on Biomimicry

Janine Benyus is a biologist who works on the border between biology and design. Following her ground-breaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, she has become an award-winning innovation consultant, helping to create a more sustainable world by learning from the designs of nature. In this exclusive interview she discusses the ideas and work of Biomimicry, “the conscious emulation of life’s genius”. An idea that could change the way we think about sustainable design forever.

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Richard Bright: What is biomimicry?

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. It’s a practice of learning from and then emulating life designs, processes and ecosystem strategies in order to create a more sustainable human world.

RB: It also follows life’s principles, what are life’s principles in a nutshell?

JB: When we first started, after my book came out in 1997, we created a consultancy of biologists who would go to the design table and work with inventors to create more sustainable products and processes. We’d look into the biological literature and if somebody was wanting a better desalinization membrane that used less energy, we would go and study fish and seabirds and your own kidneys, and we’d look at how life has figured out how to pull salt from water and leave fresh water behind. It turns out that all of those adaptations, all of those technologies, are wondrous, and very low energy. That’s basically what we started to do. Then we realized that if you look at a biomimetic innovation through a very narrow lens, of just looking at it through form for instance, you’re just going to create two membranes with different sizes of pores, you may wind up making those membranes out of very toxic materials, in a very toxic manufacturing process, and you know, manufacture them in sweatshops and truck them around the world. Then, at that point, you have lost the thread of actually trying to emulate how nature does what nature does. So, what we realized was that we needed to take a step back and, instead of looking at individual organisms, we also had to try to say as scientists, “Is there something that all organisms have in common?” This is very profound, very powerful, because there is so much diversity on the Earth with 30 million species.

It turns out that whether you are a bacteria, or a fungi, or a plant, or mammal, or bird, there are certain operating rules for how to be an Earthling. That’s what we call life’s principles. Life builds from the bottom up with a small subset of materials that it adds design to. It doesn’t use all of the elements in the periodic table, just a small, safe subset. There are also things like how life learns and adapts to changing conditions in this generation, and how life evolves through generations; literally, how it does that by paying exquisite detail to feedback, and by replicating what works. So, there’s about 26 life principles now, things that we have found that organisms have in common. What they turn out to be in practice is, we use them with inventors of all stripes. When we talk about design it may be the design of an organization, or the design of your community, the design of a farming coop, or it might be the design of a product. So we use these principles to scope out what sort of characteristics you want your design to have; that’s the scoping, you want it to have these characteristics of being self-healing, being able to learn over time.

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Then we use it as an evaluation tool. Once you make that desalinization membrane and you look and say, “Wow, this isn’t using local materials, we’re not manufacturing it with life-friendly chemistry.” So it also allows us to keep the system in the room. It’s very hard for humans to keep a systemic look at what is good, what works, what’s appropriate, and so, since we are trying to create things that are appropriate for life on Earth over the long haul, you need to have these system conditions met, as best we can. It’s very difficult to do that, where we are, an industrial society now. It’s quite a leap, but it’s become one of the most important tools that we use.

RB: You also use this wonderful phrase, ‘The conscious emulation of life’s genius.’ The term ‘conscious,’ implies forethought, as the word ‘emulation,’ goes beyond mere imitation. And then, there is the phrase, ‘life’s genius,’ which maybe you have hinted at, but, this is a very powerful statement, so what do you mean by it?

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