime, here is a great introductory blog post from Denny Royal at Azul 7 that covers how three LPs can start to inform design for user interactions.

When to use biomimicry

The biomimicry innovation methodology and evaluation framework can be used on any number of projects in any field. Within this broad range of course there are differing levels of complexity – trying to design a silent fan blade at high speeds is a completely different type of problem than trying to design a more resilient organization, redesigning a city’s water management systems, developing an education curriculum, creating a marketing strategy or trying to build ecosystem functions into your home and property. The translation of the biology to design in the innovation methodology process might be applied in a literal or metaphorical way. The possibilities are endless.

If you do not have a design or innovation project on hand but rather want to use a new evaluation framework based on the deep patterns that make life on Earth sustainable and resilient, the LPs are a great place to start. Bringing up sustainability issues that often are not considered when evaluating a project, the LPs can illicit a much more thoughtful conversation about how a project or service might be improved.

So while your use of biomimicry might be unique in the type of project or design you are looking to improve, the processes described above are the same.  

And always, the deeper your design team can try to go with emulating not just form, but also processes (like material manufacturing, product manufacturing processes, and delivery mechanisms) and systems – even redefining an approach to the entire paradigm – and can adhere to Life’s deepest patterns, the better chance your team will have of coming up with something radically new. Something that could change our story.  

So what’s your challenge?

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