Does Biomimicry as a Tool = Sustainability?

Recently I have begun to learn the difference between vision, strategy and tactic. These are not new concepts for me, personally, but until now I had never understood why the specifics necessarily mattered. To help explain this let me summarize these concepts as best I can.

Strategy = What. Tactic = How. Vision = Why.

(Note: enormous thanks to Alex Manu, and apologies for enormous over simplification).

What problem needs to be solved? What need must be met? What opportunity must be taken? These are questions of strategy, that guide the success of an individual, organization or business. The tactical challenge is to resolve those problems, meet the needs, or seize the opportunities. The vision is the driving force behind why anyone would commit to undertaking those challenges.

This has become important to me recently as I realized I was focusing on a tactical tool, while overlooking any strategic vision. If it sounds as though I am speaking in riddles, then you get a small glimpse into the circling chaos inside my mind as these ideas collide painfully together. Let me explain.

Biomimicry for me personally, is a process where humans take discoveries from any number of the millions of other species that we share the planet with and apply it to our own purposes. These lessons and applications can be functional or beautiful, micro or macro, literal or abstract.

I have personally been intrigued by the challenge of finding those discoveries that are of value to human needs, unlocking the principles and attempting to replicate them through human creativity. As a designer, this has been an exploration of visual thinking to break down barriers between the disciplines of natural science, design and engineering, while navigating the values and needs of business and clients.

I have been focusing on biomimicry as a tool. I have been working on the tactical process of how to solve challenges using this exciting, complex and surprising new tool. It has been rewarding and surprising, but I have recently begun to comprehend the limitations of focusing solely on biomimicry as a tool.

When used as an innovation tool, biomimicry offers wildly creative methods to solve problems. Enormous thought, work and contemplation has been spent exploring how this tool can work, what the benefits of using this tool are, and why it should be done. Benefits that have been widely discussed are;

  • biology as a unique source of inspiration for many creative disciplines, 
  • ambitious challenges for human technology and 
  • broad, holistic sustainability 

There is no doubt that biological inspiration is a novelty for many creative disciplines. It is not a required subject for most fields of design, business or engineering, and the discovery that biology can be of value in their daily life is an addictive idea. There are many theories around why this might be the case, biophilia and gaia theory among them. I like to think simply that the 5 year old inside us that collected bugs still gets a thrill from nature documentaries and loves being surprised and amazed by the beauty and complexity of life around them. Finding a way to channel this into their serious, adult selves, is a gentle nurturing of that 5 year old within that is richly rewarding.

Nature has always been a challenging driver of technology. The bird was an early inspiration for humans to leap into the sky. We now soar at heights and speeds that no other organism is capable of, but still marvel at the silent flight of owls, intricate movements of dragonflies and hovering motion of hummingbirds. That these technologies exist as living proof around us, fuels human curiosity and invention. We feel compelled to learn these secrets and harness them for our own purpose. Perhaps this is the 5 year old still working hard from within.

But biomimicry as a path to sustainability has not been as clear. The natural world around is the definition of sustainability. Life thrives, multiplies, increases in complexity and contradicts every wasteful destructive human action. The logic is obvious. Take principles from nature, and apply them to our challenges, and all problems will be solved. But as I’m learning, it is not as straightforward as this. Biomimicry as a tactical tool, is limited by the strategic question that leads the process, and ultimately by the vision that drives the process.

“How can we move more efficiently through the air?”

Kingfisher piercing water, bullet train piercing the air.

Image source unknown.

An avid birdwatcher made the connection between the high speed train entering a tunnel, and the kingfisher piercing the water to snatch it’s prey. The result is an innovation that increases fuel efficiency, speed and prevents the mass deafness of passengers at the subway platform being crushed by a small sonic boom. It can be said to be a step towards a more sustainable mode of transportation, but until we ask questions at every level true change will not occur. Hard questions must be asked at all levels. From small; the fabrication of materials, components and assemblies, to complex; the information and energy powering and driving the system, to philosophical; the need for mass transportation. Perhaps biomimicry may have insights to answer these questions in inspiring, life changing ways, but until the questions are asked, biomimicry will not have this opportunity.

On the other hand it is very easy to use biomimicry in an unsustainable way. Organism inspired robotics have nothing to do with ecological sustainability, or reducing human impact on the earth. A bionic salmon may one day provide the future mode of high efficient transport, but is likely to be the next high tech military toy for a long tie before that occurs. Here is another link to an amazing array of bionic robots. Jeremy Faludi summarizes it neatly here:

So far, most of the biomimetic research has actually been in robotics and software, and have nothing to do with green building. The US Military has more biomimetic inventions than the building world.

Link to source here.

(Photo taken by Dr. Anders Waren, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm, Sweden)

The development of high impact resistant materials in the creation of protective armour can be argued to save lives. It may lead to protection on multiple layers. But there is nothing indicating that there are not researchers out there investigating methods for piercing and destroying, perhaps fuelled by a successful team of biomimicry researchers.

Arguments can be made on many levels. If the new armour is made using self assembling green technologies that are non toxic and biodegradable, all the energy, pollution and damage caused in the manufacture of kevlar will be mitigated. It could translate to non-military applications, but this is a different strategic question. It is fuelled by a different strategic need than preventing someone’s child or loved one, trained at large expense by their country, from being killed in battle. Or the strategic need for a more efficient method to dispose of an enemy.

This amazing paper outlines threat-protection mechanics of armoured fish, and has some incredible content. But I can’t help but think that the paper is also about how these fish eat their prey. You could lean either way, threat prevention or the arms race for becoming the best predator. It all depends on the strategic question guiding the investigation.

Here I begin to expose my personal discovery. If the question driving the use of biomimicry does not focus on sustainability, it will not occur. If the change desired is not embedded in the use of any tool, the operator of that tool will never achieve the change they hoped for.

I was once told a story by a business professor of a university that went on a wild splurge to develop green design programs for their students. They pumped out leading edge thinkers, designers who thought of materials in new ways, who understood the issues of obsolescence, wasteful consumerism, life cycle analysis and every tool they could come across. But it wasn’t until tracking those students after several years that they realized what they had done. They had trained the most frustrated and disillusioned students in the history of those programs. None of them could find work in which they were not frustrated by the demands that was placed on them. No clients understood what they could offer, and no one asked for them to execute life cycle analyses or any other sustainable tool they could offer.

The university removed the label of green design, toned down the rhetoric and switched gears. Instead, they began to teach green business. They realized that the clients that would ultimately hire those designers needed to be trained to ask the right questions. The shift was to the business need and benefits of green practice and has since become a leading program for bottom of the pyramid thinking and other innovative ideas.

The purpose of this little story highlights the contradiction between the possibility of a tool and the reality of its use. The operator of the tool, if asked to do a poor job, is often forced to execute those orders. If the focus of biomimicry is solely on the practice and execution of innovative process, there is too much relying on the wishful thinking that those processes will be called on. Biomimicry must work its way further into the strategic vision in order to have the impact it needs.

Biomimicry does not guarantee sustainability, but holistic questions that drive biomimicry might.

To be continued… next exploration about Biomimicry as vision, and/or the difference between criteria and tool.

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7 Comments on “Does Biomimicry as a Tool = Sustainability?”

  1. I think the distinction between process and strategy in the application of biomimicry is crtical to whether its implementation is successful. I don’t know if I have ever heard anybody lay it out as clearly as you have.

    At the same time, I also think that the distinction varies in clarity and importance at different scales of application, partly because it is not easy to fully specify things like ‘sustainability’ (everybody can agree on the desirability of the broad concept, but a quantitative definition will probably always be elusive) and because in the biological world it is not at all clear that sustainability arises because it a goal. That begs at least two questions in my mind. First, if we agree that sustainability is a property of biological systems, and that biological systems are not goal oriented, could we achieve the same kind of sustainability in the human built environment if we just identified all the important processes and implemented them? Second, embedded in most of the discussions of sustainability that I have seen is the idea of resource consumption as a per capita (i.e., per head) quantity. What is the role of the population size component?…that’s a sticky one for all the reasons you can imagine. Biological systems tbat many might agree are sustainable probably involve what biologists call ‘density dependence.’ How does the application of biomimicry relate to the population size component of sustainability? If we achieve perfect biomimicry in our human built systems will our per capita resource consumption rates match a sustainable supply rate? What is that sustainable supply rate, anyway?

    In my mind, the fact that it is not easy to answer these questions, suggests that a focus on process might at least move us in the right direction overall and buy some time for these other immense issues.

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi Peter,
      Absolute pleasure to have your voice in the mix of things here. Fantastic to have your perspective and knowledge build up the dialogue.
      I want to play with you on something.
      If biological systems are not goal oriented, but biomimicry is visionary, does anyone see the conflict there? We are focusing on building a vision, when biologists like to point to nature as a blind, but brilliant process.
      How do we mimic the process? Leslie Orgel’s second rule: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” Makes it a tough act to follow!

      When I was first involved in biomimicry there were many debates regarding whether nature was “sustainable”. There are many that like to point to parasitism, and collapses of population due to rapid growth and exhaustion of food supplies. I’m assuming that density dependance falls into this category.
      It can be a little daunting trying to process this discussion, especially as a designer trying to navigate through the dense information and embedded argument of science. When Dayna Baumeister framed nature as a “Dynamic Equilibrium” it made far more sense to me. Rather than the ideological belief of succession moving to a fabled balanced, perfectly harmonized ecosystem, the biomimicry goal must still one of change and adaptation, with embedded uncertainty and variability, fluctuations in growth, density etc.

      Blind, chaotic sustainability, for the western mind that requires metrics and checks and balances is always going to be a difficult concept to embrace. I’m curious about how and where we can start…

      • davergp says:

        Personally, I am not generally a fan of these kind of top down theories. I find they take up a significant amount of effort to acheive results which tend not to progress a field in much of a practical direction. However, in this case I feel it somewhat worth pointing out that one could look to the process of evolution itself from a systems point of view:
        Evolution is not an aimed-construction process, it is a reductive process i.e. nature does not direct itself to exploit niches, it fires ideas which are effectively 90% mistakes like buckshot into the world. A few of these find their niche, the rest die.
        In order to apply this biomimetic concept to our issue, I would advocate that the best way to emulate creating a ‘sustainable biomimetic world’ would be to just keep churning out idea after application after concept into our ‘ecosystem’. The wonderful part of this being that it can at least partially rely on human skills of assessment and experience to ‘extinct’ the failing genelines. My involvement in the Student Biomimicry Design Challenge was almost a case in point in this. 5 of us just pinging off ideas over the table, the good ones got developed, the bad ones never made paper. Applying this on a global scale would be one way of really emulating ‘evolution’ at work, and one that I know Peter is partially involved with. Establishing frameworks and structures and systems where cross-disciplinary ideas are germinated, and the good ones brought all the way from first concepts to market is, in my opinion, a succesful top down POV with a bottom up approach. Get people with skills working on things, any things. The ‘evolution of the ideas produced’ should (I hope) happen on their own.

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi Peter,
      Absolute pleasure to have your voice in the mix of things here. Fantastic to have your perspective and knowledge build up the dialogue.
      I want to play with you on something.
      If biological systems are not goal oriented, but biomimicry is visionary, does anyone see the conflict there? We are focusing on building a vision, when biologists like to point to nature as a blind, but brilliant process.
      How do we mimic the process? Leslie Orgel’s second rule: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” Makes it a tough act to follow!

      When I was first involved in biomimicry there were many debates regarding whether nature was “sustainable”. There are many that like to point to parasitism, and collapses of population due to rapid growth and exhaustion of food supplies. I’m assuming that density dependance falls into this category.
      It can be a little daunting trying to process this discussion, especially as a designer trying to navigate through the dense information and embedded argument of science. When Dayna Baumeister framed nature as a “Dynamic Equilibrium” it made far more sense to me. Rather than the ideological belief of succession moving to a fabled balanced, perfectly harmonized ecosystem, the biomimicry goal must still one of change and adaptation, with embedded uncertainty and variability, fluctuations in growth, density etc.

      Blind, chaotic sustainability, for the western mind that requires metrics and checks and balances is always going to be a difficult concept to embrace. I’m curious about how and where we can start…

      • Kristin Elizabeth L+berg says:

        Thanks for putting this up. As I’m writing my final bachelor dissertation on Biomimicry asking the same question you do, on whether Bioimicry is in fact Sustainable I found this very useful. There is not much litterature out there yet, except the “holy biomimicry bible” by Benyus.

        I like to see myself as a critical thinker, but as an Industrial Design student, feeling like the black naiv sheep in uni actually caring about the environment, I felt a relief upon hearing something that makes so much sense. At least to begin with. The whole sustainable question is a difficult subject to answer, and now it all got even more complicated trying to make a 6000 word essay out of whether Biomimicry is sustainable or not. Personally, I think I will stick to one step at the time, approaching the subject as a designer, look for sustainable solutions whilst exploring biology. I believe when you spend time with someone you like them better, and hopefully, when more people get out in the nature and look at the nature not only as a urban idealisation, from distance, on safaris in africa or through glossy magazines, I think they will also respect nature more, and be more keen on recycling.

      • Carl Hastrich says:

        Hi Kristin,
        There may be a few later blog posts that help out with some playful conversations around issues of sustainability. These might help:

        https://bouncingideas.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/re-cycling-up-cycling-bio-cycling/
        https://bouncingideas.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/is-urban-sprawl-a-bad-thing/
        https://bouncingideas.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/up-cycle-like-a-nudibranch/

        I believe that the deepest impact you can make from sustainability is in redefining the design criteria. If you redefine the measure of success for a given project, you reframe what needs to be explored within the project. As an industrial designer you need to respond to the client’s needs and the projet brief. The deepest impact you can have is through evolving the brief to expand the scope and clarify the criteria.

        Hope that helps
        Carl

  2. […] at the beginning of this blog I wrote an entry commenting that biomimicry does not guarantee sustainability. It was not meant as a critique against biomimicry as a methodology, but rather at those who only […]


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