By Janine Benyus
It seems so obvious now: Innovators are turning to nature for inspiration in building, chemistry, agriculture, energy, health, transportation, computing–even the design of organizations and cities. Biomimicry is taught from kindergarten to university and practiced in all scales of enterprise.
But it wasn't always this way. When Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature first came out, none of the people featured in the book knew one another, nor was there a name for their nature-inspired approach. Wes Jackson was mimicking prairies to breed a new agriculture and Tom Graedel was coding forest design principles into industrial ecology, but their parallel paths never crossed.
Twenty years later, living systems thinking is widely embraced as the antidote to the machine thinking of our first industrial revolution. Just this year, Fortune named Biomimicry a top trend; McKinsey declared the nature-inspired circular economy a game changer; and I toasted Wes Jackson's stubborn resolve at The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco with a Long Root Ale—a brew made from his Kernsa wheat, an overwintering variety that skeptics had declared impossible.
David Suzuki: How Biomimicry Can Save Us https://t.co/7CKB3XidJr @GreenpeaceAustP @foeeurope— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1484571019.0
In 2017, you can become a Certified Biomimicry Professional; get your Masters or PhD; binge watch dozens of documentaries; publish in four academic journals; or invent at more than 200 purpose-built centers such as Harvard's Weiss Center for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Global Biomimicry Design Challenges are spawning brilliant businesses; investors are supporting what Steve Jurvetson calls a megatrend in clean tech; and regional biomimicry consultancies are popping up from Croatia to China, Chile to Chicago.
New models of product design, process engineering, packaging and local distributed manufacturing are springing daily from bio-inspired minds. A 2010 economic study predicted that Biomimicry could represent $1 trillion of global Gross Domestic Product by 2025, and in 2012, Biomimicry topped the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' annual list of "innovations that could change the way you manufacture." Fortune provocated: "If you're not incorporating the most brilliant ideas from the natural world into what you sell, you're leaving money on the table."
What this says to me is that the age of bio-inspired design has more than dawned—the sun is vaulting its way toward a tipping point. None of this comes too soon. In the uncharted age of the Anthropocene, Homo industrious needs a time-tested approach to healing the ruptures in our relationship with the living Earth and with each other.
I'm optimistic by choice. The trends that I see are very encouraging, including three excellent bets for investment right now: bio-inspired carbon sequestration, chemical breakthroughs to make the circular economy go round and NetPositive policies for Generous Cities.
Biosequestration and Agriculture
One of the ripest opportunities lies in agriculture and food systems designed in nature's image. The new quest in agriculture will be to "help the helpers," that is, to create conditions conducive to the mutualistic organisms that actually feed and water plants, shield them from harmful sun and wind, keep them safe from pests, and encourage their growth and reproduction.
Many of these helpers live in what's called the rhizosphere—the world around the roots—where we now know that the world's largest mining operation occurs. Before you think belching backhoes, think flecks of mica crisscrossed by delicate fungal threads that wrap themselves around plant roots. These are the nutrient-capture systems of mycorrhizal fungi that turn soil minerals into the nutrients that plants need. Imagine a sophisticated underground system networked to find, collect, and deliver vital nutrients to its headquarters above.
It's known fondly as the Wood Wide Web, and its health is key not only to agriculture and forestry, but to reversal of climate change as well.
When you see a patch of mushrooms, you're only seeing part of the picture. Cobwebby fungal threads extend below mushrooms to wrap around plant roots, then extend horizontally to connect other, unrelated species into a large network. Carbon, water, phosphorus, nitrogen and even alarm signals are exchanged. Certainly a fertilizer network any farmer would envy!
Unfortunately, tons of phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizers applied to our soils have interrupted the Wood Wide Web's conversations, telling fungi and rhizobacteria that they are no longer needed. But in a climate changed world, these helpers are needed, not only for plant health, but for turning carbon dioxide into long-storage carbon compounds.
Healthy, microbe-rich soils can store (or biosequester) carbon at deep levels for centuries. Biomimetic agricultural practices such as ungulate-inspired managed grazing, rainforest-inspired multistrata agriculture and prairie-inspired agriculture are the surest way to accelerate carbon sequestration.
For the latest crop of agricultural innovations, stay tuned to the teams in the Biomimicry Institute's annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, the most promising of which are invited to join the Biomimicry Accelerator, where they work to bring their design to market with the help of the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize™ from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.
A team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, winners of the 2016 Ray of Hope Prize, created the BioPatch, which mimics the cooperative mutualisms of the cushion plant to restore degraded soil using "helper" plants. Entire fields could be regenerated this way, creating healthy soil to sink carbon.
Winner of the 2016 Ray of Hope prize, the BioNurse team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile designed the BioPatch. Team Ceres
To stop nitrogen and phosphorous from draining off farm fields into waterways, a team from the University of Oregon developed a filtration system that took inspiration from all the ways nature grabs nutrients. Their Living Filtration System wraps fungal-infused sleeves around agricultural drainpipes (commonly used in the Midwest and in urban infrastructure) capturing nutrients in runoff that is then fed back to the plants. Over years, the system could eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers altogether, reassembling the nutrifying, carbon-storing microbiome.
This University of Oregon team developed a living filtration system that captures nutrients in urban runoff settings. Team Penthouse Protozoa
Building a Circular Economy with Bio-inspired Chemistry
If we are going to build a true circular economy, we need to create the equivalent of the Wood Wide Web. Mimicking cooperative exchange networks like this can help us ID and recoup materials and minerals in our discarded products. Then, to reassemble these into products, we'll need to mimic how living metabolisms perform low energy, life-friendly processing–creating new products without having to mine virgin ores.
At Biomimicry 3.8, the consulting and training firm I co-founded, we've filed a provisional patent with a green chemistry lab and a furniture maker. It's a biomimetic substitute for the 1.2 billion tons of polyurethane foam made every year. Currently, polyfoam is manufactured using known carcinogens, and its "take, make, waste" disposal starts right in the home—with half of the foam dissolving into chemically hazardous house dust (over ten years), and the other half destined for landfill. Luckily, the natural world is full of material models that compress and bounce back, with none of the toxic burdens and a benign afterlife that skips the landfill.
Our clients have also asked us what it would take to whiten paper and packaging without chlorine. Again, the natural world showed us how to create white without regret. The Cyphochilus beetles that live among white fungi are camouflaged thanks to unique scales that scatter all wavelengths of visible light, leaving behind a brilliant broadband white. With this arrangement, only an ultra thin layer is necessary to scatter all incoming visible light and create that brilliant white–no toxins necessary.
Biomimicry is a guiding principle and innovation-provider (see Biomimicry 3.8 toolkit) in the excellent circular economy work being done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Powered by a streaming abundance of solar energy, but limited by a finitude of materials, nature's systems are the envy of circular designers. Since the ultimate goal for any organism is offspring survival, restorative and regenerative behaviors come naturally.
Building Net Positive, Generous Developments
Biomimicry is also innovating the answers to regenerative development, which works to produce cascading benefits for everything we do, whether it's composting a city's green waste so it can be returned to agricultural lands or turning our manufacturing facilities into producers of clean air and water.
Biomimicry 3.8 is deep into a multi-phase, groundbreaking project with global carpet manufacturer Interface, Inc. to redesign two manufacturing facilities so they function like forests.
The Factory as a Forest program is practical and metric-focused, and at scale, could revolutionize the impact manufacturers have on the planet, moving us beyond zero impact into a net positive era. 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 bioswales, permeable pavement, pollinator-friendly green roofs and CO2-sequestering concrete. The return on these workplace investments compounds in increasing worker health, property values and community good will.
The goal of Factory as a Forest is to create facilities that not only fit their place, but actually give back in the form of ecosystem services (cleaning air, cleaning and storing water, building soil, nurturing biodiversity, storing carbon) 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 cities are as generous as native ecosystems, that's when we'll be at home on the planet.
Over the next 25 years, I believe the "made" world will function more like the "born" one. The simple material palette (starting with carbon dioxide as a feedstock) used in our products will cycle upward like nutrients in a forest, constantly recouped and reincarnated into new products. Designs will travel the world instead of things, and thanks to additive manufacturing, nature's elegant, modular, lightweight blueprints will be able to enliven those designs. We'll eventually distribute everything, including energy generation, manufacturing, farming and place-based learning. Our local ecosystems will teach us how to meet our needs with resilient grace, exhaling goodness to the watersheds beyond.
The ROI on biomimicry—the return on inspiration—will be an economy that creates conditions conducive to the long-term success of all species. We know it's possible because it's happening all day, every day right outside our doors. How do we make a world as lush and livable as a wildland? We meet our mentors, start emulating and then count the positive cascade of benefits that we produce. Fitting in as a contributor is our natural next move. It's what all successful species do.
Janine Benyus is the co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She is known worldwide for her influence in naming the practice of biomimicry in her seminal book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and spreading the message of its power as an innovation tool that can solve some of humanity's most pressing challenges.
This article was originally published in GreenMoney's 25th Anniversary issue (July/Aug 2017).
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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