In 1997, biologist Janine Benyus popularized the term “biomimicry,” with her groundbreaking book of the same name, and spearheaded the growth of the discipline dedicated to applying Nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable world. I recently spoke with Janine about some of her favorite biomimetic innovations, about asking more from our design interventions, and some of the yet untapped areas in which Nature’s genius could help solve our most intractable problems.
The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge this year was dedicated to innovations around food - what have been some of your favorite solutions?
I'm really feeling like, [in] agriculture, we're not going to be so plant-focused; we're going to be helping “the helpers” – what I mean by that is, plants are not Islands; they need microbial fungi, bacteria, a whole orchestra of organisms that are in the microbiome of the soil that help plants get their nutrition. Under a forest veil, these plants are exchanging water, nitrogen, phosphorus, alarm signals - all through these intermediaries, the helpers. And when we put fertilizer down on crops – phosphorous, for instance - we tell the fungi, whose job it is to give the plants phosphorus, that they're no longer needed, or we kill them with pesticides. So my two favorites are about helping the helpers.
One is called the living filtration system - they created a lining within drainage pipes for large-scale drainage systems - for cornfields in the Midwest, for example. Right now, these drainage pipes also take fertilizers that get leached down through the soil and they end up in the Mississippi and create dead zones, like in the Gulf of Mexico. So they've created this sleeve within the pipe that takes phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients and redistributes them back to the plants so they don't leach out of the soil. So they take it out of that water this being drained from the field and feed it back to the microbes in the soil that then feed the plants - I love that.
There's also a group in Chile that studied facilitation in something called a cushion plant. Facilitation is … in a forest, you'll see plants that are growing very close to each other for a reason. They're either blocking each other's wind, or leaves are dropping from one creating nutrients that feeds the other, or one of them brings in certain microbes that benefits the other. So they created a ring type of mulch, composed of seeds of particular species that when they grow will help enrich the soil and help support the seedling that they're planted around – a nurse ring of seeds. So they created a little ecosystem of helper plants to facilitate the growth of seedlings. I find that fascinating because it’s focusing on agriculture as a polyculture of organisms that work together to meet their needs together; very counterintuitive to what we normally do, and very much from the natural world.
Speaking of your favorite ideas, in the recent short film, “Biomimicry,” you call out organizations that are using biomimicry to turn greenhouse gases into usable products; increase energy efficiency; capture, conserve and desalinate water; create self-cleaning and antibacterial surfaces, etc. What other developments in the field are most exciting to you right now? Are there larger developments or shifts (beyond individual products) taking place?
Well, there's lots of them - just this week we heard about a breakthrough in fuel cells that came from studying cacti. Plants have pores - their mouths, if you will - that breathe out water vapor as they're photosynthesizing. A cactus doesn't want to lose water, so they have very sensitive pores that open and close in response to relative humidity. Now if you have an electric car, you can get your electricity through a wire or you can have it on board with a fuel cell. But you have to keep the membranes wet, so you have to keep water on board, which has been one of the problems with fuel cells. So they figured out how to keep that membrane wet by creating the sort of nano openings that work just like cactus stomata, and they're actually able to create three times more productive a fuel cell as a result. So that's kind of a breakthrough - that's from a research organization in Australia called CSIRO and a group of scientists from Korea.
I also just read this week that PEG, a wind power generator in Germany, has bought the license from WhalePower - which mimics the scalloped edges of a humpback whale’s flipper, called tubercles, which on the whale helps reduce drag as the animal moves through the water. When applied to something like an airplane wing, it can reduce drag up to 32 percent; when you put them on the leading edge of a wind turbine, it allows you to operate at very low wind speeds. I also saw a study - there are tiled structures on the inside of the little bulb inside the abdomen of a firefly. And when you laser etch those tiled structures inside an LED bulb, you get 60 percent more light transmission, which is huge if we look at LED lighting in buildings, for instance - one of our major greenhouse gas emitters is the use of electricity in buildings, especially around lighting. So those alone are worth the price of admission for me.
In terms of other cool things going on in the field, I'm also excited about biomimicry as it's applied to cities and to social innovation. At Biomimicry 3.8, our consultancy, we've been challenging cities and developers, building owners and companies like Interface to look at their building, factory, block, development, or their whole city and say, how can you redesign those spaces so that they are net producers of ecosystem services? We've heard about net positive energy … but I mean, if you're going to be biomimetic, you should function like the ecosystem next door. These systems are very generous - they build soil, support pollinators, nurture biodiversity, clean water, clean air, sequester carbon dioxide. We've created ecological performance standards - they're metrics-based, which will be interesting to your audience. So we say, in the forest next door, this much carbon is being sequestered per acre. Your factory is on eight acres, so you should be sequestering this much carbon; in a storm, this much water is being stored in the forest - can you do that? So you've got this metric now. And when we do it at the level of a factory, it’s like how can we make it [so that] at the end of however many years, you're actually producing ecosystem services - not just planting trees, but how does the roof and its metabolism begin to clean air, send water downstream cleaner than it came in? That is a really interesting aspirational goal, and that's biomimicry applied to the built world, from a building all the way up to a city. We're talking to Charlotte [North Carolina] about, what if Charlotte started to have some of these ecosystem service metrics - challenging the city managers to meet this on each and every acre, block, and building. So that's kind of cool - I'm pretty excited about that.
Figuring out where to start with these, in each instance, must be mind-boggling for most people.
Actually, it opens up design. We have the technological design interventions to do this, but they're fragmented right now. I mean, say we've got a green roof - how much water does it store and can you help it store more? If it doesn't support pollinators, you can put some plants up there that support pollinators. Once you start asking these design interventions to do more than we ask them now and you start counting what counts, it gives us a framework to design into.
And it's obviously so much easier to start with these ideas than to try to jerry-rig what you've already created to fit these principles. So what advice do you have for established organizations – cities, companies or the people within them - who see the merit in all of this but have no idea how to start?
Biomimicry is no different from any other innovation process in the sense that you do it because you hope there's potential for you to save money, reduce environmental risk factors, increase your market share, satisfy consumers’ desires for cleaner products, and because it makes sense to you economically. Biomimicry just says if you want to reduce energy use, change material use, get rid of toxins in your chemistry, there might be a shortcut by looking at the way that's already being done - which is in the natural world. There's an optimization engine of evolution - 3.8 billion years - so there's a library of solutions. People who are selling biomimicry internally to their Innovation Department do it purely on the fact that these are novel ideas that we haven't looked at before, so we might as well try - and that sustainability will come in the mix. We're usually called “consultants of last resort” because when a problem has been really intractable, that's when we get called in - and we say, ‘We'll look at 10 to 30 million species for you,’ haha.
In some cases, it unlocks development potential. For Interface, they set a goal for themselves to do no harm to the environment by 2020, but Ray Anderson always said, how can you have a company that functions like a forest? So when they hit 2020 and they’re at Mission Zero - zero harm - they need the next step, and the next step is “Mission Generous.”
In an interview in 2012, you said you were excited about the potential applications of 3D printing for ‘as-needed’ manufacturing - how do you feel about the evolution of the technology and the ways it’s been put to use so far? Have you seen promising biomimetic applications for it?
I was hoping that it would change the conversation. But I haven't seen any 3D printing conferences with any sustainability track to them, which is shocking, actually, for this kind of a revolution. The Biomimicry Institute, our nonprofit arm, is working with UC Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and Autodesk to look at alternative resins. I'm really interested in the idea of CO2 as a feedstock for 3D-printing plastic; 3D printing should definitely meet the circular economy sometime soon. The technology of the printer I don't see changing as much, though we do see ant and bee algorithms operating robots that create the object in space rather than having an object inside a box, so we're out of the box 3D printing. Also where a lot of the interest is, especially for companies like Autodesk or Cisco Systems, the companies that create computer aided design (CAD/CAM programs), are the build files - the instructions for the 3D printer - and those companies are starting to look for biomimetic algorithms. One that's really popular now started with a company called Altair called Optistruct – a software program that lightweights your parts. Airbus just used it to lightweight their rib and wing assembly by 40 percent; imagine a solid wing and you run it through a bone-inspired algorithm that mimics how your bones reform under stress. That's another biomimetic algorithm in 3D printing, and in all kinds of manufacturing, actually - it saves so much material.
Then you've got the reverse logistics - how does [an item] break down to go back into the printer? Imagine you go to Target and there's nothing in the store but five printers - you make a spatula, and when that breaks, you bring it back and they put it back into the printer and it becomes something else. That’s the goal, right? So how do you learn from enzymes and enzyme degradation in the natural world? How do you learn to take things apart when they're no longer needed? I haven't really seen anyone working on that yet!
So we're at the early days and it's about the conversation - if you write this, maybe a whole bunch more people will see this and say, ‘Jeez, we should be doing that!’ It could require a giant applied research project to create a truly biomimetic 3D printing system and then commercialize it - I mean, that's what I'm looking for.
Earlier, you mentioned some social applications for biomimicry - can you give some examples?
Oh, yeah! Every year there's sort of a new frontier or application area - people are realizing instead of just asking how does nature repel water, maybe we can ask some other questions. We've been getting a lot of requests for org dev-type challenges, but I think people are realizing that ecological systems are complex, adaptive systems - systems that adapt to disturbance, they’re resilient, they're highly networked, they learn, they're innovative. So they're asking things like, how does nature cooperate? How does nature foster cooperation? How does nature self-organize from the bottom up with simple rules and cycles of feedback without obvious leadership? How does nature decentralize networks that are resilient to disturbance?
So now we're starting to work with managers and do stuff around biomimicry in leadership to help people learn from these ecosystem-level strategies. Biomimicry mimics form - like the tubercle; it mimics process - like photosynthesis in solar cells; and the third one is ecosystem-level strategies, so we're starting to do that.