JANINE BENYUS: Amoeba-Through-Zebra Innovation

Janine Benyus

What is biomimicry?

It’s innovation inspired by nature – the process of learning from and emulating nature’s designs, blueprints, chemical recipes, and system level strategies in order to improve human designs.

For instance?

Biomimicry breaks down into three basic areas: mimicking form, mimicking process, and mimicking systems.

On the side of mimicking shape, there’s everything from the high-speed bullet train in Japan shaped like a kingfisher’s beak to wind turbine blades designed with tubercles like those found on the flippers of humpbacked whales that result in a 32 percent reduction in drag.

For process, biomimics are combining waste from salinization plants with flue-gas CO2, and what precipitates out is the raw material for an alternative to cement, mimicking the way corals lay their reefs down.

At the ecosystem level is everything from industrial ecology, a way of thinking about co-locating industries so the product of one becomes the raw material for another, to asking cities to perform at the same level of ecosystem services as the native ecosystem.

Why might a business adopt this approach?

Ideas that come out of biology are really novel. And they’re sustainable, since life’s innovations were evolved in context, meaning Earth’s context, under the same selection pressures companies are starting to come under—peak water, peak oil, etc. So if you look at the natural world and see how it’s been done, you end up with something innovative and also sustainable.

How would a company apply biomimicry to innovation?

The first thing to do is to have a biologist at the design table. A biologist comes in and looks for pain points in the company, what processes are wasting energy or materials, or what kinds of toxins they are using they wish they weren’t.

Say you want to filter salt from water without excessive energy use. You do deep search, amoeba through zebra, and come up with taxonomy of mechanisms, a table of contents of how nature has solved this problem.

When it comes time to mimic the membrane, you can ask yourself: What material would nature use? How could nature do the chemistry to manufacture it? Or even, how would nature sell this? How can we become a resilient company by looking at resilient ecosystems and learning what allows them to bounce back?

How did your quest to tap nature’s genius begin?

I was a natural history writer with a biology background. I had written four books on natural history, basically how organisms do things elegantly and sustainably. After doing that for about 15 years, I realized every time I look at a tree, I see superior technologies. I realize it’s drawing water hundreds of feet into the air and it’s got solar arrays that are amazing and branching structure that’s mathematically known to be the best way to distribute fluids, and yet our buildings are not respiring, and our pipes are in 90 degrees angles, not branched. I thought to myself, is anybody trying to mimic this incredible engineering?

What is your ultimate vision for biomimicry?

A world mentored by nature’s genius. My hope would be that 20 years from now, the first question when designers and decision makers are faced with a new challenge would be, “How would nature solve this?”  – and that there would be a discipline that was ubiquitous and robust enough to help them answer that question.

It’s starting to happen, which I’m pleased about not just because of the sustainable innovations that are coming from it. What really excites me about this is it’s changing so many people’s attitudes toward the natural world toward an attitude of respect and admiration and awe, which I think probably will be the greatest legacy of this emerging discipline.

Editor’s note: Janine Benyus was recently named winner of the Design Mind category of the 13th annual National Design Awards, sponsored by Smithsonian’s
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, www.cooperhewitt.org/nda2012.

Author & Innovator Janine Benyus

From the first stirrings of life on this planet, nature has had the role of premier innovator and inventor. How might we benefit from tapping nature’s power of design? Author, biologist and innovator Janine Benyus is founder of the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to helping bring the solutions of biology to the challenges of design. She spoke to Momentum and Terry Waghorn of Forbes recently about what biomimicry – the practice of deriving inspiration from nature’s inventions – has to offer to innovators of all kinds.

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