Biomimicry has probably been practiced by humans for as long as we have been walking the earth. In our current cultural context, Janine Benyus, has popularized this design philosophy and coined the term biomimicry, helping to generate a new wave of interest in this design approach. Biomimicry seeks to mimic the evolved design solutions arrived at by nature and adapt them to and incorporate them into the design of structures and products. It uses nature as a model to inspire design solutions; it uses nature as a measure of elegance and rightness of a design; and it seeks to promote the notion of nature as mentor that we may learn from, rather than as an inert object to exploit.
I was in a meeting recently and one of the designers in the room said “I think we should use the newest approach to design, biomimicry.” I almost fell out of my chair. “Newest approach?” This approach isn’t new. Da Vinci studied birds in flight to better understand how man could fly.
I didn’t say anything, and trust me, that took great restraint. I caught myself and realized that with all of the recent “green” and “sustainability” buzz going around some people were just now getting exposed to this and other sustainable development concepts.
Which brings us to today’s blog, “What is Biomimicry?”.
Let’s start with the guru, Janine Benyus, who coined the term biomimicry in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. “It’s about taking the genius of the natural world and learning something from it.”
Just as we learned what “Biology” meant in Junior High, Biomimicry from the Greek “bios”, meaning life, and “mimesis”, meaning to imitate. So, Biomimicry means to imitate life!
It is an old concept, but as with many things in life, what was once old is now new again. Think of the fashion industry, hem lines go up and down, fashions go in and out of favor. Remember this one, “Green is the new Black.”
Recently however, biomimicry has been brought back to mainstream. Architects, designers, and businesses are using biomimicry to design and develop processes that examine nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements— and emulates or takes inspiration from them to solve human problems sustainably. Biomimicry is also an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.
The goal is to look at what has worked for nature for thousands of years and create products and or processes that are able to help use utilize resources and reduce our impact, or ecological footprint, over the long haul.
Probably one of the best known examples of Biomimicry is Velcro. Invented in 1941, George de Mestral took the idea from burrs that stuck to his pants and his dog. When he viewed the burrs under the microscope he noticed tiny hooks on the burrs that caught on anything with a loop.
The Lotus Effect is another example. The surface of the lotus leaves are bumpy and cause water to bead as well as to pick up surface contaminates in the process. The water rolls off the leaves and takes the dirt with it. Now researchers have taken this concept and developed plastics and metals that evoke the same effect.
Janine provides three key guiding principles for the use of biomimicry:
1. Nature as Model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf.
2. Nature as Measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations.
3. Nature as Mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can exact from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.
BIOMIMICRY, Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine M. Benyus
In 1998, Janine co-founded the Helena, Montana-based Biomimicry Guild with Dr. Dayna Baumeister. The Guild is an innovation consultancy providing biological consulting and research, workshops and field excursions, and a speakers’ bureau. The Guild helps designers learn from and emulate natural models with the goal of developing products, processes, and policies that create conditions conducive to life.
In 2005, Janine founded The Biomimicry Institute (TBI), a nonprofit organization based in Missoula, MT. TBI’s mission is to nurture and grow a global community of people who are learning from, emulating, and conserving life’s genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.
Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken launched the Biomimicry Venture Group in 2008 and recently the AskNature.org site was launched. AskNature.org is a biomimicry encyclopedia for designers backed by Autodesk.
For additional reading on the subject of sustainable design check these two posts out: Sustainability is a Key Driver of Innovation and Incorporating Sustainability into Innovation Processes
Now you should have an understanding of and resources for Biomimicry. So, use them and make something great happen!
And remember what Da Vinci said, “Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature are laboring in vain.”
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