Bio-Fanaticism vs. Evolution of Biomimicry

It's hard not to be inspired to think bigger when exposed to experiences like this. Photo from 2005 my life changing course in Costa Rica.

Sometimes biomimicry feels a bit cultish.

This may offend some, sound funny to others, or be the reason why certain people may not be interested in this conversation at all.

Anyone who has had their eyes opened to the natural world, especially those who are firmly stuck in the industrial world, is likely to have an extremely inspirational moment. These experiences can be transformational. At biomimicry workshops people find opportunities to connect with one another, becoming honest in ways they had never been before. I have never been at a workshop where I haven’t had an extraordinary, mind bending discussion with someone incredibly inspirational.

And if you are fortunate to have a sit down with Janine Benyus, you will never forget it. It is always an amazing experience.

But I am concerned by the cult effect.

I worry about secular dialects, cliques of true believers and blind faith. Language such as Life’s Principles and “Genius of Place” doesn’t necessarily help, and is often a major deterrent for those more business and financially minded.

Where I spend a lot of my time... a long way from sunny Australia...

I’ve drunk the kool-aid, I moved from sunny Melbourne, Australia to wintery Toronto, Canada and have invested a lot of time in exploring this meme. I have been fortunate enough to count as my mentors and direct sources of inspiration some of  the core thought leaders and pioneers of biomimicry, and design thinking. But I have always prided myself (rightly or wrongly) as having one foot in the club and one foot out, enjoying the position of biomimicry pioneer as well as critic. I think this is important for the following reasons:

  1. If there is no debate, there is no progress. Or if the debate is only by a select few, who then distribute the content to the willing masses, then there is elitism, and leadership worship. Criticism when constructive is healthy.
  2. If there is only celebration of the tool (or vision), there is no application. I have crossed paths with many people who have adopted biomimicry, only to realize they have spent all their time celebrating a tool rather than working with it.
  3. If it is not biomimicry, it is not “good”. This logic then implies that anything not biomimicry must be “bad”. This is problematic.

Bio-fanaticism occurs with people who want to use biomimicry, but they don’t know where, or want to celebrate the tool without having used it. This becomes an incredibly unproductive scenario and highlights a disconnect between the vision of biomimicry, and the execution of a specific project. It can also be a dangerous path to extreme frustration, anyone willing to fully commit to change, but powerless to find an opportunity to act is tinder ready to burn. The flip side of bio-fanatics are the scorned disbelievers. Too many of them and the conversation is only a critical exploration, and no longer constructive.

If the dialogue is limited to a celebration of biomimicry, it becomes detrimental the development of the process, tool and strategic vision. I wish to encourage shifting the  dialogue from self reflection and celebration of the meme, to one of opportunity, needs and scenarios for action. I hope there are those reading this that feel the same, and look forward to hearing your insights.

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11 Comments on “Bio-Fanaticism vs. Evolution of Biomimicry”

  1. “Bio-fanaticism occurs with people who want to use biomimicry, but they don’t know where”
    This is quite true. I feel this happens with young designers especially, when they haven’t mastered the discipline of design, and jump into biomimicry nearly unprepared to merge the two disciplines together. I am a good example of this gap (coincidentally enough, I just started my Masters in Interdisciplinary Design with the thesis on biomimicry). When I attended biomimicry workshop in Costa Rica last year, I was overwhelmed and overinspired (well, exactly, how you expressed it in the post). My frustration was in not being able to find a practical (only theoretical) bridge between what I was studying in school and what I was studying on my own.

    I think, one of the good ways of going about this problem, is practical exercises. Designers are supposed to be good at foreseeing and connecting the dots. Maybe, really stimulate the mind by delving into deeper levels of biomimicry, by having exercises in processes and systems, instead of just trying to copy the shape? It seems to me, that as soon as this is taken care of, the shapes will fall into the right places. Additionally, designers will get a greater satisfaction from biomimicry-themed projects, and will be able to develop strategic vision for the future rather than continue endlessly copying shapes? I would be very curious to know what your proposal for closing the gap is.

  2. Carl Hastrich says:

    Hi Alena,
    Thanks for the comment – thoroughly agree with the practical exercises. The greatest difficult does not appear to be the skill set, but quite often the time frame. With increasing complexity, form – process – system, coming the added depth required to explore and apply learned principles.
    I’ve watched a number of people struggle with the grand visions, but then simply run out of time and grow frustrated by the lack of end result.
    You just gave me a great idea for a future post… coming soon.
    Thanks again
    Carl

  3. “I’ve watched a number of people struggle with the grand visions, but then simply run out of time and grow frustrated by the lack of end result.”

    This reminds me of a project I was involved in with Institute without Boundaries, called City Systems. Luigi Ferrara took a case study of a city in Chile, which was devastated by economic collapse and recent earthquake, and with 14 some students created a grand vision for it with charrettes, heavy research, and implementation. I would say that the final result incorporated many of the essential holistic vision elements, but in no way could it have been accomplished by just one student or professional. It almost seems that grand vision biomimicry solutions would need to be offered to real world problems that are right here and right now with many individuals involved. Almost like Biomimicry workshops, not to educate the individuals about the credibility and usefulness of the discipline (that can be done by week-long retreats to Costa Rica), but to have large-scale charrettes with multiple universities involved.

  4. ctbmnetwork says:

    Hi Carl and Alena,
    I heartily agree with the points you both make.
    With regard to your comment on dialogue shifting to “one of opportunity, needs and scenarios for action”, I thought I’d mention a pilot Biomimicry module that myself and three colleagues have recently been involved in.
    We ran a module here in Cape Town (at the CPUT) where we had students from Industrial, Graphic and Surface design working together, using Biomimicry as a lens, to explore innovative design solutions within a city precinct that has been demarcated for urban renewal.
    We have just completed the final phase of this Biomimicry module, which involved students presenting to all our stakeholder groups in the hope of ideas being taken forward by interested parties.
    Within minutes of the presentations starting various people in the audience (Claire Janisch of BiomimicrySA, Johannes Cronje our Dean of faculty and Yehuda Raff of the cape Town Partnership) started connecting with their networks to action further development of one of the student ideas. This is very encouraging for us as design educators who have all recognised the value of Biomimicry not only as a tool/process for students but as an enabler that aids larger strategic visioning for non-Biomimics.
    When developing this pilot module we tried to design it using as many of life’s principles as we could and this has further ensured its success. We have LOTS to learn and are in the post-stage where we are reflecting on our successes and failures so as to improve our next foray into Biomimicry here at the CPUT.
    Thanks Carl for your inspirational work at OCAD – Claire shared some of your educational material and it helped us greatly! Bruce Snaddon

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi,
      I love the format of presenting ideas to an audience capable and interested in pursuing the ideas.
      Part of my personal goal in establishing a regional network in ontario is to foster this audience as an avenue for my students. Any tips in forging these collaborations would be fantastic.
      Great to hear about your successes!

  5. scelop says:

    As a relative newcomer to biomimicry, one who is thoroughly sold on the idea of its power (is that the kool-aid?), and as a biologist, I think I have seen what you call “biofanaticism”. As part of what you advocate as a cure, I would emphasize that constructive and inclusive dialogue and challenge about the biological details is critical. For example, Life’s Principles is an enormously insightful foundational construct for the vision and conduct of the biomimicry paradigm…it is impossible to over emphasize its role in driving both inspiration and action, yet at the end of the day, it is a construct. Biological observation and study, combined with analysis and interpretation are part of the basis for the “principles,” unless we want to claim they have some how been miraculously and directly revealed to us in the natural world (which would be weird). The construct, therefore is partly a product of human cleverness and insight. From a strictly biological study point of view, many of the “principles” are actually areas of vigorous inquiry and debate rather than settled matters, especially as they might apply to systems at large spatial or temporal scales. Admitting gaps in knowledge and inviting inquiry is not a source of danger, it is a source of power and motivation….it is harder to be a fanatic if you admit you don’t know everything.

    The comments here suggest to me that an important strategy is immersion, practice and reflection…putting skin in the game? Success will also come from a very interdisciplinary approach….not treating any of the components (the biology, design, engineering, business, etc.) as facts to be applied, but rather as intersections to be explored.

  6. Carl Hastrich says:

    Scelop?

    How does a designer enter this debate? The inclusive and constructive debate on biological details is critical, but inaccessible for many.
    As a designer who has considered long and hard the idea of diving in basic science research, largely in part inspired by you and your program, I’m trying to work out exactly what skill set I need to advance the design biomimicry dialogue that is important to me. Without enough biological knowledge the non-scientists (design, engineering, business) are left being told from the biologists what “is” and “isn’t” in nature.
    Being incapable of debating those details requires an amount of faith. That faith and trust is the stepping stone to fanatical commitment.
    There is no debate in biomimicry from design about the fundamentals of the “life’s principles”, only discussions about how to apply them. Because that is such a difficult process to begin with, someone needs to be pretty committed to take on the challenge.
    Finally – I love your conclusion – intersections to be explored. How do we do this? What are the starting points – I’m glad that these debates are beginning to flow in this thread – but how do we create more interactive/iterative work sessions that advance these concepts?
    At the biomimicry conference in Cleveland – this should be a core discussion to focus on.

  7. scelop says:

    yes, scelop. Sorry. It is shorthand for the very first type of lizard whose behavior and physiology so captured my imagination that i spent 25 years studying it (biologists are very strange).

    If it is not too offensive, i would offer a question as the start of an answer your question…How does a biologist enter the debate? Is that a different question? I don’t think it is. Biomimicry does not strike me as purely a design paradigm or a biology paradigm, or an engineering paradigm….or the exclusive property of any of the other disciplines that can or do contribute to its development, conduct or success. I realize that is likely my own distorted view, and it may be self-serving. It might allow me as a biologist to participate and contribute not just as a provider of facts, or interpreter/translator of certain classes of phenomena, but as a partner in an enterprise where the lines among contributing areas of expertise are blurry. I like to imagine that maybe the next great biological insight in some system will come from a designer doing biomimicry, or maybe a great design insight will come from a biologist doing biomimicry.

    I think the short answer to the question, then, is that biologists, designers and others nurture a dialogue which explores the “what we know”, “what we think we know”, and “what we don’t know” while practicing and improving the biomimicry paradigm. Of course, there must be a balance among these three areas if anything is to be achieved, but we need interaction in all three.

    In terms of skill sets, it means that individuals with different areas of expertise need to become conversational (not experts) at the intersections, and to embrace the idea that concepts from an “alien” discipline might have considerable uncertainty associated with them and to not ignore that. Even if the uncertainties are not obvious they might be important in their application to the practice of biomimicry. An example I often think about (and maybe this is misguided; i want to learn if it is) is the concept of sustainability. Biologists can and do vigorously argue about what sustainability is, how to measure it, how it arises, and what systems seem to show it and over what scales of time and space. My guess is that the essences of those ‘debates’ could be relevant to how and when we use sustainability as a model or measure in general or in specific in the biomimicry paradigm. If we take sustainability merely or exclusively at its face value, we will never know. Moreover, if we just have a bunch of biologists involved in such discussions, how will we know its potential application to biomimicry?

  8. Rob Miller says:

    Hi. this is an interesting discusion, Im doing a paper for my university studies all about biomimicry and whether it is the way forward for sustainable modern architecture. I have found many positive sources, explaining how great it is, but do you know of any negative, disadvantages to biomimicry, if so have you got an acedemic sources to prove them?

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi Rob,
      Negative perspectives is an interesting question. I think there are issues around “superficial” practice, or application of limited data knowledge, but am not fully aware of a discussion around how or where the tool is a negative.
      I have been part of discussions that suggest taking moral cues from nature is highly problematic.
      A paper that is interesting, and is inspiring a blog post that I’m drafting currently, explores what the next evolution of biomimicry needs to be within the built environment. The title is inappropriately “beyond biomimicry” – when actually I think it should be: “Deepening Biomimicry”. Perhaps that is a starting point for you?
      Carl

  9. […] Here in lies the problem. Alarm bells ring when the methodology becomes the focus due to a cool factor because the project usually lacks direction and never arrives anywhere. That is only possible if you are truly removed from an end result and in most cases that is not true, and in most cases this leads to frustration, or the transition from fanaticism to fatigue. […]


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