Recently, I wrote about the basics of biomimicry at “AllDesignMag” – the exclusive publication of All Design Istanbul Conference. The conference took place this month and hosted well-known designers from around the world. This post is the English translation of the original article, which can be found here: http://www.trenddesk.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Biomimicry-article-for-AllDesignMag-condensed-PDF.pdf

Biomimicry: Working with a Team of 10 Million Designers

WHAT IS BIOMIMICRY?

The term “Biomimicry” is a combination of two words. ‘Bio’ means life. ‘Mimicry’ means to emulate. ‘Biomimicry’ is an emerging innovation discipline that learns from nature and emulates its forms, processes, and systems in order to create more sustainable designs. Consider learning non-toxic cleaning from a lotus leaf, low-energy cooling from a termite colony, ways of closing production loops from a prairie and collaboration strategies from a coral reef… possibilities are almost endless. It is estimated that there are at least 10 million species living on Earth. Each and every species is an expert in solving a specific challenge. Biomimicry is turning to our neighbors for solutions, understanding their strategies and applying them in our work. It requires a deep understanding of how life works, accurate biological information, methodological approach, teamwork, passion for change, and a lot of humility. Sometimes a breakthrough solution comes from a microscopic organism, not the magnificent tiger.

I can’t imagine any innovator, designer, engineer or business leader who would refuse to have a team of 10 million experts. Asking “how does nature solve this problem?” leads to unique perspectives and solutions, and it is no surprise that more and more companies, innovators, educators, and governments ask this question. Indicatively so, the number of global patents containing the term “biomimetic” or “bio-inspired” in their title has increased by a factor of 93, from 1985 to 2005, compared to a factor 2.7 increase for non-biomimetic patents. There are hundreds of application examples – products, systems and processes – which have become success stories in their respective fields because they can perform better with less, generating reduced or no waste. Let me give a few pioneering examples that have inspired others over the past two decades.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PIONEERING EXAMPLES?

The Eastgate Building is a shopping center and office building in Harare, Zimbabwe. When briefed by Arup, architect Mick Pierce studied the passive cooling principles inside termite mounds and applied them to Eastgate. Thanks to termite-inspired ventilation system, the need to purchase fuel-based, energy intensive air conditioning units was completely eliminated. Eastgate Building is able to provide a comfortable temperature for residents and shoppers despite huge temperature differences outside, between day and night. Savings within the first 5 years reached 3.5 million USD (Source: AskNature)

In Japan, the launch of 500-series Shinkansen train was a great source of national pride. The new Shinkansen could travel with a speed of 300 km/hour (200 mph), well deserving its nickname “bullet train”. However, there was a problem.  As the train traveled through a narrow tunnel, speed forced an atmospheric pressure wave towards the front, creating a sonic boom at the exit. The sound levels exceeded environmental standards. Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer with JR West and a birdwatcher, solved the problem by studying kingfisher’s beak and redesigning the front end of the train with the learnings. Kingfisher beak is streamlined, steadily increasing in diameter from its tip to its head. This shape reduces the impact as the kingfisher dives into the water, allowing the water to flow past the beak rather than being pushed in front of it. The bird is able to move from open air to water – a very different medium in terms of density and resistance – without making a splash. The nature-inspired Shinkansen train not only travels more quietly, it travels 10% faster and uses 15% less electricity (Source: AskNature).

In the 70s, Interface introduced the first tile carpet to the market in U.S. and soon became the largest manufacturer in the world. In the mid-90’s, Ray Anderson, founder of the company, decided to make the company an environmental success as well. He considered biomimicry as a way of achieving this goal. During a walk with Janine Benyus, Interface design team realized the difference between their carpet tiles and the natural floor. They realized that a surface that appeared homogeneous was actually made of unique parts, arranged in organized chaos. Just as no two leaves had to be same for the forest floor to appear homogeneous and beautiful, no carpet tiles had to be the same. The idea of unidentical carpet tiles and whole new product line called Entropy were born. Before Entropy, Interface had to throw away tiles that were not perfect or identical to the rest. By 2009, the company’s accumulated savings from waste elimination reached millions of dollars. Customers also won, as they had to pay 70% less for the installation, because the process required less time (Source: InterfaceFLOR Case Study, Terrapin Bright Green).

IS BIOMIMICRY A NEW DISCIPLNE?

One of the common questions is about the novelty of biomimicry. Is biomimicry really new? The thought of looking at nature for design inspiration is not new at all. It is ancient. Indigenous cultures pragmatically learned from species in their environments to come up with great designs. For example, polar bear digging habits significantly influenced igloo designs of Inuit tribes. Leonardo studied birds to design the first flight devices, which evolved into planes in centuries. More recently, in 1950s, Swiss engineer George de Maestral studied burr seeds to invent Velcro. What is new is the going beyond a few brilliant minds – the birth of a systematic discipline of learning and application that involves hundreds of designers, architects, engineers, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, and architects from around the world. This is what I call the “democratization of nature-inspired design”.

The democratization of nature-inspired design was made possible by Janine Benyus and Dr. Dayna Baumeister – the two global leaders who have created and built the discipline. If we are looking for the first “spark” in biomimicry, it should be “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” book written by Janine Benyus in 1997. The book gained attension in sustainability and design circles in a short period of time. The ongoing collaboration between two like-minded visionaries led to a comprehensive methodogy in addressing design challenges. It led to Biomimicry 3.8 – an umbrella organization that consists of a not-for-profit institute and for-profit consultancy company that works with Fortune 500. Most importantly, it led to the first intensive, two-year master’s level program in biomimicry. Biomimicry Professional Certification Program trains biologists, designers, engineers and business professionals from all over the world who feel passionate about creating a sustainable future informed by life’s genius.

I have found biomimicry back in 2006 or perhaps biomimicry has found me. I was searching for ways of making my work more meaningful, specifically through sustainability. The moment I saw Janine’s talk on TED Conference, I knew biomimicry was what I wanted to do. The two-year, master’s level program started training its first cohort of 15 students in 2008. Upon graduating in this first cohort in 2010, I started teaching at the same program as the business instructor. Every two years we graduate a small group of certified biomimicry professionals from different countries, speaking different languages, excelling in different professions. The graduate class unites in the belief that nature has answers to the most pressing problems humans are facing today. During the program the students learn how to extract the right strategies from nature, how to best utilize such strategies to solve challenges, how to go beyond blindly copying nature’s designs, and how to work effectively in multi-disciplinary teams. Today’s problems are too complicated to be solved by one person or one discipline.

WHAT DOES THE WORLD NEED NOW?

In addition to teaching, I utilize biomimicry to empower management teams with different perspectives, answer business questions with nature’s strategies, and ultimately show to business leaders that an alternative route to success is possible. My work isn’t about product design. It is about business design. For example, collaboration is one of the main topics I focus on and learn a great deal from nature. In nature, species avoid competition and instead tend towards collaboration. There is nothing romantic or ethical about this choice. It is a pragmatic one. Competition is an energy intense strategy whereas collaboration enables engaging parties to achieve the most with minimum energy. In a world of continuous financial crisis, environmental degradation, and super-connectivity, smart business leaders are considering collaboration as an effective strategy. I work with management teams in triggering ideas for cultivating collaborative relationships, internally and externally. Open innovation is a specific topic I study from collaboration lenses.

A part of my work is to continuously ask and inquire about potential transformations that life in general, and business in particular, can go through. How are macro trends, such as urbanization, population growth and aging, global warming and digitalization changing the way we live and conduct business? What does the world really need and how can business respond to these needs proactively? How can we create and build the kind of brands that deserve to exist on this planet at this point in time, when the conditions for the continuation of life as we know them are at stake? Taking nature as a model guides me in answering these and similar questions. Change as an indispensable part of life, or a prerequisite even. Life has to continuously adapt and evolve in order to survive in the disequilibrium of Earth. Therefore, it comes very natural to me to be in biomimicry and to work with future foresights (or trends) at the same time. The more we understand what the future will bring, the better we will adapt

For those who are interested in more, here are a few suggestions. Developed by The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, AskNature is the world’s first biological literature organized by function. I urge all nature fans to visit AskNature and start inquiring how nature manages waste, filters water, distributes resources… AskNature is a free resource. It is a great gift from Biomimicry 3.8 Institute to everyone ready for nature’s mentorship. Biomimicry 3.8 makes available a rich body of resources on its website. One can find several articles and videos for a self-guided, basic learning experience on Biomimicry 3.8 website. Finally, nature reveals design tips to those who spend time out, observe and ask questions with a never-ending curiosity and humility. I encourage everyone to go out and start observing nature.

News about typhoon-hit Philippines continues pouring in as I finish this article. United Nations appealed $300 million for the Haiyan Action Plan to provide supplies and services to those affected. So far, $81 million has been contributed by donors, including United Nations member states and the private sector. The direct impact on Philippines is estimates to be $9 billion. As consultant and activist Amy Larkin stresses, prices of goods and services does not include the environmental cost. In current economic system, we bear the environmental debt later; as typhoons hit Pasific countries, sudden floods hit Istanbul’s slums, drought hits farmers on Anatolian plains, or cancer rate doubles in a decade in big cities. As Turkey fast-forwards to joining the biggest economies in the world by year 2023, it becomes impossible to ignore this critical question: Will Turkey repeat the unsustainable growth model of the developed world, pursue “Crazy Projects”, and possibly become the China of the West? Or, will it leapfrog to a new understanding that reconciles economic growth with environmental health? I wish for the latter.

Zeynep Arhon,
November 2013