Bringing Biomimicry to Our Networks

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From my latest Photography Collection – My Not-So-Big Backyard

I want more people to think and do biomimicry – okay, I want a lot of people to think and do biomimicry in whatever it is they do whenever and wherever they are doing it. I want them to have a basic understanding of what biomimicry is, how it’s done and how it might apply to what they do. Then I want people to do a deep dive like this bee pictured above – to discover for themselves the potential for biomimicry to transform what they do. So I often ask myself, how does someone like myself go about doing that? Is what I’m about to do at any given time going to help me achieve that goal? And if not, how can I change my approach so that it does?

The Challenges

Let’s be real – there are a lot of challenges (which may also be opportunities!) to meeting this goal. I’ve been thinking about how to solve for (1) the broad appeal of biomimicry to people of vastly different backgrounds with vastly different interests, (2) people’s lack of knowledge on how to do biomimicry, (3) lack of capacity to spend time and money on learning the biomimicry methodology, and (4) potential inability to travel to “nature” (i.e., parks and preserves often well outside urban areas). These are not small challenges.

Biomimicry’s Broad Appeal

First, the reality of biomimicry is that it can be applied to every challenge in any context – it is at its core a tool for innovation, evaluation and measure at any scale. The concept itself is something that people seem to instinctively get – it makes perfect sense. This gets a lot of people from a lot of very different backgrounds excited because it is super cool – you can’t deny that the fact that making an LED lightbulb, which is already considered highly efficient, 55 percent more efficient (brighter) just by mimicking the firefly abdomen microstructure on the light cover is amazing and ignites a sense of wonderment and potential.

So after the excitement of discovery, the next question people always seem to ask is, “How can I do biomimicry?” We also have many people come to our Biomimicry Chicago network to say they want “to be involved.”  If we want to be locally attuned and responsive (Life’s Principle!) as biomimicry practitioners and leaders of the network, the next logical question is, how do we transform the interest and excitement about biomimicry into something. And what is that something? But with such a wide variety of people with equally widely varied interests and expertise coming to the table, it can be hard to focus efforts without cutting people out and turning them off. Is it possible to provide something for everyone?

Learning the Biomimicry Methodology

There are a growing number of opportunities in formal education settings to learn about biomimicry. And even where there are no formal biomimicry degree programs (of which there aren’t many), there are classes popping up in universities around the world, which is very exciting. There are also often opportunities to attend biomimicry workshops which seem to be increasingly focused on the application of biomimicry to a more specific challenge, such as resilience in the built environment.

However, most people are not going to take university biomimicry classes or get a degree in biomimicry. And it’s often hard to get away to attend a multi-day workshop that requires travel to a remote place, especially for people with families, and especially when the cost of the workshop and travel itself is high. These are serious barriers to entry for the majority of people interested in biomimicry. So what other opportunities are there? How can we bring people along where they are?

Time and Energy

I do think biomimicry, with its undercurrent of “doing good”, taps into people’s desire to help. Biomimicry solutions benefit people and the planet, and I do believe people definitely come to biomimicry with that hope and promise in their hearts – we all want to see better outcomes. Even more, we want to be part of the solution, a participant in creating better outcomes, especially if it aligns with our personal and professional lives.

However, the desire of people interested in biomimicry “to be involved” has caveats – the ability to be involved is limited by the person’s capacity to commit time and energy to something. And if that something doesn’t pertain to what they are interested in, either in their professional or personal lives, they will probably be less likely to find the capacity to contribute to that something, no matter their interest in or passion for biomimicry (and if they do, they’re probably seeking out formal education opportunities!). And certainly when we are passionate about something, we seem to be able to find greater motivation and energy to sustain us over the long run, even if/when the something is complicated and/or takes time.

Access to “Nature”

Last, I know I for one am not able to get much “real nature time” these days, and the lack of it makes me depressed (Chicago is not known for its nature to say the least). But this is the reality for most people in large urban areas – we are stuck with the wildlife, for better or worse, that lives in our neighborhoods, parks and places of work (some people have it better than the rest of us based on their location!). And while it’s nice to think about getting people out of urban areas and “into nature” to hold workshops, the reality is that on a day-to-day basis, the urban wildlife is the majority, if not the only, wildlife at least more than half the United States population ever sees. So how can we incorporate the reconnect to nature in our own backyards? If we strengthen people’s awareness of the life that shares their home, in the end will local nature experiences be a more powerful way to get people to recognize the need and reimagine the possibilities? I’m not sure, but for most local people we are likely to reach, this approach is a necessity.

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My Solutions (so far)

Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that actions I take as a biomimicry professional/ practitioner, need to be attuned to these caveats (limited knowledge, time, energy and money), focus on local nature experiences, and also tap into this desire (and energy) to participate and be a part of the solution. So when I think about potential future projects, I think about how I might involve others, tap into and leverage their expertise to find solutions while also teaching them about biomimicry in their own backyard along the way. The benefits are twofold (or more) – the project gains invaluable knowledge from a diversity of people, and those same people gain experience with biomimicry (while gaining an appreciation of local wildlife) which they can then take back and apply to whatever they do (my goal!).

Consciously thinking about how to do this for projects has opened up new ways of thinking about the potential of projects.

  • Leverage the desire to help, participate in something larger than oneself. For example, to address the desire to participate, to “be involved”, I believe if possible every workshop should include a significant component (if it’s not the entire focus of the workshop) where participants are given the opportunity to learn and apply the biomimicry methodology to contribute their knowledge and expertise to real challenges. Even better if the workshops are set up to solve for challenges of, and therefore benefit, non-profit organizations or communities. How would your interest in a workshop change if you knew that not only were you going to learn biomimicry but at the same time you’d be contributing potential solutions to a good cause?
  • Meet people where they are. Combine that with the idea that these workshops need to be held at a cost, schedule and location that makes it easier for more people to participate (to meet my goal anyway!), and I’m really talking about holding workshops for people in the communities in which they (and I) live. Working with urban wildlife deepens respect for nature at home. Being creative about funding, timing and partners opens up all kinds of possibilities. IF you can work out the funding (always a challenge!), the end result would be a group of people who understand the biomimicry methodology better, understand the benefits of using the tool to come up with innovative ideas and approaches to real challenges, and are hopefully inspired to continue to work to actually apply the ideas resulting in improved outcomes for the nonprofits and communities in the place in which I live and work. That sounds pretty good to me.
  • Find out what people are most interested in! Use feedback loops to ask network members what brings them to biomimicry, what they want to get out of the network and or biomimicry, but maybe even more importantly, what really floats their boat. Because perhaps if we can tap into that energy the rest will fall into place.

Other ideas to get people involved include crowdsourcing projects and hackathons (similar to a workshop but much more fluid and experimental and perhaps a different crowd) where people learn how to do biomimicry while they are contributing to collective projects or solving for local challenges/needs.

I do think taking these ideas into consideration in the projects/programs I am working on will likely result in much bigger, messier projects because there are more collaborators and they include the x-factor of individuals giving their time (potentially even paying to give their time) to learn and participate. But isn’t that the point? Don’t we want more people involved? Don’t we want more people exposed to biomimicry? Don’t we want increased opportunity to have more people participate in creating beneficial solutions to real challenges? And don’t we want them to internalize this thinking and take it back home or work where they can continue to shift norms? Maybe it’s time to take the leap.

Of course doing what I’m trained to do – using biomimicry to help solve challenges – when I evaluate my current thinking against Life’s Principles I see this approach hitting on several LPs:

  • Be Locally Attuned and Responsive
    • Use feedback loops
    • Cultivate Cooperative Relationships
  • Integrate Development with Growth
    • Build from the Bottom Up

I’ll have to explore how other LPs might improve my approach. What do you see? How can I expand and deepen my ideas?

How do you address these challenges, and are you willing to share your solutions? What’s been successful or not? How can our community learn from you?

2 comments

  1. Joe Zazzera says:

    Rachel,

    I recently attended the Biophilia Leadership Summit outside of Atlanta. The Biophila Institute was formed to inform and create more Biophilic cities, i. e. more connections to nature through policy and awareness. I suspect one way to increase the awareness, training, and knowledge of the Biomimicry process is to promote (or sell) the prospect of increased nature connections in urban environments. After all, who doesn’t want more nature? Perhaps working with city planners on this issue using the Biomimicry methodology as a tool can create multifunctional outcomes. In this way the community can have tangible outcomes and provide more environments for discovery.

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