Biomimicry – Innovation Inspired by Nature

Adversity reveals genius, whereas prosperity conceals it. Our apparent prosperity, built on machine innovation, conceals the deeper genius in nature that offers a far richer future. Good business sense is creative, innovative, and fun.  Business as a force for good improves the individual, the organisation, and the wider stakeholder community as well as the environment. With the continual advancement of technology making inter-business bonding easier, it is crystal clear that ecosystems are the future of business. The world of business is ripe for a deep redesign, and this time it needs to be good for all life.

The game has changed. The days of self-sufficient and self-sustaining businesses are long gone. A global marketplace demands organisations establish highly integrated and cooperative relationships with one another. It rewards speed and flexibility. However, there remains a significant gap between natural business ecosystems and our current prevailing business practices. In our digitally disrupted world, driving success requires more than developing a strong solution alone. It’s not only what your product can do, but also who you partner or integrate with. After all, having agile, responsive, and open technology is crucial to gaining and keeping a strategic advantage. The walled garden of monolithic, enterprise offerings is simply too siloed in this environment of broad choices. The future of business belongs to systems inspired by Nature.

“Look deep, deep, deep into Nature and you will understand everything better.” 

— Albert Einstein

Life's Inherent Genius

Welcome into the realm of Nature’s wisdom to ignite agility and innovation into teams, organisations and communities. It is in this space that leaders, change-makers, pioneers and community builders, who feel a call to redesign our current crumbling hierarchical systems, are inventing new ways to thrive on our planet. The central idea is that Nature has already fixed many of the problems society is now facing. Animals, plants, and microorganisms are experienced engineers, designers, collaborators, and problem solvers. They have benefited from billions of years of evolutionary trial and error. They know what works, what is appropriate, and most importantly, what lasts on Earth.

Plant a tree in the desert, and it won’t grow. Drop a seed in a forest, and watch it sprout as water, nutrient-rich soil, and rays of sunshine collaborate to nurture new life. In the world of innovation, the same concept holds true. Launching a product or business in an every-man-for-himself environment is a recipe for failure. Doing so in a community or sector in which governments, foundations, corporations, investors, and community members, collaborate around shared goals results in predictably more positive outcomes.

Most of us live in urban areas, with busy cities where nature is tamed and does not play a significant role in everyday life. However, nature is more than just a place we can visit on our holidays or weekends. Nature is our origin and the place where all our subtle needs for beauty, mystery, and adventure are met. Nature holds many gifts for us if we prove willing to explore its magnificent diversity. Nature is, by far, our greatest teacher.

“Learn how to see. Realise everything connects with everything else.” 

— Leonardo Da Vinci

The Circle of Life

Nature teaches us about the Circle of Life through direct observation, scientific research, spiritual practice, and physical experience. Nature teaches us about birth and beginnings; growth and development; death and endings; regeneration and renewal. Nature teaches us about potential and cocreation when we watch life force grow a tiny acorn into a mighty oak tree. Nature teaches us about balance, rhythms, and cycles. Nature teaches us about creation and destruction, order and chaos, repatterning and transformation, constancy and change.

Everything we need to know can be found in Nature. Nature teaches about flexibility and adaptability. Nature teaches us about systems, micro and macro: within us, around us, and beyond us. Biomimicry means to play by the guidelines of Nature, which offers a rich source of inspiration to challenge our current unsustainable business practices. For every challenge we face, Nature has a solution.

“How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”

— Janine Benyus

What is Biomimicry?

The simplest explanation is that Biomimicry is design inspired by Nature. By studying individual flora and fauna and natural systems, designers, businesses, and engineers are creating viable new systems and products. Biomimicry learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges. In her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus defined biomimicry as the “conscious emulation of life’s genius,” that is:

Conscious: being intentional

Emulation: learning from living things, then applying those insights to the challenges humans want to solve

Life’s Genius: recognising that life has arrived at well-adapted solutions that have stood the test of time, within the constraints of a planet with finite resources.

Biomimicry brings together two often disconnected worlds: nature and technology, biology and innovation, life and design. The practice of biomimicry seeks to bring the time-tested wisdom of life to the design table to inform human solutions that create conditions conducive for life to thrive. Solutions following biological intelligence will ultimately allow human productions and business to be more efficient, resilient, and agile.

“We are still beholden to ecological laws, the same as any other life-form.”
― Janine M. Benyus

4 Benefits of Biomimmicry

Biomimicry offers an empathetic, interconnected understanding of how life works and ultimately where we fit in. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies – new ways of living – that solve our greatest design challenges regeneratively and in solidarity with all life on our planet. We can use biomimicry to heal ourselves, our organisations, and our planet in the process.

Brings relief.

We are under immense amounts of stress. Our planet is stressed on all levels. Many are losing hope for solving the climate crisis and its many negative effects on ecosystems across the world. Biomimicry shines a light in the darkness because we know the solutions for our greatest challenges are here, accessible, and validated by the many species still alive today. By using nature as our mentor, we get to experience powerful healing effects when we connect to the natural world while also finding empowering relief to solve our challenges together.

Generous design.

Circularity and regenerative design mean that the things we produce become a force for restoring air, water, and soil rather than degrading them. Nature uses structure to change functions. Nature also uses passive forms of energy, whereas our inventions use brute force (like mining). By learning from Nature, we can create conditions conducive to life too.

Regenerative solutions, faster.

Our current R&D cycles are slow, and here’s the thing: climate change won’t wait. We must look to the biological blueprints that have been successful over millennia to launch groundbreaking ideas, faster. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when the strategies are already here. All we need to do is learn how to adapt them.

Changes our worldview.

Innovators turn to biomimicry with the goal of achieving a unique product that is efficient and effective. Often, they gain a deep appreciation of (and connection to) the natural world in the process. When people connect to Nature, they are more inclined to want to care for it too. Biomimicry encourages conservation for ecosystems and their inhabitants because they hold the very wisdom we need.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
― John Muir

The 3 Essential Elements of Biomimicry

Biomimicry is about valuing nature for what we can learn, not what we can extract, harvest, or domesticate. In the process, we learn about ourselves, our purpose, and our connection to each other and our home on earth. Teams can improve their performance and effectiveness by emulating the self-organisation of ants and bees or the collective intelligence of fish schools and flocks of birds. When translating nature’s strategies into design, the science involves three essential elements: Emulate, Ethos, and (Re)Connect. These three components are infused in every aspect of biomimicry and represent the core values at their essence. By combining the essential elements together, bio-inspired design becomes biomimicry.

Emulate

Emulate is the innovation and design aspect of biomimicry. It is the element that brings the principles, patterns, strategies, and functions found in nature forward to inform design. It is the scientific, research-based practice of learning from and then replicating nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more regenerative designs.

Ethos

Ethos represents our respect for, responsibility to, and gratitude for our fellow species and our home. It is the philosophy of understanding how life works and creating designs that continuously support and create conditions conducive to life. The ethos element of biomimicry comes from the emulation of nature in creating conditions conducive to life.  

(Re)Connect

We, humanity, are a part of nature. The (re)connect element reinforces the understanding that, while seemingly “separate,” people and nature are actually deeply intertwined. (Re)connecting is the concept that we are nature and find value in connecting to our place on Earth as part of life’s interconnected systems. (Re)Connect as a practice encourages us to observe and spend time in nature to understand how life works so that we may have a better ethos to emulate biological strategies in our designs.

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”
― E. B. White

What is not Biomimicry?

While biomimicry is a type of bioinspired design, not all bioinspired design is biomimicry. An important factor that differentiates biomimicry from other bio-inspired design approaches is the emphasis on learning from and emulating the regenerative solutions living systems have for specific functional challenges. Within the family of bioinspired design, biomorphism is often mistaken for biomimicry. Biomorphism refers to designs that visually resemble elements from life (they “look like” nature), whereas biomimetic designs focus on function (they “work like” nature). Biomorphic designs can be very beautiful and beneficial because humans have a natural affinity for nature and natural forms. However, it’s important to realise that “looking like” nature is not a reliable indicator of biomimetic design – the important indicator is function.

“The new opportunity is to emulate nature because in so doing, we bring our actions in alignment with our potential. We begin to get the design right.  And as we get the design right, we create pathways through which new capacities, new innovations, new value can flow.” 

– Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman

The Business of Nature

Mirroring Nature’s designs inspires extraordinary technologies that enhance our world. Windows that prevent bird collisions by mimicking the UV-reflective qualities of spider webs; a train that travels faster, uses less energy, and makes less noise after it was redesigned to resemble a bird’s beak; highly efficient wind turbine blades that mimic the bumpy edges of whale flippers. These are just three of the countless examples of biomimicry in use today. 

Just as our need to transform business is now becoming more pressing, so is our need to transform our engagement with and response to nature. In fact, our sensing and responding to nature holds much wisdom to help businesses transform. Understanding the patterns and principles of nature can provide insight into how best to future-proof business for the unpredictability ahead. Most companies are organised in rigid, restrictive, and constraining hierarchical structures. Connecting with nature will allow these same businesses to become more vibrant, resilient, responsive, and agile through a regenerative model shaped on living-systems. To achieve this, organisations need a new leadership consciousness, a restyling of relationships both with internal and external stakeholders, and a regenerative shift that will transform them from ego-systems to eco-systems.

“We have not been successful with recycling. After 40 years of trying we have not been able to make it work.”

— Dame Ellen MacArthur

Design Perfection

Increasingly, more organisations are researching natural structures, processes, and systems to chart a course into an unpredictable future. At one stage the Shinkansen bullet train (the world’s fastest) was creating serious noise pollution. The engineers looked to the beaks of Kingfishers, who can dive almost silently into water to redesign the train’s nose. PowerCone Wind Turbines looked at maple tree seeds to design better airflow. The military learned how to send messages through water from dolphins. NASA has designed a robot that can stick to tough surfaces in space taking inspiration from a gecko’s feet. In the recent documentary Fantastic Fungi, we discover that mushrooms are one of the oldest living species and have interconnected systems capable of healing and regenerating the Earth. Trees use them to communicate, and mushrooms are being discovered that cure cancer and boost the immune systems of bees.

While today’s circular economies are a vast improvement over old industrial models, they still face a significant hurdle in that they continue to produce waste. Recycled products tend to degrade in quality and re-usability over time, resulting in materials that still go into landfill. For example, plastic bottles can be broken down and spun back into garments, but the goal is still the same end product. In nature’s model of producers, consumers and decomposers, these three natural “stakeholders” work seamlessly together to ensure that what is produced has decomposition “built-in” to its structure. For example: orb-weaving spiders’s silk is made up of protein, and an entire web’s worth of silk uses up a large portion of a spider’s protein supply. When the spider needs to change locations, they will eat their own web to replace that protein. If we model nature and ensure that “next use” and decomposition are built into products we will no longer have waste. It’s a groundbreaking concept that has the potential to save the human race and the species we are wiping out from extinction. 

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”
― Rainer Maria Rilk

Awakening to the Wisdom of Nature

In these challenging yet transformational times for business and humanity, we must realise that to become truly regenerative, human and business life has to become scientifically inspired, emotionally connected and spiritually entwined with the wisdom of Nature. Nature and business must be symbiotic and operate in harmony for there to be anything resembling a successful outcome. The sooner business realises the opportunities that come with being attuned with and inspired by Nature, the better for humanity and for all species.

Biomimicry has the potential to save the human race and the planet. That’s an attractive offer at a time when COVID has turned everything we know and thought we could count on, on its head. In times of crisis, we must first recognise the limit of our control and avoid taking actions that give us the ‘illusion of control’ – yet do little to constructively adapt and evolve to the unfolding situation. It has been interesting to witness different organisations (and nation-states) reacting with ‘lock-downs’ or rather sensing-and-responding as the situation unfolds. Recognising the systems in which we live and work, while accepting the anxiety that comes from our lack of control of these emergent systems is part of embracing this ‘new-normal’. We can learn to open up beyond fear and control, and become more conscious of how to best respond to emergence. 

“There are no hierarchies in nature other than those imposed by hierarchical modes of human thought, but rather differences merely in function between and within living things.”
― Murray Bookchin

From Inspiration to Salvation

A current example is being self-responsible for our hygiene and how we best relate with each other to mitigate any infectious spreading where possible, and self-isolating if need be. This helps to slow the pace of the virus spread so we give our infrastructure systems, health and emergency services, the time and space to respond while building up our collective and individual resilience. In spite of all the media hysteria, we must remember that Life is regenerative.

Transformation unfolds, it is not forced. By creating the conditions conducive for life, our people and cultures flourish. If we wish to be regenerative in our own selves, in our teams and in our company culture, then we need to begin with this inherent Wisdom of Nature, otherwise what flows from us will be degenerative, and we shall then spend unnecessary time and energy mopping up our degenerative activities. Crises are a wake-up call: a chance to reconnect with passion and commitment to what matters, to practice resilience, and to spark our cocreative abilities by uncovering the opportunities in the challenges. It is also a chance to press reset and move forward with different methodologies. We have before us the opportunity to completely redesign how we do business, and we believe biomimicry is that path forward.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe,

to match your nature with Nature.”

― Joseph Campbell

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