‘Biomimicry’ is a term that was coined and popularized by pioneer, scientist, educator and self-professed “nature nerd,” Janine Benyus. It is a design principle — the conscious emulation of nature’s genius, principles and designs to solve human problems. The word biomimicry or biomimetics has its origin in the Greek meanings of bio (life) and mimetiks (imitation). In imitating nature and not in dominating nature, biomimetics aims to catalyze a branch of science—one that innovates and fulfills human needs in accordance with the natural principles of life for the sake of all life and not just human life.
Through processes of evolution and adaptation, organisms have developed the prime qualities and characteristics which allow them to exist harmoniously with their environment. Nature has already solved many of the problems that we are still grappling with (such as the efficient production of energy to power our growing infrastructures and demands). Thus nature is the best model, measure, and mentor for productive and waste-less innovations that serve our human needs and also preserve the integrity of our beautiful world.
- Nature is the model on which one creates forms, processes, systems, and strategies to solve human problems
- Nature is the measure used to judge the sustainability and long-term longevity of the final design. After all, nature has learned what works and what lasts.
- Nature is the mentor whose knowledge should not be extracted and isolated from context but learned and internalized.
The Design Spirals
The Biomimicry Institute (founded by Janine Benyus) fosters biomimicry in many ways. It has a thorough educational platform on its website that provides valuable information, teaching resources, and networking opportunities to educators and students who are interested in biomimetic thinking.
The Biomimicry Institute provides a concrete framework off which to advance a design idea. There are two “design spirals” — two ways to approaching the design process:
Challenge to Biology – when there is a problem and you are seeking for the solution using biological insight.
- Identify the function
- Define the context
- Break down the challenge into biological terms
- Discover natural models
- Abstract design principles
- Evaluate against Life’s Principles
Biology to Design – sparked initially by some kind of biological insight that you want to manifest as a design.
- Discover natural models
- Abstract design principles
- Brainstorm potential applications
- Emulate nature’s strategies
- Evaluate against Life’s Principles
In both cases, one must always evaluate the design against Life’s Principles, which are important principles to which one should always adhere in a design in order to create conditions conducive to life. Biomimicry uses nature and these life principles every step of the design process as the standard on which to judge the viability of the designs.
The Life Principles
- Evolve to survive
- Replicate strategies that work
- Integrate the unexpected
- Reshuffle information
- Adapt to changing conditions
- Incorporate diversity
- Maintain integrity through self-renewal
- Embody resilience through variation, redundancy, and decentralization
- Be biologically attuned and responsive
- Leverage cyclic processes
- Use readily available materials and energy
- Use feedback loops
- Cultivate cooperative relationships
- Use life-friendly chemistry
- Break down products into benign constituents
- Build selectively with a small subset of elements
- Do chemistry in water
- Be resource efficient (material and energy)
- Use low energy processes
- Use multi-functional design
- Recycle all materials
- Fit form to function
- Integrate development with growth
- Build from the bottom-up
- Combine modular and nested components
These principles represent the overarching patterns found amongst the surviving and thriving species on Earth. Thus biomimetic design must be judged in accordance with these principles. Natural selection is, in fact, “wisdom in practice,” as Benyus says.
An ecologically conscious design application
Biomimics consult nature for their design ideas. They are inspired by a physical blueprint, a step in a chemical reaction, life cycles, or an ecosystem principle. As opposed to bio-utilization (harvesting) or bio-assisting (domesticating) organisms in order to serve human needs, biomimicry simply derives its ideas from nature, leaving the original image/inspiration intact and uncorrupted. As human needs grow and transform along with the development of scientific though, there exists an ever-growing number of ways to fulfill those needs – can we do so while respecting all of life and its timeless principles? Biomimics say yes!
Biomimetics is very similar to bionics insofar as they both involve the application of biological methods and systems found in nature. Bionics was coined by Colonel Jack Steele of the US Air Force at a meeting on September 13, 1960. He described it as “a science of systems which have some function copied from nature, or which represent characteristics of natural systems or their analogues.”(Reference 1) Bionics extracts some designs principles from nature that can be integrated into a structural innovation (i.e. designing boat hulls to imitate the shape of dolphins, and Velcro’s adhesive imitation of burrs). In contrast, biomimics aims to imitate nature on three levels, not just on the structural/form level:
- Natural form – the physical structure of the organism or process
- Natural process – the way in which the final product is made (Does it produce waste? Can we use the byproducts from the production process in a direct way?)
- Natural system – how the product fits into the ecosystem and our human environment
In this way, Biomimicry shares the same principles as permaculture. Formulated in the 1970s by Bill Mollison, permaculture is a system and movement of ecological design that creates sustainable and regenerative human environments. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is the study of the design of those sustainable or enduring systems that support human society, both agricultural & intellectual, traditional & scientific, architectural, financial & legal. It is the study of integrated systems, for the purpose of better design & application of such systems.”
Although it was originally envisioned as a framework for agricultural practices and settlement development, permaculture has now become a way of looking at personal lifestyles, organizational structures, and culture. Permaculture and biomimicry are simply two slightly different methods and schools of thought that converge on one idea: coexisting harmoniously with nature. The difference lies in the nuance that permaculture was originally conceived as an ecological design for agricultural and settlement-building, whereas biomimicry design principles are applied more towards technological innovation.
Here are just a few cases of pioneers, researchers, and scientists who are making fantastic headway in the area of biomimetics (taken from the Biomimicry Institute):
- The sandcastle worm makes a protective home out of beads of zirconium oxide. In a lab at the University of Utah, scientists have created a synthetic version of this glue for possible use in repairing fractured bones.
- Just as the hub of a bee hive is the honeycomb, the hub of New York-based Panelite’s ClearShade insulating glass unit is its “tubular polycarbonate” core. Modeled after the hexagonal structure of a honeycomb, ClearShade’s core limits sunlight coming through glass thereby reducing heat gains as well as energy costs
- Thomas Eisner (Cornell) is letting the behavior of insects tell him which plants may be good bets for new drugs. If insects ignore a leaf, he figures the plant is full of secondary compounds-defenses for the plant and drugs for us.
- Various researchers in Industrial Ecology are looking for ways to apply nature’s lessons of economy, efficiency, cooperation, and rootedness to the marketplace. Closed-loop eco-parks, patterned after mature ecosystems like redwood forests, are now being built in Chattanooga, Brownsville, Baltimore, and Cape Charles.
Part 2 of “What is Biomimicry?” will explore in-depth recent developments in science and technology that utilize this design principle.
Steele, J. E.(1960) “How Do We Get There?”, Bionics Symposium: Living Prototypes–The Key to New Technology, September 13-15, 1960, WADD Technical Report 60-600, Wright Air Development Division, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH, pp. 488-489. Reprinted in The Cyborg Handbook, Edited by Chris Hables Gray, New York, NY: Routledge, 1995: 55-60.
“Biomimicry in Action,” TED Talk with Janine Benyus, July 2009. (http://www.ted.com/talks/janine_benyus_biomimicry_in_action.html)
“What do you mean by the Term Biomimicry?” an interview with Janine Benyus. (http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/what-do-you-mean-by-the-term-biomimicry.html)
“A Collection of definitions by some elders of permaculture” in (http://www.permaculture.net/about/definitions.html)
Cruz, Sandy & Jerome Osentowski, “What is Permaculture?” pamphlet
***For more information (and inspiration!) on principles and applications of biomimicry, check out the following sites!***