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).
If you fly over a forest and look down, you'll see every green tree and plant reaching to the heavens to absorb the ultimate energy source: sunlight. What a contrast when you look down on a city or town with its naked roofs, asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, all ignoring the sun's beneficence! Research shows we might benefit by thinking more like a forest.
Solar roads could be a step in that direction. Roads, sidewalks and parking lots cover massive areas. Using them to generate power means less environmental disturbance, as no new land is needed to house solar power operations.
The world's first solar road is now open in France: https://t.co/zP6M6cSGuh via @EcoWatch #CleanEnergy— NRDC (@NRDC)1483365904.0
A French company, Colas, is working with the French National Institute for Solar Energy to test its Wattway technology under various conditions, with a goal of covering 1,000 kilometers of existing highway with thin, durable, skid-resistant crystalline silicon solar panel surfacing over the next four years. They estimate that could provide electricity for five million people. Although critics have raised questions about cost and feasibility, it's not pie-in-the-sky. The technology is being tested and employed throughout the world.
Rooftops are another place to generate power using existing infrastructure. Elon Musk's company Tesla is making shingles that double as solar panels. Although they cost more than conventional asphalt shingles, they're comparable in price to higher-end roof tiles, and can save money when you factor in the power they generate.
Elon Musk's new roofop solar project isn't just panels, "It’s not a thing on the roof. It is the roof" https://t.co/qHVp3bNcYn— Greenpeace USA (@Greenpeace USA)1471007401.0
These developing technologies show that, as the world continues to warm, we can and must move beyond our outdated ways. In Canada and elsewhere, the political approach to climate change has often been to avoid discussing it—in part by firing government scientists or vetting their public statements—and maintaining the status quo by lavishly supporting unproven and risky technologies like carbon capture and storage that keep us tied to fossil fuels for years to come. It's nonsensical to dig up and melt oil sands bitumen, transport and burn it, and attempt to capture the emissions and stick them back in the ground, where nature had already stored the carbon. Nature took millions of years to do it, but we aren't a patient animal.
U.S. science writer Janine Benyus coined the term "biomimicry" to describe technologies based on nature's ability to solve problems or exploit opportunities. It's an important concept because it requires humility and respect for natural processes rather than the imposition of our crude but powerful technological innovations.
Every species shares the same challenges: how to get energy and food, avoid predators and disease (even bacteria get viral infections), what to do with waste and how to reproduce. Over long periods, numerous strategies to solve these challenges have evolved. We are a species magnificently adapted for survival, with a massive brain relative to our body size. Unlike any other species, we have the ability to ask questions and seek answers. We can find a treasure trove of solutions in the ways other species have dealt with challenges.
Biomimicry has inspired applications ranging from producing energy through artificial photosynthesis to building lightweight support structures based on the properties of bamboo.
By learning how nature works and how to work within it, we can overcome many problems we've created by trying to jam our technologies on top of natural systems. Fossil fuels were formed when plants absorbed and converted sunlight through photosynthesis hundreds of millions of years ago, then retained that energy when they died, decayed and became compacted and buried deep in the Earth, along with the animals that ate them. Rapidly burning limited supplies of them is absurd, especially when they can be useful for so many other known and possibly yet undiscovered purposes.
Surely, with our knowledge and wisdom we can do better than rely on the primitive idea of burning things to stay warm and comfortable without regard for the consequences—pollution of air, water and land with its related impacts on health, as well as climate change, which is putting humanity's survival at risk.
Our economic systems don't often encourage the most efficient and least harmful ways of providing necessities. They aim for the quickest, easiest, cheapest and most economically profitable paths. We can do better than that. Harnessing the sun's power and learning how nature solves challenges are good places to start.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Humans are the world's top predator. The way we fulfill this role is often mired in controversy, from factory farming to trophy hunting to predator control. The latter is the process governments use to kill carnivores like wolves, coyotes and cougars to stop them from hunting threatened species like caribou—even though human activity is the root cause of caribou's decline.
Predation is an important natural function. But as the human population has grown, we've taken over management of ecosystems once based on mutually beneficial relationships that maintained natural balances. How are we, a "super predator" as the Raincoast Conservation Foundation dubs us, aligning with or verging from natural predation processes that shaped the world?
Human management regimes such as predator control and trophy hunting disrupt healthy predator-prey dynamics and damage ecosystems. Change.org
One way to tell is to examine the extent to which we emulate natural processes. This principle is applied in biomimicry, where humans base inventions on natural forms and functions. (Think Velcro, patented in 1955 after George de Mestral studied the burrs on his dog's back.) Some resource-management disciplines employ biomimicry. For example, forestry management is often based on trying to imitate disturbances caused by natural events such as fires.
If we are to emulate natural predators, we must look at the types of prey killed. Non-human predators usually take down the injured, old or young. This leaves the strongest genetic material to be passed on. Human predators often target the largest males (trophy hunting) or entire packs (predator control).
In the wild, non-human predators rarely kill top predators. A Science report concluded humans kill large predators at nine times the rate at which carnivores typically kill each other.
There are also differences in how prey are killed. Natural predation is violent. But human predation often goes to another level. In addition to using aerial shooting and poison baits, reports indicate British Columbia employed "Judas wolves," radio-collared wolves used to track down packs so they can be killed. The Judas wolves are left alive so that if they join a new pack, those wolves can be killed, too. It's hard to see how this fits within the boundaries of natural predation. (The British Columbia government denies using Judas wolves.)
Human management regimes such as predator control and trophy hunting disrupt healthy predator-prey dynamics and damage ecosystems. Sadly, this is often a moot point: Alberta and British Columbia use predator control because the landscape has been so pummeled by industrial activity that the large, intact forests caribou need to survive and avoid predation no longer exist. Predators are targeted as scapegoats for human activities.
Predators usually kill for sustenance. For millennia, Indigenous peoples have also relied on hunting to maintain traditional ways of life. But with trophy hunting, the government's impetus is to make money. Governments that allow continued resource extraction in imperiled caribou habitat are using predator control as a stopgap measure to keep caribou alive.
In ecosystems managed by natural processes and not for resource extraction, predators play a key role in maintaining the environment's health. In Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Enric Sala notes that predators "can regulate the structure of entire communities."
Ultimately, natural predator-prey relationships are symbiotic. Predators not only keep prey populations in check and maintain natural cycles, they can even heal degraded ecosystems. Wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 restored the natural biodiversity that had diminished in their absence. To avoid predation, elk spent less time in valley bottoms, which allowed plants and trees to regenerate, in turn attracting birds, bears and beavers. Vegetation stabilized riverbanks, beavers altered waterways and soon turtles, amphibians and river otters returned.
When judged by this dynamic of upholding natural balances, humans are failing terribly as predators. It's hubris to think we can manage complex ecosystem dynamics using simple-minded band-aid approaches.
What can we do to become better? We can stop looking for scapegoats and look in the mirror at the primary cause of species' decline across Canada. We can end trophy hunting. We can end predator control by maintaining and restoring the habitat that caribou need to survive and recover. We can plan to operate within natural limits.
With Only 45 #RedWolves Left in the Wild, Confinement Plan Won't Save Species https://t.co/S9pfXuwUFt @CenterForBioDiv @Katie_Cleary— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1473774464.0
It's shocking that Western society villainies predators like wolves, even though they're highly intelligent, social creatures that play a critical role in regulating nature. The predator we need to control is us!