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.
(Page 2 of 4)
“‘We’re trying to create a more sustainable product line,’ they’d say. ‘We want to save energy and reduce the toxins and materials we use. Could you come over and tell us what nature does?’”Skip to next paragraph
Mariano Rivera's latest 'save' is a church
Impassioned evangelist David Burstein urges millennials to get involved
The Malala Fund spotlights need to educate child refugees
Discipline with dignity: Oakland schools try talk circles
Small sources could yield an energy windfall
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As Benyus and her long-time partner Dayna Baumeister began consulting with designers and engineers, they found that single organisms—as well as entire natural systems—could be an inspiration. For instance, while it’s possible to mimic an owl’s feather by creating a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface, Benyus and Baumeister realized it might be even better to emulate the process by which owl feathers self-assemble at body temperature without using toxins or high pressure. The implications for human use—in everything from textiles to quieter airplanes—were staggering.
“We sat together and asked, ‘Is there a best practice of how to be an Earthling?’” Benyus recalls, “A carbon-based life-form on this planet, that enhances rather than degrades?”
Their deepening observations led to a set of biomimetic guidelines aimed at isolating what works and replicating it. They dubbed these “Life’s Principles,” and all of them stem from the concept of cooperation as a driving force in evolution.
“It really changes the way you design things,” says Benyus. “For instance, if we design a water-treatment facility, we start with Life’s Principles. First, it can’t be a chemical treatment—chlorine is out. Second, it should be decentralized. So, suddenly, as you’re looking at that, you begin to say, well, maybe there should be neighborhood-level water treatment, and maybe the water treatment should be constructed wetlands. Since life is always multifunctional, you think that perhaps there should also be an education or recreational facility, or maybe a park. So when you use Life’s Principles as a scoping tool, you’re looking to the natural world and asking, how do organisms filter, how do they recover fresh water? That’s when you’re emulating, doing biomimicry.”
As their own understanding of biomimicry expanded, so did the movement. In 2006, after educators and professionals around the world had clamored for workshops and certification courses, Benyus and Baumeister founded the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute. There, they trained a new generation of biomimicry profes sionals, progressing from three-hour online sessions to a rigorous two-year course they hope to have certified for a master’s degree. “After about a year people would call us and say, ‘Actually, what we need is a community, a place to share information, to be connected to all the other biomimicry nodes around the world,’” Benyus laughs. “So we said, okay, time to change again, time to evolve.”
Biomimicry 3.8 was the result. With 30 staffers and 31 regional networks, it aims to be the LexisNexis of biomimcry, a repository for all the research from the last 14 years. “You don’t get gigantic; you get networked,” says Benyus. “That’s what happened to us.”
From End to Beginning
A similar impulse to reimagine conventions in design led William McDonough and Michael Braungart to lay out their own sustainability principles: create safe objects of long-term value, eliminate waste, and recognize the interdependence of humans and nature as well as the right of each to co-exist.
McDonough and Braungart first presented the ideas in 1992 in "The Hannover Principles." Ten years later, they published "Cradle to Cradle," a manifesto calling for the wholesale transformation of human industry by shifting toward ecologically intelligent design. In direct contrast to our conventional cradle-to-grave mentality, which assigns no value to a product beyond its first use, Cradle to Cradle envisioned materials flowing through cycles that would maintain or even increase their value over time.