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Designing from nature could solve the world's biggest challenges

Can a boat be designed to clean the water? How does a spider manufacture resilient fiber? The world needs products that don’t harm humans or the environment, and nature’s already done the research.

By Sven EberleinYes! Magazine / November 29, 2012

A Florida Burrowing Owl perches on a post at a park in Miami. An emerging manufacturing technique called biomimicry uses nature as a model. An owl’s feathers, for example, could be mimicked to create a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface. The implications, in everything from textiles to quieter airplanes, could be staggering.

Rhona Wise/Reuters/File

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Imagine this assignment, says Bill McDonough in a recent TED talk: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, converts nitrogen into ammonia, distills water, stores solar energy as fuel, builds complex sugars, creates microclimates, changes color with the seasons, and self-replicates.

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Sound impossible? Well, nature’s already completed this one. It’s called 
a plant. And the fact that it does these things safely and efficiently is inspiring engineers and designers to reconceive the ways we manufacture such basics as soap bottles, raincoats, and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle, the two fields of inquiry that frame this emerging discipline, stem from the work of biologist Janine Benyus, architect William McDonough, and chemist Michael Braungart, who realized that the very models they considered key to making safer, more environmentally friendly products were sitting right before us, in the natural world.

The trio wrote two pivotal books—Benyus’ "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature" and McDonough and Braungart’s "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things"—which laid out their beliefs and touched a nerve.

"What would nature do to design lasting and regenerative materials?” asks Benyus. “How does a river filter fresh water and a spider manufacture resilient fiber?”

Braungart, picking up on the theme, wonders: “Why aren’t we designing buildings like trees and cities like forests?”

Their questions reminded readers that life is a vast web of networks, that working with, rather than dominating, nature might unleash greater possibilities. Indeed, Benyus, McDonough, and Braungart invited us to reconceive basic principles of manufacturing in ways that seemed at once radical and rudimentary.

The public embraced these concepts, and today, a decade after publication, "Cradle to Cradle" still sells
 20,000 copies annually. But when early adopters actually tried to put these principles into practice and design new products accordingly, they quickly confronted the depth and complexity of the problem: manufacturing processes shrouded in secrecy, rooted in unsustainable sourcing, and driven only by the bottom line.

Their answer: establish quality standards for those manufacturers who did want to make safe, healthy products. In the last two years, propelled by a rapid shift in public consciousness and a growing network of practitioners, both movements have made significant strides toward their goals.

In 2010, McDonough and Braungart founded the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a nonprofit that evaluates and certifies products as safe and sustainable. In 2011, Benyus and her team launched Biomimicry 3.8, a consortium of scientists and businesspeople dedicated to collecting research and training designers and engineers around the world as certified biomimicry specialists.

Viewing nature as a source of ideas—rather than merely a source of goods—has a lengthy history among indigenous people. But Western industrial culture had mostly relegated such inquiry to the realm of obscure academic research. After Benyus’s book came out in 1997, however, corporations began to call, looking for ways they might practice what she called “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.”

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