Designing Society Through the Natural World: 4 Questions with Janine Benyus at the Aspen Ideas Festival
1. How do you explain biomimicry to people who have never heard of it before?
Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested designs and strategies. It’s studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell or a forest to create a more resilient company. The core idea is that after 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with: energy, food production, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more. Biomimics around the world are learning to adhere like a gecko, grow food like a prairie, create color like a peacock, reduce drag like a shark, desalinate like a mangrove, and run a business like a redwood forest. Mimicking these earth-savvy designs can help humans leapfrog to technologies that sip energy, shave material use, reject toxins, and work as a system to create conditions conducive to life.
For designers, architects, engineers, and innovators of all stripes, the answer to the question, “What would nature do here?” is a revelation. There’s not one new idea, but millions of ideas evolved in context, tested over eons, and proven to be safe for this generation and the next. Imagine discovering a catalog of sustainable ideas that are the product of 3.8 billion years of R&D — strategies from organisms that manufacture without “heat, beat, and treat” and ecosystems that circulate and upcycle materials, creating opportunities rather than waste.
“Imagine discovering a catalog of sustainable ideas that are the product of 3.8 billion years of R&D.”
Biomimicry invites innovators to learn from and not just about nature. The underlying ethos is very simple — it’s the leap from a conquering mindset to one that encourages respect and gratitude for our fellow species. We’re not the first organisms to harvest the sun’s energy, perform chemistry, circumnavigate the globe, or engineer structures. Making that mental switch from seeing nature as a warehouse of goods, to seeing nature as mentor, model, and measure is what biomimicry is all about.
Over the last 20 years, our teams at Biomimicry 3.8 (for-profit consultancy) and the Biomimicry Institute (non-profit) have been giving people the tools and training they need to become biomimics. Thousands are now using the Biomimicry Design Spiral and AskNature to apply biomimicry at three different levels — form, process, and system. An example of form would be studying the frayed edges of owl wings that grant them a smooth, silent flight, and then mimicking this form in an airplane wing or wind turbine. Mimicking a process would be trying to emulate how an owl creates that wing through non-toxic chemistry at room temperature, self-assembled from life-friendly materials. At the systems level, the owl feather is gracefully nested — it’s part of an owl that is part of a forest, which is part of a biome, which is part of a sustaining biosphere. In the same way, our owl-inspired product must be part of a larger economy that works to restore rather than deplete the Earth’s systems.
2. How has the field of biomimicry changed since you popularized the term in your 1997 book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”?
It’s grown from a meme to a movement. There are dozens of academic centers such as Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, and The Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University. Thousands are taking courses and hundreds are getting their masters and PhD’s in biomimicry, publishing in the five new journals devoted to the discipline. Papers, grants, and patents are growing exponentially (DaVinci Index). But it’s not just academics who are partaking. Biomimicry is now a daily practice in innovation labs of leading companies such as Boeing, P&G, GE, Interface, HOK, Google, and Ford. Fortune named biomimicry one of its top five trends to ride in 2017, saying “if you’re not incorporating the most brilliant ideas from the natural world into your products, you’re leaving money on the table.”
Biomimicry has become a global phenomenon. Since the book was written, over 30 biomimicry networks have popped up all around the world, founded by people who are passionate about this approach to problem-solving. So we now have self-guided nodes that can help spread the practice at a local level. We also have hundreds of students and professionals learning how to apply biomimicry to global warming solutions through global design challenges, and a growing cadre of biomimicry entrepreneurs who are getting support to bring their early-stage nature-inspired innovations to the next level.
3. Is biomimetic innovation powerful enough to solve climate change?
Mimicking life’s genius is absolutely part of the solution. After all, only humans see carbon dioxide as the poison of our era. The rest of nature sees it as a building block. Plants use carbon to make sugars, starches, and cellulose. Corals use carbon to build reefs, and mollusks use carbon to manufacture their shells. Nature’s been writing the book on carbon chemistry for billions of years, and suddenly, it’s required reading for humanity.
We know we have to stop emitting greenhouse gases. We know we have to move to clean energy and use that energy wisely. Bio-inspired wind turbines and plant-inspired solar will help us harvest photons, and artificial photosynthesis will help us turn those photons into fuel. Ant and bee-inspired algorithms can help us optimize energy use in the grid (e.g., Encycle) and in transport (e.g., Routific). But energy saving and emission reduction is not enough if we want to see life on earth, including us, thrive in the conditions that shaped us. What we need to do is recoup the carbon we lost over the last 200 years and actually reverse global warming. Life can teach us how to do that.
“Nature’s been writing the book on carbon chemistry for billions of years, and suddenly, it’s required reading for humanity.”
We can sequester carbon in the soil for millennia through various methods of bio-inspired carbon farming, including ecosystem-mimicking agroforestry and ungulate-inspired rotational grazing. Carbon dioxide can also become an ingredient for plastics and building materials. Novomer is a company that mimics photosynthesis using plant-inspired catalysts that turn CO2 into biodegradable polycarbonates. NewLight produces plastics from methane and CO2, and IKEA has announced they will replace oil-based plastics with this AirCarbon. Blue Planet uses a coral-inspired recipe to turn CO2 and brine (from desalination plants) into building materials like concrete and aggregate.
4. What are some nature-inspired innovations that you’re particularly excited about right now?
I’m quite excited about biomimicry at the systems level, using “nature as measure” as a whole new way to design and reimagine our cities. What if a city could function as elegantly as the ecosystem next door? What if it could fix carbon, store water, cool temperatures, cleanse air, build soil, support biodiversity, and remain resilient despite disturbance? What if cities could one day be functionally indistinguishable from wildlands? I believe this is possible, but only if we mimic the genius of our places and challenge ourselves to meet quantitative aspirational goals.
“What if cities could one day be functionally indistinguishable from the wildland next door?”
Ecological Performance Standards are metrics that challenge cities to meet or exceed the level of ecosystem services produced by native ecosystems: tons of water stored per acre each year, tons of air cleansed, inches of soil built and retained, etc. Each acre of the city would have a portion of the whole and buildings, infrastructure, and landscapes would collectively meet citywide goals. It’s time to unify fragmented sustainability efforts in cities. What better framework than one that is place-based, outcome-oriented, and proven possible by the local ecologies that model for us how to create conditions conducive to life?
This ecosystem mimicry works at many scales, from bioregion to building site. In fact, we are partnering with global carpet manufacturer Interface, Inc. to redesign their manufacturing facilities so they function like forests. Factory as a Forest begins by measuring how much carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, air filtration, water storage, biodiversity support, etc. is occurring in local healthy ecosystems. These Ecological Performance Standards then set the bar for the factory. Mimicking the performance of native ecosystems requires out-of-the box designs such as water-absorbing bioswales, permeable pavement, pollinator-friendly green roofs, habitat-providing architecture (“habitecture”), and CO2-sequestering concrete.
The goal is to create facilities that not only fit their place, but actually give back in the form of ecosystem services that match or exceed those of native wildlands. And why stop at manufacturing facilities? Our corporate campuses, homes and schools, managed supply-chain lands, all the way up to our cities, should all function like the wildland next door. When our settled lands are as generous as native ecosystems, that’s when we’ll be at home on the planet.