Biomimicry: Designing with Nature
This article is excerpted from The Truth About Green Business, available now from FT Press.
Biomimicry: learning from life
When a Mercedes-Benz design team went to a local aquarium seeking inspiration from the sleek, fast-moving sharks, it found something shocking -- a clumsy looking boxfish in another tank seemed to move with almost no drag and little effort. This discovery resulted in a boxfish-inspired design, wind tunnel tests, and finally a 70 mpg "Bionic" concept car with 80 percent lower nitrogen oxide emissions than the average car.
As we at Natural Logic have long asked our clients, "Why reinvent the wheel, when nearly four billion years of R&D has already been done?"
Imitation of life in a good way -- Biomimicry means "imitation of life." Author Janine M. Benyus calls biomimicry "doing it nature's way." She recommends looking to nature:
As model -- For inspiration, for design to solve human problems.
As mentor -- Focusing us on what we can learn from nature, rather than just extracting from it.
As measure -- Of what works, what's appropriate, and what lasts.
Changing the way we conduct business -- Biomimicry, says Benyus (who coined the term), "has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business."
"Let's learn the basics from nature and build on that," she advises. "Waste is a resource, use energy wisely, use materials sparingly, take only what we need, diversify and cooperate, do what you know how to do."
Naturally smarter design -- Biomimicry considers three levels of design:
Natural form (such as a fish-shaped car)
Natural processes (such as green chemistry in creating the car)
Ecosystems (such as industrial ecology-how the car impacts the world around it).
There are three approaches designers take to biomimicry: seeing nature as a model, mentor, and measure.
Seeing nature as a model -- This is biomimicry on its most direct surface level. For example, designers might find an example in nature and use it as a model, as Pax Scientific has done with fans and propellers modeled on whale fins and nautilus shells, or as Velcro famously did with fabric and other fasteners modeled on the hook-and-loop strategy of seed pods. This method uses nature's endlessly refined solutions to inspire innovation beyond conventional thinking.
Seeing nature as a mentor -- This approach mimics and adapts the principles and processes that nature uses in its creation of "products," learning from how nature makes trees, whales, and other "stuff." A forest ecosystem cycles nutrients through a complex set of plant and animal relationships that co-evolved to perform multiple, complex functions, powered by the sun and generating no waste. This approach evaluates how an industrial ecosystem can do the same. (Think of it as a "model" at the scale of systems and principles.)
Seeing nature as measure -- Biomimicry sees nature as "a standard against which to judge the "rightness" of our innovations. Are they life promoting? Do they fit in? Will they last?" How do our products compare with such natural products as redwood trees, phytoplankton, aquifers, and ladybugs? How well will the manmade widgets integrate into the market and pre-existing natural product lines? Does the latest smart phone have the same staying power as a turtle, or will it go extinct -- and turn to toxic waste -- a year from now when the new model comes out? This element provides a constant refrain to the question of "How good is good enough?"
"We can begin to divine a canon of nature's laws," Benyus writes, echoing the design principles that have been identified by Hardin Tibbs, Bill McDonough, John Todd, myself, and others. "Nature runs on sunlight. Nature uses only the energy it needs. Nature fits form to function. Nature recycles everything. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature banks on diversity. Nature demands local expertise. Nature curbs excess from within. Nature taps the power of limits."
Although the principles appear to be universal, not all nature's designs work in every niche, so be diverse in your solutions. Think widely -- make that wildly! -- for materials and components. The lessons go on -- integrative design, self-assembly, energy, material efficiency, and effectiveness.
One of the lessons of biomimicry is to optimize the performance of the entire system for the long term, rather than maximize the performance of parts of systems for the short term. (Maximize: Get the largest possible result for the selected system factor. Optimize: Get the best possible result for all relevant system factors.) This is as true of ecosystems as it is of production lines -- as lean production systems have proven (see Truth 13, "Running lean and green").
Nature's next top model -- The Speedo LZR Racer suit that Michael Phelps wore to win eight Olympic gold medals --gained part of its magic from the study of preserved sharks.
Researchers learned that shark skin is covered in tiny "teeth" or dermal denticles. Their shape and positioning varies across the shark's body, managing the flow of water over the skin, reducing drag, and enabling the shark to "slide" through the sea with remarkable efficiency.
Similarly, the U.S. Navy studied the structure and dynamics of dolphin skin to learn how to reduce drag on submarines.
Get inspired -- Check out the work of some inspiring practitioners. The Biomimicry Institute has developed an amazing database providing systemic, searchable access to nature's treasure trove of design and a book summarizing "Nature's 100 Best" innovations. And you don't have to be a designer or an engineer to get inspired.
Design with Nature
"Our eyes do not divide us from the world, but unite us with it. Let this be known to be true. Let us then abandon the simplicity of separation and give unity its due. Let us abandon the self-mutilation which has been our way and give expression to the potential harmony of man-nature. The world is abundant, we require only a deference born of understanding to fulfill man's promise. Man is that uniquely conscious creature who can perceive and express. He must become the steward of the biosphere. To do this he must design with nature."-Ian McHarg.
The term "Design with Nature" was popularized by urban planner and landscape architect Ian McHarg in his 1969 book of the same name. He wrote about the need to consider the unique qualities, functions, and ambient resources of a place and translate them into planning and designing buildings, neighborhoods, and cities in harmony with nature. Although the book focused on the local environment's influence on place-based planning and architecture (and pioneered the use of overlay maps to resolve competing ideas about land use), its many lessons are far-reaching and applicable to business today. Two key lessons: Adapt to the place you're in, whether watershed or planet, and use what's there wisely and elegantly, without damaging that place.
Looking at the land use example more globally, it means using models found in nature to design products, processes, and businesses. It provides businesses with a framework for strategy, innovation, and success.
The well-being of our economy fundamentally depends on the ecological services that support it. Design with nature is the key to achieving business goals while maintaining or enhancing nature's services.
Designs that consider -- and emulate -- nature are more likely to succeed. They surf natural resource flows rather than fight them (think naturally air-conditioned adobe houses in desert climes). They use design principles tested and refined in evolutionary time. They use materials that renew, replenish, and support life's cycles.
And designing with nature, like any well-chosen constraint, can drive innovation.
Designing with nature has a simple metabolic basis. Industrial systems can use only two things -- energy and materials -- and they release only product and non-product. (Although living systems, of course, produce no non-product at all.) Good design should mirror nature's processes, meaning that they should minimize material and energy inputs, minimize use (and eliminate release) of toxic substances, maximize product value, eliminate non-product, and rely on renewable energies to drive the process.
Understand that living systems run on renewable energy and closed loops of edible materials (the "waste" of one is food for another).
Nature utilizes a free and abundant supply and doesn't overshoot that supply.
Take stock of ambient resources and use the ones that are locally abundant. For example, when we helped a client plan a new resort, we designed around the ambient flows of the place -- landscaping that can survive on local rainfall alone and buildings designed (in orientation, efficiency, and technology) to use ambient solar and wind energy for heating, cooling, and electricity generation. These flows aren't just resources you can take from, but natural systems you can enhance as well.
Design with renewable materials and renewable energy, as nature does. Almost all living systems depend on photosynthesis to capture current solar income. Nature utilizes a free and abundant supply and doesn't overshoot that supply.
Design waste out of your system. Use less material by designing long-lasting products and dematerializing where possible. Design for long-term optimization, rather than short-term maximization. Use reusable, renewable, recyclable, and "pre-owned" materials.
Close and shorten material loops. Make products that are "edible," using materials that can be used by other businesses or absorbed in nature without damage.
Don't assume a necessary tradeoff between design with nature and design for profit. Insist on both.
Don't sell, make, or buy what can't be metabolized by living systems. If you do create toxins, synthesize them as needed, rather than stockpiling them. (You don't see a rattlesnake hauling around tankers full of venom, do you?)
Design diverse products and systems with a rich variety of interconnections of function and resource exchange.
Gil Friend, the founder, President and CEO of Natural Logic, is a noted thought leader in sustainable business with nearly 40 years experience in the field.
Teaser image by Matthew Fang, courtesy of Creative Commons license.