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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.

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.

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.”

Biomimicry 3.8

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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by Rebecca Adamson

The McKinsey Global Institute's report, The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women's Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, concluded that, "Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women … do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer."

by Rebecca Adamson

The McKinsey Global Institute’s report, The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, concluded that, “Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women … do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer.”


The report identified three elements that are essential for achieving the full potential of gender parity: gender equality in society, economic development and a shift in attitudes. According to the report, 95 percent of company CEOs are still male and of the 22,000 global firms that were reviewed, 60 percent failed to have any women on their boards.

Facing this disparity head on the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN) held the first webinar on Gender Lens Investing: The Business Case, Opportunities and Action. Gender Lens Investing is defined as “the integration of gender into investment analysis” and it makes a strong business case for more female CEOs. Panelists, Kathleen McQuiggan at Pax World and Julianne Zimmerman at Reinventure Capital, shared research on the business case for investing in women. The conclusion was that the case for gender investing has never been stronger and that companies where women are better represented in leadership simply perform better.

At the same time, both the IEN webinar and McKinsey report point to evidence of persistent misconceptions about women founders and leaders, along with significant discriminations and market inefficiencies connected to gender and race. Over the past six years, researchers and experts in the tech industry have begun to consider the effects of this gender bias.

Ninety percent of tech employees are men and at the senior levels men account for 96 percent. Of the women entering the tech industry, 56 percent leave citing that they were pushed out by sexism and of the 6,517 companies receiving venture funding from 2011 to 2013, only 2.7 percent had women for CEOs.

As such, gender lens investing is crucial for breaking through the glass ceiling in these companies, but it’s not just within the rank and file of the tech industry that women face discrimination. As McKinsey points out, gender parity requires a shift in attitudes and here again the tech industry offers no better place to see cultural attitudes towards women than on the Internet.

Across websites and social media, gender discrimination exists along a spectrum of illicit sexual surveillance, creep shots extortion, doxxing, stalking, malicious impersonation, threats and rape videos. Misogyny on Twitter, a report by Demos found that over a six-week period more than 6 million instances of the word “slut” or “whore” were used in English on Twitter. Of these tweets, 20 percent were deemed to be threatening.

Originally filed under “controversial humor,” the social media companies recognize such postings can be overt efforts to silence women, but so far, the sanctity of free speech is taking precedence over freedom for women to engage in online communities. At the same time, “When it comes to copyright and intellectual property interests, companies are highly responsive. But violence against women frequently gets a lukewarm response until it becomes an issue of bad press,” stated Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly in 2014.

At the annual SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing last November, a panel was held for the very first time on The Truth About Violence Against Women and Gender Inequality. Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action and the Media, recounted how a group of women were able to elevate the online violence against women to “an issue of bad press.” Advertisements for Dove, iTunes, Finn Air and others were appearing on live pages with names like “I kill bitches like you,” “I Love the Rape Van” and many others with worse titles.

Thus Women, Action and the Media and other feminists launched a campaign directed at the advertisers, asking, “Were these values a reflection of the company’s values?” The advertisers responded immediately and the social media companies followed. Pat Zerega, senior director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investments, shared how teaming with feminist stakeholders led to using shareholder advocacy as the means for increasing corporate accountability and awareness of extractives, trucking, hotels and other industries in the forefront of violence against women. Check out Mercy Investments’ groundbreaking effort: Truckers Against Trafficking.

Perhaps the extractive industries might not set out to perpetuate violence against women, but it certainly is a widespread by-product of how they do business. Take the tragic scene of conflict, environmental destruction and violence against women that is playing out under a national media spotlight at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) site in North Dakota. The Bakken region of North Dakota started experiencing its oil boom back 2010. The rapid oil development brought an influx of cash and thousands of oil workers living in “man camps” with time and money on their hands.

The rates for murders, aggravated assaults and robberies have tripled and rates for sex crimes, forcible rape, prostitution and sex trafficking have increased by 20.2 percent, according to Kathleen Finn, scholar in residence at the American Indian Law Clinic University of Colorado. The response by the state of North Dakota to protect the women and children from the escalating oil-induced violence has been to allocate $100,000 over a five-year period for the victims. The response by the state of North Dakota to the company building DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, has been to allocate more than $23 million over a five-month period for the law enforcement, National Guard and security forces to protect company equipment.

The fight against DAPL has implications beyond the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It is a fight for everyone who wants clean air, clean water and gender equality. As governments increasingly prove incapable or unwilling to protect these things, citizens are turning to the market and the market is responding. Thanks to DAPL, social responsibility is on every ESG (environmental, social and governance) investor’s radar.

As of this writing, a coalition of more than 150 investors representing more than $1.3 trillion in assets under management called on banks financing DAPL to address or support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to reroute the pipeline and avoid their treaty territory. Lead investor Boston Common Asset Management was joined by Storebrand Asset Management and Calvert Research and Management along with CalPERS and the comptroller of the city of New York in a statement about reputational and potential financial risks for banks with ties to DAPL. The investors are concerned banks may be implicated in conflict and controversies related to the pipeline and could face long-term brand and reputational damage resulting from consumer boycotts and possible legal liability.

Within the investment community, ESG investing is mainstreaming at an unprecedented rate. Considerable progress quantifying environmental risks and building them into the business model has been made. For example Carbon Tracker provides “financial and regulatory analysis to ensure that the risk premium associated with fossil fuels is correctly priced.” The emergence of unburnable carbon, stranded assets, wasted capital and fossil fuel risk premium has equipped investors with a wealth of tools to integrate environment into their decisions. Likewise, governance is also making progress. evidenced by the creation of many funds and indices designed around CEO pay, board diversity, etc.

Social, on the other hand, has not made as much progress. While investors are able to easily assess companies based on women represented on boards, equal pay, etc., there are few if any tools for investors to gauge how companies are addressing violence against women in their operations and supply chains. Complicit in the lack of progress is the fact that the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require corporations to report on community relations or human rights, due to their perceived lack of material relevance, so they fail to disclose what could be deemed material social risks and social costs and corporate accountability to the victims.

But the times, they are changing. ESG investing is mainstreaming at an accelerated rate. To stay true to our original purpose—creating a better world through the market—we must create the tools, methodologies and social metrics to achieve relevance with the female half of our stakeholders.

Rebecca Adamson, an Indigenous economist, is founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide.

Reposted with permission from our media associate GreenMoney.

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