By Michael Howell
Longtime resident of the Bitterroot Valley, Janine M. Benyus, played a key role in the birth of a new and fast growing field of study when she published her book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” in 1997. In “Biomimicry,” she names an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. As Benyus put it, “Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature – taking advantage of evolution’s 3.8 billion years of R&D since the first bacteria. Biomimics study nature’s best ideas: photosynthesis, brain power, and shells – and adapt them for human use. They are revolutionizing how we invent, compute, heal ourselves, harness energy, repair the environment, and feed the world.”
“If I could reveal anything that is hidden from us, at least in modern cultures, it would be to reveal something that we’ve forgotten, that we used to know as well as our own names, and that is that we live in a competent universe, that we are part of a brilliant planet, and that we are surrounded by genius,” said Benyus in one of her Ted Talks.
In the field of biomimicry it is being recognized that other creatures are doing things that we need to do, but in fact are doing them in a way that is sustainable over billions of years.
Benyus recalls a young seven-year-old neighbor who would come to her door almost every day to show her something he had found. She had left a large wasp nest in a tree near her door because it was so beautiful and one day he remarked about it and asked her how she built it.
“He already believed the myth that if something is well done that it must have been done by humans,” said Benyus. “But we are not the first builders. We are not the first to process cellulose. We are not the first to make paper. We are not the first to optimize packing space, or to water proof, or to heat and cool a structure, or to build houses for our young.”
Dispelling this myth and getting people and industries to recognize the wealth of design knowledge being implemented in the animal and plant kingdoms that could be adopted by humans is one of Benyus’ driving passions.
According to Benyus, “biomimicry introduces an era based not on what we can extract from organisms and their ecosystems, but on what we can learn from them. This approach differs greatly from bioutilization, which entails harvesting a product or producer, e.g. cutting wood for floors, wildcrafting medicinal plants. It is also distinctly different than bio-assisted technologies, which involve domesticating an organism to accomplish a function, e.g. bacterial purification of water, cows bred to produce milk. Instead of harvesting or domesticating, biomimics consult organisms; they are inspired by an idea, be it a physical blueprint, a process step in a chemical reaction, or an ecosystem principle such as nutrient cycling. Borrowing an idea is like copying a picture – the original image can remain to inspire others.”
Examples of successful biomimicry are many and the number is rapidly growing. The key is for researchers and inventors to ask themselves, “How would nature do this?”
A few sustainable design ideas taken from nature include a new design for the Bullet Train, which was rounded in front like a bullet. But when it would go through tunnels it would build up a sonic wave creating a loud boom when it emerged from the tunnel. The engineer in charge of addressing the problem was a birder and a member of Audubon. He observed a kingfisher diving into the water without making a splash and it occurred to him that the front of the train could be designed to mimic the bird’s sleek and pointed physique. Sure enough, it worked. Not only did it solve the boom problem, the train went 10% faster using 10% less electricity.
Mimicing the little bumps on a whale’s fin – called tubercles – on the front edge of airplane wings can increase fuel efficiency by 32%. It can greatly increase the efficiency of wind turbines.
The list of technological improvements and inventions based on biomimicry is long and growing exponentially, leading to architectural innovations such as buildings that will precipitate water from fog, and hospital flooring that repels bacteria, for example.
The Biomimicry Institute is now collaborating with Ed Wilson’s website Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) in which he is gathering all biological information onto a single site.
Scientists contributing information to the EOL website are answering the question: What can we learn from this organism? That information is then placed in the AskNature.org site managed by Biomimicry Institute organized according to functions so that “any inventor anywhere in the world will be able in the moment of creation to type in something like: How does nature remove salt from water, and up will pop information about mangroves, sea turtles, human kidneys, and we’ll be able to be in touch with these incredible models, these elders that have been here for far longer than we have and hopefully with their help we will be able to learn to live on this earth and on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”
Following publication of her book in 1997, Benyus joined with Dr. Dayna Baumeister in founding the Biomimicry Guild, which formalized the practice of biomimicry as a methodical tool for innovating sustainability solutions and worked for a myriad of notable clients including Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive, Nike, General Electric, Herman Miller, HOK architects, IDEO, Interface, Natura, Procter and Gamble, Levi’s, Kohler, and General Mills.
As interest in biomimicry escalated, it soon became clear that an institute dedicated to biomimicry education was needed. In 2005, Benyus teamed up with Bryony Schwan and co-founded the Biomimicry Institute and in 2007 Chris Allen joined the team to help launch AskNature, the world’s first digital library of nature’s solutions.
In 2009, the four partners began to look for a more efficient and cohesive way to integrate the work of the two organizations. In 2010, they founded Biomimicry 3.8, a hybrid social enterprise comprised of a for-profit B Corporation and a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit corporation under a single brand and integrated management strategy.
In 2010, they also hooked up with Arizona State University and ASU became the first U.S. affiliate institution of the Biomimicry Institute, an agreement that laid the groundwork for joint development of biomimicry-based courses and other educational opportunities.
In 2013, a team including ASU’s Innovation Space Director Prasad Boradkar and Biomimicry 3.8’s Baumeister proposed the creation of the Biomimicry Center at the university. The proposal was approved in spring 2014 with funding from several units across campus including the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Sustainability, W.P. Carey School of Business, and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, as well as the Provost’s Office and the Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development. The Biomimicry Center currently offers two graduate level programs online, a Masters of Science in Biomimicry and a Graduate Certificate program.
According to Benyus, stewardship of wild and settled places should be the natural outgrowth of a biomimetic worldview.
“Once we see nature as a source of inspiration, a mentor, our relationship with the living world changes. We realize that the only way to keep learning from nature is to safeguard naturalness, which is the source of those good ideas,” states Benyus.
“Biological knowledge is doubling every five years, growing like a pointillist painting toward a recognizable whole. For the first time in history, we have the instruments – the scopes and satellites – to feel the shiver of a neuron in thought or watch in color as a star is born. When we combine this intensified gaze with the sheer amount of scientific knowledge coming into focus, we suddenly have the capacity to mimic nature like never before.”
Benyus will be giving a talk on Biomimicry at the Bedford Building in Hamilton (City Hall) on Friday, September 11, at 7 p.m. Admission is free of charge and the event is being sponsored by Sustainable Living Systems, Bitterrooters for Planning, Bitterroot Audubon, and Center for Spiritual Living. Donations will benefit the non-profit sponsoring organizations. For more information about Biomimicry go to www.biomimicry.net or www.asknature.org.