Category: Biomimicry & Innovation

Looking for Inspiration? Biomimcry Global Design Challenge: Climate Change

Photo: Half-Seeded Dandelion, Wikipedia

A couple years ago I did a project where I looked for biological models that might help answer the question, How does nature adapt to increasing scarcity of water, nutrients and energy? In light of the Biomimicry Institute’s 2017 Global Design Challenge focus on climate change, I thought I’d share what I found in the hopes it inspires the innovation we so urgently need in this area.

Aside from two weeks of frigid temperatures and snow in December, I’m not sure winter is coming to Chicago this year. People I talk to around the world have anecdotes that are similar – weather patterns are just not the same. And as we all know, despite our current government’s attempt to silence its own scientists, the notion of climate change does not rest on anecdotes but on solid science. And the science tells us that climate change is accelerating. Whether we choose to “believe” it or not is irrelevant. The question is, what are we going to do about it? (For a description of how humans are impacting global climate cycles, see my previous post.)

To be a part of the solution, the Biomimicry Institute’s 2017 Global Design Challenge (currently ongoing – deadline April 30!) is focused on climate change. They have two general categories for which they are looking for innovations:

  • Helping communities adapt to or mitigate climate change impacts (i.e. those forecasted or already in motion), and/or
  • Reversing or slowing climate change itself (e.g. by removing excess greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere).

These are not small challenges. Where does one start?

Because these problems are so complex and will require systemic changes that are comprised of behavioral changes from the individual to system levels, breaking down the challenge into more specific areas of inquiry can help challenge teams focus on biologized questions that might give a team natural models that will inspire concrete results. When brainstorming natural models it’s important to look at all scales, from single organisms to ecosystems. Diversity in scale and context can begin to provide a better picture of how individual behaviors add up to system dynamics, and potentially give innovative insights into critical leverage points in the system.

A sampling of biological models for adaptation

A couple years ago I did a team project where we looked for biological models that might help answer the question, How does nature adapt to increasing scarcity of water, nutrients and energy? I came up with the following natural models and design principles. I hope these might help you and your team in your challenge innovation process!

Click on the title of each box to link to summaries of the strategies and key references I used to develop these design principles provided farther below. Please feel free to reach out to me for more information on any of these biological models.

Photosynthetic Plasticity Enables Rapid Acclimation: CAM Plants

Biological strategy

Photosynthetic plasticity enables CAM plants to acclimatize in response to dynamic environments through a variety of rapid, flexible and reversible photosynthetic processes.

Design Principle

Employ a variety of rapid, flexible and reversible resource management methods that activate or deactivate in response to short-term variations in resource availability enabling survival during periods of scarcity and exploitation of resources during periods of abundance.

Phenotypic Plasticity Maintains Fitness: Dandelion

Biological strategy

Phenotypic plasticity of the dandelion maintains fitness across a wide variety of light intensity environments by modifying structural, chemical and reproductive traits in response to local light levels.

Design Principle

Modifying structural, chemical and growth mechanisms in response to energy intensity levels enables optimized access to and use of available energy resources across a wide variety of systems.

Plant Maximizes Water Utilization: Creosote

Biological strategy

The Creosote bush maximizes water utilization by adjusting growth patterns, chemical processes and allocation of resources to optimally maintain function in response to unpredictable water availability, enabling survival under severe drought.

Design Principle

Maximize resource utilization by adjusting growth patterns, vital functional processes and allocation of resources to optimally maintain function in response to unpredictable resource availability, enabling survival under severe resource scarcity.

Native Symbiotic Structures Increase Fitness: Fungi

Biological strategy

Plants and fungi co-adapted in nutrient-poor native soils increase their fitness by developing more expansive symbiotic structures to maximize uptake and exchange of scarce resource(s) most limiting to growth.

Design Principle

Local entities adapted to resource-limited environments increase success by developing more expansive symbiotic local resource uptake networks and exchange nodules specifically designed to maximize access to and availability of the local resource(s) most limiting to growth.

System Development Process Secures Scarce Nutrients: Ecological Succession

Biological strategy

The process of ecological succession secures increasingly scarce nutrients by establishing progressively complex interdependent structures and processes that increasingly minimize nutrient outflow and lock up nutrients in organic matter that stays within the system, resulting in a closed-loop nutrient cycling system.

Design Principle

Secure increasingly scarce resources by establishing progressively complex interdependent system components that increasingly minimize resource outflow and incorporate resources into system component materials that do not leave the system, resulting in a closed-loop resource cycling system.

CAM Plants

Diagram_CAM Plants_strategyWhile most plants open their pores during the day to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air to conduct photosynthesis (converting sunlight energy to sugars needed for growth) in a process called C3, CAM plants open up their pores and take in CO2 at night when conditions are cooler and more humid to reduce by approximately one-tenth the amount of water loss that occurs when pores are open. CAM plants then store the CO2 until daylight when photosynthesis occurs in sunlight behind closed pores. There are four phases identified in the CAM process, and depending on environmental conditions, CAM plants may employ all four phases including opening their pores in early and late daytime light (in times of sufficient water) or only one phase when the pores never open day or night (in severely dry conditions). CAM plants from desert habitats, such as cactuses and succulents, where intense permanent stressors are intense heat, sunlight and lack of water, have evolved very little variation in their use of CAM – even when moved to more humid habitats they still open their pores only at night.

However, CAM plants adapted to dynamic environments where conditions are variable, such as orchids living on tree branches in the tree canopy in tropical forests, have the ability to modify the CAM phase they are expressing in response to changing environmental stresses, sometimes within a matter of hours. Some CAM plants (CAM/C3 intermediates) are also able to switch completely from using the CAM process to using the C3 photosynthetic process in response to environmental conditions. Stressors in the environment which might trigger changes in process include interactions between temperature, sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, nutrients and sometimes salinity. The photosynthetic plasticity of tropical CAM plants allows fast, flexible and readily reversible responses to allow for acclimation in response to dynamic stresses enabling CAM plants to occupy many niches with high species diversity in a wide range of tropical habitats where resource availability is variable.


Lu¨ ttge U. 2010. Ability of crassulacean acid metabolism plants to overcome interacting stresses in tropical environments. AoB PLANTS 2010: plq005, doi:10.1093/aobpla/plq005. Epub 2010 May 13. doi:  10.1093/aobpla/plq005

Borland, et.a al. 2011. The photosynthetic plasticity of crassulacean acid metabolism: an evolutionary innovation for sustainable productivity in a changing world. New Phytol. 2011 Aug;191(3):619-33. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03781.x. Epub 2011 Jun 16.

Kluge, M., Razanoelisoa, B. and Brulfert, J. (2001), Implications of Genotypic Diversity and Phenotypic Plasticity in the Ecophysiological Success of CAM Plants, Examined by Studies on the Vegetation of Madagascar1. Plant Biology, 3: 214–222. doi:10.1055/s-2001-15197

Osmond, CB. 1978. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism: A Curiosity in Context. Annual Review of Plant Physiology. Vol.29:379-414 (Volume publication date June 1978) doi:10.1146/annurev.pp.29.060178.002115




Dandelions are able to survive under a wide variety of environments. Dandelions most often produce seeds without needing a pollinator, resulting in offspring that are clones (genetically identical) of the parent plant. Therefore, their ability to be significantly adaptive to local environments rests not in changes occurring at the genetic level but as a result of their phenotypic plasticity – i.e., their ability to change their structural and functional traits in response to the limiting (scarce) resources in a local environment. Trait changes may include altering traits such as photosynthetic processes, leaf angles, and flowering time. In response to decreasing availability of light in shaded understories, dandelions produce significantly longer, more rounded “shade” leaves with a greater surface area to collect scarce light resources; taller flower stems to increase access to potential pollinators; and they speed up the time it takes to flower, create and disperse mature seeds.


Molina-Montenegro, M.A., Peñuelas, J., Munné-Bosch, S. et al. “Higher plasticity in ecophysiological traits enhances the performance and invasion success of Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) in alpine environments.” Biol Invasions (2012) 14: 21. doi:10.1007/s10530-011-0055-2



Diagram_Creosote_strategyCreosote is the most drought-tolerant plant in North America, using a wide range of adaptations to live in harsh habitats where sometimes it is the only plant living. Creosote can live with no rain at all for more than two years and individuals can live to be thousands of years old. Creosote essentially maintains two mechanisms for growth and reproduction to maximize utilization of a scarce resource – through an annual growing season when rains are typically present (in the spring), and opportunistically when brief rains occur at other times of the year.

Under extremely dry conditions, Creosote is able to continue to grow and reproduce with minimal water loss. In decreasing water availability, the bush is able to adjust its osmotic potential significantly lower, meaning it increases chemical concentrations in its leaves which increases its ability to move water from soil to roots to leaves (but is also taxing on the plant). The extremely low osmotic potential enables the bush to draw water up to its leaves from underground sources through its deep “tap” root (up to about 10 feet in depth). With a low osmotic potential the leaf cells are able to maintain enough water to continue with reduced photosynthesis such that the plant continues to grow and even flower in drought, albeit in a limited capacity. In periods of water stress Creosote allocates resources to reproduction at a cost to vegetative growth.

However, the Creosote bush is also able to quickly capitalize on brief rains when they occur. Creosote has a second thin fibrous root pattern that exists just under the soil surface that can spread out up to 50 square yards from the base of the plant. New cell growth on these surface roots are incredibly efficient at soaking up surface water, appearing to grow inches in day. With the sudden increase in water availability, Creosote is able to adjust its osmotic potential appropriately and increase photosynthesis and thus growth, including a quick burst of flowering. In addition, the bush will continue at an accelerated growth rate while water is available, allocating additional resources towards vegetative growth. Because Creosote blooms both seasonally and opportunistically, plants during late summer monsoons can be putting out new shoots, blooming, and setting seed at the same time. Once the water is gone, the plant will again adjust growth and chemical processes to withstand drought conditions.


MEINZER, F. C., RUNDEL, P. W., SHARIFI, M. R. and NILSEN, E. T. (1986), Turgor and osmotic relations of the desert shrub Larrea tridentata. Plant, Cell & Environment, 9: 467–475. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3040.1986.tb01762.x

Sharifi, M. R., et al. “Effect of Manipulation of Water and Nitrogen Supplies on the Quantitative Phenology of Larrea Tridentata (Creosote Bush) in the Sonoran Desert of California.” American Journal of Botany, vol. 75, no. 8, 1988, pp. 1163–1174.,


Mycorrhizal Fungi

Diagram_Mychorrhizal symbioses_strategyPlants and fungi that co-adapt in nutrient-poor native soils improve their survival and reproduction by developing larger mutually beneficial structures to maximize uptake and exchange of the locally scarce resource(s) that are most limiting to growth. Fungi grown in the soils in which they have evolved grow larger fibrous branching growth structures for nutrient uptake and many more resource exchange nodules on the roots of plants also adapted to the same local nutrient-poor soils. These fungi structures are specifically adapted to maximize the exchange of the limiting resources in their local soil conditions. For example, if phosphorus is scarce in home soils, the fungi develop large structures to maximize the uptake and exchange of phosphorus with their host plants. However, if this same fungi were moved to a foreign soil location where nitrogen was scarce and most limiting to growth, the fungi would not only develop fewer growth and exchange structures, but would still maximize uptake of phosphorus, thereby not maximizing the survival and reproduction of plants deficient in nitrogen in the foreign soil. Therefore, survival and reproduction of plants and fungi is greatly increased when plants and fungi are grown together in their home soils because of their strategy to mutually maximize the uptake and exchange the locally limiting resource(s).


Collins Johnson, Nancy, et al. “Resource limitation is a driver of local adaptation in mycorrhizal symbioses.” PNAS, vol 107 no. 5, February 2, 2010, pp.2093-2098. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906710107

Klironomos, J. N. (2003), Variation in Plant Response to Native and Exotic Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi. Ecology, 84: 2292–2301. doi:10.1890/02-0413

Ecological Succession


Diagram_Ecological succession_strategy

Ecosystem development following a disturbance where no life is present (such as after lava flows) is called primary succession. At the start of primary succession, nutrients necessary for plant life are locked up in the bedrock (such as phosphorus) or in the air (such as nitrogen). Pioneering plants that are first on the scene are able to tap into these nutrients by fracturing and wedging into rocks with their root systems. As soils develop around the plant roots from a buildup of decaying plant and weathered rock materials, these pioneering plants also fix nitrogen from the air to the soils. At this stage, however, a high rate of decomposition due to higher temperatures from sun exposure breaks down nutrients in the system at a high rate. Many of the nutrients gathered on site are lost in surface water runoff and leaching as the soils are shallow and not well compacted. As additional abundant quick-growing, quick to seed plants are established, the increasing soil layer serves to reduce water runoff and promote the slow percolation of water, increasing the availability of water and nutrients. Decomposition (breaking down) of organic matter, plant roots and soil organisms add carbon dioxide to soils, helping to increase the acidity of soils which serves to break down minerals into nutrients available for uptake by plants.

Once enough nitrogen is present in soils, an additional diversity of plants start to grow on site. Increasing diversity of plant (and animal) life results in an increasing variety and density of physical structures including leaf sizes, height of plants, and roots structures. The more complex system structure is increasingly able to absorb additional gases from the air while also creating deeper, more compact soils that trap nutrients on site. In addition, with the increasing canopy of leaves and larger root volumes, water runoff is again decreased not only because the soils are able to hold more water, but because the plants also return water as vapor to the air, decreasing the amount of water making it down to the soil and flowing off site. Decreased runoff decreases the loss of nutrients. However, due to the high rate of nutrient loss (particularly phosphorus) during primary succession, and as more species colonize the site, fewer nutrients are available relative to the increasing organic matter on site. The increasing resource scarcity results in increasing competition as well as mutualisms between organisms to gain access to increasingly scarce nutrients. Plants that grow more slowly and are able to capture nutrients in their roots and mass, such as shrubs and trees, gain competitive advantage and push out the smaller, faster-growing, nitrogen-fixing plant species.

As ecological succession continues toward a mature state where species diversity is greatest but nutrients limiting to growth are scarce, nutrients become locked up in the soils and plant and animal matter, with the highest amount of nutrients locked up in decomposing matter like leaf litter. At this stage the ecosystem structure has mature trees that block much of the sunlight making it down to the forest floor, which slows the rate of decomposition as well as reduces water loss. The rarest of nutrients necessary for plant growth, such as phosphorus, are cycled tightly within the ecosystem’s physical and chemical structures. This type of nutrient cycling is considered “closed loop”, meaning the loss of nutrients is minimized and the diverse array of species in all niches of the ecosystem take part in the upcycle of nutrients throughout the system again and again. By locking up scarce resources necessary for life within the ecosystem structure, the system avoids collapse.


Allenby, B. R. and Cooper, W. E. (1994), Understanding industrial ecology from a biological systems perspective. Environ. Qual. Manage., 3: 343–354. doi:10.1002/tqem.3310030310

Gorham, Eville, et al. “The Regulation of Chemical Budgets Over the Course of Terrestrial Ecosystem Succession.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 10, 1979, pp. 53–84.,

Biomimicry: Inspiration, Jackpot, Failure & Hope

While walking in the grocery store last Sunday, the shelves were empty in several places where they hadn’t been restocked. The bare shelves were just a reflection of a busy day, but the thought crossed my mind, what if access to choice in foods was like this everyday? I am lucky – spoiled rotten really – but for many in my own country, let alone around the world, food insecurity is a reality. (Food insecurity is the set of circumstances that prevent your access to food such as lack of money, unemployment, lack of access to transportation and health problems)

Can you imagine being hungry everyday? Or knowing that you can buy food now, but at the end of the month when your bank account runs dry, you may have to send your kids to school hungry? Or choosing between (for the same price) a box of processed mac ‘n’ cheese that could feed your family and a healthy apple that could only be a snack? Or stand in a long line to pick up free food from a food pantry two days after you ran out of food? Food insecurity has no race, ethnicity or class. This is happening to people in your own community, maybe to your unemployed neighbor who lost their job 6 months ago. It breaks my heart and nags at me. So I thought I’d share my experience with using biomimicry to develop solutions to this problem in the hopes I might inspire you to do the same with something you care about.

Art of Science Learning Innovation Incubator

To someone who loves food in a country with an excess of it (approximately ⅓ of our food goes to waste), the fact that approximately 1 in 6 people in the US aren’t necessarily sure where their next meal will come from is simply abhorrent. For this reason and to expand my skills in the innovation process for a good cause, I participated in the 2014  Art of Science Learning (AoSL) year-long Chicago Innovation Incubator focused on urban nutrition challenges.

The innovation incubator was a lesson in the innovation process, but even more than that, I increasingly realized through the weekly presentations by a wide variety of people working on this issue in Chicago that extremely well-intentioned knights riding in on white horses with solutions aimed at helping communities most often really don’t change anything in the long term. Change must be fostered, generated and supported from within communities to be sustained. Bringing in fresh food into a neighborhood doesn’t change the neighbor’s employment status, transportation options, nor the food choices that person makes. In short, the underlying challenges that cause food insecurity and sustainable affordable access to fresh foods are still there, even after the knights ride off into the sunset.

How would nature…?

It just so happens that I started my Biomimicry Professional program in the fall of 2013, and started my first biomimicry thinking course in January 2014. To, as Dayna Baumeister likes to say, “feed two birds with one scone”, I used my biomimicry thinking homework to find natural models that might inform and inspire my brainstorming around urban nutrition challenges in the innovation incubator. I was not disappointed.

I started out with the question, How does nature self-organize to create a complex ecosystem? After my biological model brainstorming, I settled on mychorrizal fungal networks. Mycorrhizal fungal networks (“mycorrhizal networks “) provide the foundational structure in which feedback loops allow diverse species to interact and direct resources where needed, resulting in a complex self-organized ecosystem. Mycorrhizal networks consist of interconnected mycelium of any number of fungus species that also connect the roots of different plants. The mycorrhizal network fungi obtain part of all of their carbon from the plant species linked into the network, while the plants obtain and the nutrients the mycelium take up through the soil, resulting in a mutualistic relationship.

A prime example of this relationship between the networks and plant species is the presence of mycorrhizal networks in the interior Douglas-fir (Pseudostuga menziesii var. glauca) forests of North America. The networks play an integral role in these self-organized complex, adaptive systems. The mycorrhizal networks, which connect most trees in a dry interior Douglas-fir forest, provide a shared infrastructure through which the network shuttles carbon, nutrients or water from older to young trees according to need through positive and negative feedback loops. The largest, oldest trees serve as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Survival of these establishing trees is greatly enhanced when they are linked into the mycorrhizal network of the old trees as seen particularly after a disturbance in the subsequent self-organization that occurs to regenerate the forest facilitated by the foundational mycorrhizal network. (1)

The example of the mycorrhizal network’s role in the Douglas-fir ecosystem can be extrapolated to other ecosystems as well – the networks provide an incredible tool through which distinct species can interact and share resources according to need.

The deep function of this network that I focused on for the urban nutrition challenge was the redistribution resources. In a nutshell (design principle), the use of positive and negative feedback loops to facilitate efficient exchange and redistribution of resources according to need to diverse entities via an interconnected network that contains dispersed resource-rich hubs results in the emergence of more stable, resilient communities and allows for rapid regeneration after periods of disturbance.

The biomimicry-based solution

Understanding mycorrhizal network design principles in combination with Life’s Principles gave me a unique perspective on the challenges that no one else in the program came to on their own. Being a systems thinker, the ideas I brainstormed from this design principle were grand, and included an internet-based platform that facilitated transparent real-time exchange of fresh foods (aka, resources) from a wide variety of producers to a wide variety of consumers (diverse species) on a regional scale (ecosystem). (To be more aligned with ecosystem functions, I also think facilitation of movement of organic materials for composting within the same regional scale on the same platform would help to close the material loops!).

I focused on the idea that seedlings have a better survival rate when tapped into the network, and that feedback loops signaling the need for resources to resource hubs and subsequent delivery of those resources improves chances for survival. The platform could benefit different scales – business startups and individuals needing to tap into the system. The platform would enable startups to find and tap into resources from and develop relationships with established resource hubs within the region. At the individual level, the platform would provide the link to enable people to find where fresh food is being sold within a defined area when they are looking for it, rate fresh foods at different locations, alert people when food had run out (if earlier than the stated time of sale), etc. Further developing how this communication platform would work at all levels would allow for self-organization of the system to efficiently distribute resources – the development and growth would come from within the system.

Many, many people are working to reduce food waste on the delivery side and are making impressive strides in this area. But we figured while it’s great to make more food available for free that would otherwise be wasted, if few people know it’s there, have you really achieved anything? So to meet our goal of developing a minimally viable product within the incubator’s timeframe, we focused in on one critical aspect of the food system that most looking to solve urban nutrition challenges and food waste do not focus on – the consumer’s ability to know where food is when they need it. 

As indicated above, survival of young trees is improved when they are tapped into the mycorrhizal fungal network. If, using this metaphor of the the internet as the fungal network and individual people as trees, being tapped into the network that serves as the pathway for getting resources is critical to one’s survival, especially in hard times. The reality is that many people living with food insecurity and hunger do not have the means or access to be tapped into our food system, and therefore suffer the consequences. 

After our team dug deeper, we found out that there is not a viable quick way to let these same people know where food will be, and when it will be there. Word of changes to food pantry schedules, new urban farm stands and farmers markets, new businesses, must mainly be spread through word of mouth and through community bulletin boards. This inefficiency in communication hinders people’s ability to know if and where food is available when they need it. It also potentially hinders food pantry and urban farmer’s ability to give away or sell all their food, resulting in a loss of potential to reduce food waste or grow local homegrown businesses. In addition, the fact that for most people food insecurity is cyclical, meaning it might just be a few months that people need help spread out over a year. So being up-to-date about opportunities to access free or affordable local fresh food can be difficult when the person is only looking for resources on a sporadic basis (due to a “disturbance” in his/her life).

Our idea targeted this disconnection and provided a way to bring people back into their local fresh food system using technology already available to the targeted group. A real-time communication platform that facilitates the distribution of information (instead of the distribution of food itself) from those who have it to those who need it, enables users to meet their own needs on their own parameters. Again, looking at two scales, it facilitates the establishment of businesses such as urban farms or facilitate the ability of food pantries to fulfill their mission by increasing their ability to communicate directly with consumers previously outside of their communication channels, increasing sales or people reached. At the smaller scale, individuals increase their ability to find food when they need it in their local area, supporting local added value. The communication platform does not dictate anything, but enables the community to self-organize, strengthening feedback loops around who is providing food, who is looking for food, what kind of food they are looking for, and when they need it. This presents the opportunity to create conditions to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system (the “Self-organize” life’s principle).

For this reason we developed a MVP for a communication platform that enables people to get updates and reminders about where food will be and when it will be there, using existing technology currently available to a majority of people in this situation (e.g., if we developed a mobile app, and only 20% of our target audience had smart phones, we would fail to bring our target audience into the system). The tool would be flexible and allow people to create their own parameters for what and when and how they wanted to receive information. After talking and working with food pantries and consumers to beta test our idea, we realized we had developed a prototype that hit upon a real unmet need in the market.

The reality of the innovation process

So what happened? Our team did not have the time (for reasons specific to each of us – existing careers, school, family, etc.) to put into making this product a reality, and figuring out viable funding scenarios was difficult. Without a dedicated champion to move it forward, the idea and work we did fizzled.

I also found that being the only person who understood the biology and method I had used to generate the initial ideas, it was difficult to continue to use the biomimicry methodology and science to further inform, develop and expand upon the idea. I think if I had worked with a team receptive and interested in using biomimicry, we could have arrived at an even more well-rounded solution. As I have said before, using high-level design principles is great for ideation, but really understanding the biology from the beginning – taking the time to be very specific about each piece, particularly when working with system challenges – creates a depth of understanding and true potential for innovative ideas that might change the world. This gives me hope.

Were I to go back and revisit this effort (with a willing team!), I would begin again with doing a deep dive into exactly (as far as scientists currently know) how these mycorrhizal fungal networks work – what resources are being shared, how signaling works, how the interface between the roots of plants and the fibers of fungus functions, etc. I would then compare that to the work I did to understand our food system components and their interactions and be very detailed about the metaphors I would draw between the two systems. In doing that, the differences in functions, strategies and mechanisms – and the potential for our system to function differently and perhaps better for all involved – would emerge. It would then of course be up to us to make it happen.

So if you are thinking of using biomimicry to help solve a challenge such as for the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge on Climate Change, I encourage you to find a team from the start that is on board with using the biomimicry methodology and start with and stick to the science as you develop your idea. It’s not easy, and certainly factors way beyond the innovation methodology can and do scuttle a project. But if we keep trying, we just might change our story.


(1) Sources:

Beiler, K. J., Durall, D. M., Simard, S. W., Maxwell, S. A. and Kretzer, A. M. (2010), Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts. New Phytologist, 185: 543–553. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.03069.x

Mycorrhizal networks and learning” by David Wiley. iterating toward progress blog. JULY 21, 2011. Accessed January 2014.  

Driving in the Dark

A sliver of moonlight dimly lit up the sides of a cargo train that slipped through the dark night along the highway in the sleepy middle of Illinois on New Year’s. The movement grabbed my eye and in a flash, the juxtaposition of my family in the comfortable bubble of our car with the often hidden mechanisms that make it all possible reminded me of the complexity of our modern lives.

Even while we sleep in the United States, the world is moving to bring us our every desire. Humanity’s vast global interconnected non-stop network is truly a marvel of modern engineering and ingenuity, political dances and pure grit. The pace of change only seems to accelerate, and the limits of the future appear to be constrained only by the limits of our imagination.

In Chicago we have bananas, strawberries, kiwi, and tomatoes in our grocery stores in January. We don’t worry about the lights going out or not having water flow from our taps. We don’t think twice about what it took to get the millions upon millions of products on shelves in stores across our city. Nor do we consider how those same products are replaced by newer models every season (and where the old ones will go). We put our trash to the curb and it disappears.

For years I have been visiting random commercial and industrial properties to do assessments as an environmental consultant. Before I started, I never thought twice about what it takes to put a label on a bottle of Gatorade, create a veneer of wood for cabinets, put a chrome finish on a bathroom faucet, smelt ore into metal rods, manage a train yard, put fresh fruit on shelves in the middle of winter, manage product inventories on vast scales, manage a landfill over the course of its long life, or turn a grassy field into a giant warehouse. But having seen all that and more, I have a deep appreciation for the complexity of systems that support our every day and I know that I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Most people never see any of it.

It’s my belief that if more of us are able to begin to scratch the surface of our daily lives to understand even superficially the life cycle of our disposable coffee cups or our shoes or the journey of a banana in January, we will begin to realize that while our modern marvel is amazing, it’s not magic. With globalization and technology, the often dirty and messy and hot and smelly and toxic occur at points in the supply chain that are increasingly further from our view. But the consequences are coming back to nip at all our heels in the form of climate change in ways we are only beginning to understand. And as we begin to accept not only the benefits but also the magnitude of both the known and unknown ramifications of those systems, we will begin to shed light on the fact that not only are we all driving blind in the dark, but we’re hurtling at 100 miles per hour down on a poorly maintained road.

If we limit our imagination to only picture a future filled with technology that anticipates and satisfies our every whim, one in which we are the center of a world that caters and bends to fulfill our wants, we are missing the larger picture. This same world will no longer fulfill our needs as a living species dependent upon the non-human systems that support us. We will imagine ourselves out of existence. If we allow our imaginations to integrate our needs with our wants, the future is what we make of it. Of course this requires an acceptance and clear understanding that our existence is intricately tied to the survival of all life forms and the finely tuned systems that life relies upon and creates.

It’s no accident that a prairie soaks up and holds onto water like a sponge. It’s how it defends against summer drought. It’s no accident that rainforests have rain, and lots of it, year-round. They create their own weather patterns. This too, while magical, is not magic. In biomimicry, we look from the small form to system-wide examples to understand how life works – not just to find fancy new technology, but to understand how life creates technology and systems that allow life to grow, regenerate and thrive so that we too can do the same.

So in this time of year when we imagine how we’d like to move forward into the future, it’s important to understand and appreciate what we have and where we are starting from. And while we appreciate the systems that have gotten us to where we are today, it’s clear that our vision for the future must include a deep reconsideration for how we can continue to do what we do but do it better. Do it smarter. Do it in a way that not only minimizes the consequences but also generates compounding benefits. Do it in a way that begins with and works backward from the most fundamental goal of all life – to create conditions conducive to life, to take care of the place that takes care of us and will take care of our children. It’s time to ask new questions and answer them with completely new solutions. We can get started by looking to the wisdom inherent in the world around us.

Let’s change our story. Today.

#SystemReset – Part 2: Plastics from Air

As we come to the close of the hottest year on modern record for the planet, the potential for a #SystemReset  that results in carbon sequestration is a welcome one. In this post, I provide an example of how an alternative biomimetic systems approach to sourcing and producing plastic that actually sequesters carbon can redefine the environmental impacts of the plastics industry while still delivering high-quality plastics that meet core functional needs.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functions of the product category.

How would nature produce plastic?

Plastics are generally made from fossil fuels through an energy intensive process that results in the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change. But a new paradigm is emerging that has the potential to radically change the plastics industry – plastic made from “air pollution” inspired by the fact that plants are sequestering carbon by turning greenhouse gases captured from the air into polymers every day.

Plants produce polymers by first converting the sun’s light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, a process in which carbon dioxide (an abundant greenhouse gas) pulled from the air is combined with water to make sugars (oxygen is a byproduct of this process). Glucose (a sugar) is then connected in long chains via an enzymatic process in proteins to produce polymers such as cellulose for structure and starch for stored energy. Cellulose and starch are of course biodegradable materials that at the end of the plant’s life are returned back into the nutrient cycle.

So startup plastics companies asked, if plants are sequestering carbon from greenhouse gases from the air into biodegradable polymers, why can’t we humans? Turns out we can.

Let’s break this down. Why is the plastics industry dominated by fossil fuel-based materials? Why does it matter? What are the alternatives and how is this radical biomimetic approach different? What are the potential impacts?

The Dominant Design in Conventional Plastics

Many different forms of plastic made from plant or animal materials existed before a synthetic plastic derived from fossil fuels was invented in 1907. The abundance and low cost of fossil fuel-based feedstocks for plastics and additives allowed for an explosion in plastics production used for an incredible variety of applications, particularly for products developed for armed forces in World War II, followed by plastics made for consumer goods after 1945. Synthetic plastics made by petrochemical companies dominate the plastics industry today.

Petroleum-based plastics use both materials derived from the refinement of crude oil as well as natural gas. It is estimated that anywhere from 1 to 6 kilograms (kg) carbon dioxide (CO2) per kg of plastic is emitted during the production of fossil fuel-based plastics.* Approximately 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, accounting for approximately 4 percent fossil fuel-based energy production and 4 percent of petroleum consumed globally each year. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the climate change we are seeing today (literally today, it’s way too warm so far this November in Chicago).

At the end of the material’s useful life, fossil fuel-based plastics are sometimes recycled, but unfortunately more often than not are thrown away. As these plastics degrade, the plastic will breakdown eventually into tiny microparticles and toxic additives in the plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA) (an endocrine disruptor), are released. However, because these microparticles are synthetic plastic, they are not broken down any further by microorganisms and thus do not reenter the natural carbon cycle.

*A Google search resulted in a wide range of estimates.

Why does it matter?

Carbon dioxide and methane are essential carbon-based greenhouse gases that are part of the natural carbon cycle on the planet. The carbon cycle helps to regulate our planet’s systems in a way that sustains life (including us humans!). As native ecosystems are replaced or modified by human development, including both agricultural and built environment systems which do not cycle carbon in the same way as the native ecosystems they replace, we begin to disrupt the ability of those native ecosystems to continue to cycle carbon in the same way and in the same quantities.

Source: Wikipedia

In addition, as we disturb carbon sinks (forms of carbon that are otherwise not released back into the carbon cycle) by burning fossil fuels, cutting down and burning forests and tilling soils for agricultural purposes, we are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere that would otherwise stay in the ground and biomass (exceeding natural fluctuations). With the decreasing ability of ecosystems to absorb and store carbon and increasing quantities of greenhouse gases released from human activities into the air, combined with insufficient carbon sequestration by humans to balance the amount released by human activities, the carbon cycle is shifting as more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans.

As the quantity of greenhouse gases increases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the gases increasingly prevent heat from the sun’s rays from escaping our atmosphere. Some trapping of heat is necessary of course or we would all be frozen to death. Increasing heat, however, changes weather patterns on a global scale, resulting in increasing flooding and drought, extreme heat and cold, intensity of storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. This change in weather patterns can result in increased human suffering in any place where these natural disasters occur – not in isolated areas, and not confined to third-world countries (have you seen Miami at high tide?). It also increasingly threatens biodiversity on our planet as many organisms cannot adapt quickly enough to the change in weather patterns which impacts everything from water availability to timing and availability of food supplies on land, and warming temperatures and increasing acidification in oceans. The planet’s systems are increasingly out of whack, and the use of fossil-fuel based materials and energy systems contributes to this disruption.

Petroleum-based plastic waste is also increasingly found throughout the world and represents an ever-increasing crisis on a planetary scale. Approximately 10-20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastics are showing up throughout our food chain at the micro-scale as plastics break down into tiny pieces but are not able to be broken down further by microorganisms because they are not biodegradable. Research on the health effects on both humans and other animals of increasing amounts of microplastics in our food chains and ecosystems is ongoing.

 The Search for  Alternatives

Realizing that the dominant design for plastics that has emerged in modern times relies on cheap fossil fuel-based feedstocks that have significant environmental and human health impacts, companies have been working to figure out more environmentally friendly and scalable feedstock alternatives that can compete on price. Most of these alternatives are bioplastics, which are derived from plant or animal based materials. By changing the feedstock to plant or animal based material, the resulting bioplastics biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle resulting in less harm to the environment at the end of life of the product. The bioplastics industry thus has the potential to significantly shift the raw material sourcing as well as impact of the disposal portions of the product category ecosystem.

However, the life-cycle petroleum inputs that are consumed in the agricultural production and energy consumption necessary to produce the plant-based materials can be close to those required for fossil fuel-based plastics. Other environmental impacts also emerge from plant-based plastics, including the potential to accelerate the rate of deforestation and soil erosion as a result of the increasing demand for agricultural land. In addition, bioplastics also face the challenge of having high costs with low yields relative to petroleum-based plastics. Thus, the resulting consensus on bioplastics is that while they generally have a lower environmental impact than fossil fuel-based plastics, the jury is still out.

The “Plastics from Air Pollution” Solution

A different emerging alternative to this dominant design, however, seeks to capture feedstocks from the air, just as plants do. By looking at the life cycle of carbon in plants, innovators were able to see an entire alternative system of carbon cycling and try to mimic aspects of it – raw material sourcing (the air), production (enzymatic process) and disposal (breakdown and recycling back into the carbon cycle to be used again).

Modeling their raw material sourcing and production and eventual disposal of polymers on the natural carbon production and degradation cycle in plants,  Newlight Technologies is commercially producing AirCarbon, a group of biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) thermoplastics that combines a biocatalyst with methane captured from biodegradation processes (before it is released into the atmosphere) and oxygen from the air to produce polymers, all done at a competitive price. Novomer is another company using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases to make polymers.

The Newlight and Novomer plastics processes are literally capturing carbon “pollution” (aka, an abundant resource that happens to be a greenhouse gas too) that would otherwise contribute to climate change and sequestering it in plastic products. In the case of Newlight, the feedstock is actually derived from the byproduct (methane) of microbes that break down organic materials in wastewater treatment plants, anaerobic digesters, landfills and farming operations. And just like the polymers produced by plants, these plastics will eventually break down into natural elements that are digestible by microorganisms and incorporated back into the organic life cycle.

So instead of digging carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the air, these companies are actually taking carbon out of the air and sequestering it into a solid material. According to the Newlight Technologies website, a cradle-to-grave analysis of the Aircarbon material concluded Aircarbon is carbon negative. The potential of this plastic to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to fossil fuel-based plastics, but to actually sequester carbon out of the air (thus helping to reduce the severity of climate change) represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in the plastics industry, and companies are taking notice.

Impact on the Plastics Product Category Ecosystem

Changing the raw material sources from fossil fuels to “air pollution” has the potential to change the entire raw material chain for the industry as well as reduce its impact at the end of life of the material.


Most significantly, in the case of Newlight, the source of feedstock for their polymers is from two sources – the air outside combined with methane from farming operations, wastewater treatment plants and/or anaerobic digesters (anywhere where microorganisms are digesting organic matter and producing methane). This shift eliminates both direct and indirect suppliers of fossil fuel-based raw materials from the product category ecosystem. Those impacted include companies such as crude oil and natural gas extraction companies and the subcontractors that serve them; oil and natural gas distribution/transportation companies; oil and natural gas storage companies; refineries; and petrochemical plants.

The value associated with this portion of the product category ecosystem of course is then redirected to the alternative raw material sources – methane pollution capture companies (i.e., farmers, municipal wastewater treatment plants or anaerobic digester energy plant operators). As such, value is not being lost within the ecosystem, but rather redirected to new players along with increased value placed on a resource that was previously considered a “waste.” And the resulting value to the planet as a result of greenhouse gases sequestered in air pollution plastic at a time when we have no time to lose to address climate change is invaluable.

Other improvements might be made to address other challenges throughout the industry, such as using renewable energy to power production plants, and using life-friendly additives to the plastics that ensure recyclability and/or complete biodegradation of all materials in the plastic end products.

These new models for plastics production change the underlying dominant design assumption that to be scalable at a competitive cost in today’s market, plastics must be made from fossil fuel feedstocks. So what if we could shift the “plastics from petroleum” paradigm to the “plastics from carbon pollution” paradigm at a large scale? I’d love to have the resources to do the math! I think we’d find the resulting paradigm shift would have huge ripple effects throughout the industry.

I would also argue that this kind of thinking is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we view carbon “pollution.” This example begs the question, how else can we sequester abundant carbon resources (combined with reduction efforts) to begin to balance our carbon cycle? Plants figured this out a long time ago. We are just getting started.

Newlight’s innovation and it’s potential for redefining the plastics industry’s love affair with fossil fuels is no longer a question of “if”, but rather “how soon?” Talk about a #SystemReset.

#SystemReset – Part 1: Biomimicry and the “How” of DIF”s #SystemReset

I’m a big fan of one of the three 2016 Disruptive Innovation Festival’s (DIF) themes, #SystemReset – “It’s time for a change of operating system.” That about sums up where I am with everything, so I’m adopting it for my next series of posts on biomimicry’s potential for setting us on completely new paths. Where is that System Reset button??? I want one.

I think I’ve seen glimpses of it in Michelle Obama’s recent speeches, in the North Dakota pipeline protest, in the struggle to overcome the desperate hopelessness of the people of Flint, Michigan, in the new climate agreement, and in the proposed carbon tax on the ballot in Washington State. I see it in our US presidential election and our politics, in the way people are groping for something, anything that might show that someone has some influence on the system of power that is gobbling us up one by one, day by day, without blinking. But I, for one, am shuddering. And perhaps shuttering.

Ok, so I have to lay the obvious out there – on top of the three weeks of some virus tearing me down, it’s all getting to me. It does indeed sometimes seem somewhat hopeless. To me, an individual, all this makes me feel powerless. My conscious and unconscious selves have slowly moved in harmony in one direction (finally!) – unfortunately, it’s been towards an incredibly uncomfortable, even painful, feeling of inertia. But I know it’s not just me. Apparently psychologists are reporting a much higher percent of patients feeling stressed as a result of this election (and I’m guessing it’s more than just this election, as evidenced by the public’s desire for an “outsider” candidate). We are all feeling it one way or another. The System Reset button is on our consciousness. We don’t know where it is or what it does or what it looks like, but we hope it’s out there.

What happens next?

One of the six primary Life’s Principles (LP) in biomimicry is “Integrate Development with Growth.” What does that mean? It means don’t grow 300 feet tall without simultaneously investing in your root structure as you grow or you’re sure to fall over. It means you can’t evolve a democracy without simultaneously investing in educating the entire population about democracy. It means when you press the System Reset button, make sure you’ve got the support system to back you up, or your turn with the button will fail.

It also means before we reset the whole system, let’s try resetting smaller systems first, one at a time. And let’s combine and leverage these smaller alternatives as we go to create a larger, more complex robust system. Then when we finally find and hammer that System Reset button with enthusiasm, perhaps we will see a real shift.

So what are these smaller alternative systems? We can see and feel that there has to be something better than the current paradigms that results in us poisoning ourselves, tearing down our human dignity, throwing our entire planet out of balance. But the alternatives – real answers to satisfying our needs with truly sustainable solutions – often elude our imagination. Too often we find ourselves stuck in the rut of resource minimization as our only path forward. What are the opportunities? What if examples for alternative systems are already out there? And how do we find them?

Biomimicry and #SystemReset

Each design challenge exists in context – a system that surrounds it that includes both direct and/or indirect connections with raw material sourcing, transportation, manufacturing, retailing, marketing, distribution, consumption and disposal. It also includes cultural norms and deep-seated assumptions that we often don’t even question until someone designs something that flies in the face of those same assumptions. Biomimicry helps us to break down those assumptions and focus in on the true goal of a design – the need the design is addressing – a.k.a., the function.

Biomimicry focuses on function – function is the bridge between human design and biology that allows knowledge transfer to happen. Which function you choose to research and pursue will determine to a large extent the potential breadth of impact of your biomimetic design solution. Are you looking to redesign a well, or are you looking to redesign people’s access to water? Are you looking to redesign a light bulb or are you looking to illuminate?

Choosing a function that contributes to a product design will result in a redesigned product. Choosing a function that forms the core definition of a product design need will result in the potential for not only a completely redesigned product, but also a redesigned product ecosystem, with ripple effects into complimentary goods and services systems.


In the Constantinos Markides and Paul Geroski 2005 book, Fast Second, they discuss how the culmination of the “radical innovation” process results in a “dominant design.” A dominant design “defines what a product is and what its core features are. It is, if you like, a platform, from which come a wide range of product variants that are distinguishable from each other without seeming to be fundamentally different.” (p. 52) The dominant design is the category of products we think of when we hear “TV”, “car” or “fan.”  The term “product” here can even apply to systems – such as our systems of politics, financial markets and economic system, although obviously the ecosystem surrounding that “product” would be represented somewhat differently.

When we hear “lighting” we think light bulbs, and can probably name several kinds of bulbs – incandescent, fluorescent, LED, halogen, etc., and many brands like Phillips, Sylvania and more. But what is the function of lighting? To illuminate. What if we could find other ways of illuminating that don’t look or operate anything like a light bulb? And what if we took it one step further and asked about how the lighting product is made – materials, manufacturing, source of power for use, and disposal? Now we are starting to rethink an entire system.

When biomimicry thinking is used in the design process and the right questions are asked that get at the core function of the challenge and how that product is made, the potential for coming up with entirely new approaches with entirely new product ecosystems while still meeting existing needs is great.

Brief examples

Choosing a function that improves the functionality of an existing design without fundamentally changing the core features limits its disruptive impact within the product category. For example, if you redesign the structure of a water bottle using biomimicry with a function of reducing material use without sacrificing strength of the structure, your impact will be limited to reducing the amount of raw and manufactured materials used, retooling for production, and increasing the efficiency of distribution (weight is reduced, resulting in increased fuel efficiency of transportation). While these efficiency gains are important, they do not fundamentally change the access and method of delivery of water to people for consumption.


However, when you start to think about the central function of a challenge along with each part of the product ecosystem, the impacts change dramatically. Take the vaccine thermo-stabilization technology solutions from Stabilitech and Nova Laboratories, Ltd, which rethink the dominant design in the industry for thermoregulation of live vaccines – that the only way to keep them alive is refrigeration throughout the supply chain. The Stabilitech and Nova Labs technologies are based on anhydrobiosis – a natural process that occurs in plants and animals during times of drought in which the water within cells is replaced with a sugar solution that thickens to a point of solidifying as a glass, protecting the cells until water is available again. Their technologies achieve thermoregulation protection for live vaccines and other thermo-sensitive pharmaceuticals using this same concept. The technologies require no refrigeration during their life cycles (they can withstand heat and freezing temperatures) and no lengthy reconstitution before injection.

The potential magnitude of impact of this approach to thermoregulation for vaccine stabilization technologies can be found throughout the product category ecosystem, from raw materials (non-toxic and inexpensive sugars), to manufacturing processes, distribution (no refrigeration required throughout the product life cycle, reducing storage and transportation costs and expanding the reach of vaccines into third world countries), and use (vaccines and other pharmaceuticals are not thrown out due to fear of exposure to temperatures outside of the accepted range, and rehydration of the vaccine is instant). Depending on the delivery mechanism of these technologies, the disposal of the product might also produce less waste and close the loop.

In addition, not only is the ecosystem surrounding this technology disrupted, but the complimentary goods and services are impacted as well, particularly with respect to all services associated with refrigeration – the refrigeration product manufacturers, energy companies, thermo-regulated storage and transport suppliers, etc. are rendered irrelevant with respect to these products. By redefining the dominant approach to thermoregulation of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, the entire product category ecosystem and more is impacted.

Searching for other #SystemResets

As you can see, your choice of function to solve for in any design challenge affects the potential impact that solution has on a product category ecosystem. If you are looking to create solutions that are not just “disruptive” but rather radically change the entire product category ecosystem – initiate a system reset – start with an approach that rethinks the core features that define a product category to redefine the dominant design.

Using biomimicry (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to solve for that central function while looking at the entire life-cycle that surrounds the product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. The sooner we can begin to rethink and impact multiple systems which in turn have an expanding and overlapping ripple effect beyond the product categories, the greater chance we have of turning the tide against existing paradigms that do not support life.

In Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this #SystemReset series, I’ll describe additional biomimetic solutions that represent paradigm shifts in their industries – designs that begin to address and impact whole systems change for different product category ecosystems and beyond, including carbon-sequestering plastics made from air pollution, non-toxic fire retardants made from food stuffs, and bacteria management through structure instead of chemicals.

It’s important to recognize that creating alternative systems is a serious challenge, as systems often resist change. But actually coming up with and developing alternatives is the first step. Second step might be to quantify more fully the broader potential impacts of these alternative systems (i.e., conducting a life-cycle or cradle-to-cradle analysis of not only the product itself, but of the whole industry and the impact of potential changes brought about by these alternatives). Third, we need to figure out how to disrupt systems. The more we can do this, the greater the support system we create for large-scale change when we find and push that System Reset button.