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.

Rhona Wise/Reuters/File
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.

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.

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.”

“‘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?’”

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.

This went far beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle.” McDonough and Braungart wrote about the regenerative powers that exist in nature, positing that humans could have a restorative impact on the environment. Consider, for example, death: Since we emit carbon even when our lives are over, Braungart suggests we focus on making our ecological footprint beneficial, rather than merely trying to shrink it. At heart, this approach underscores the limits of standard environmental thinking aimed at making products “less bad.” Too reductive, says Braungart, who scoffs: “Think about falling in love efficiently.”

As the concept of Cradle to Cradle spread, McDonough and Braungart began developing certification protocols, and calls grew for a universal certification process. California’s Green Chemistry Initiative, signed in 2008 by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, provided the impetus to take their work to the next level: In 2010, the team, with support from Schwarzenegger, launched the independent Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, making their certification system and methodology more widely available.

Similar to Biomimicry 3.8, the newly launched Cradle 3.0 challenges companies not only to redesign their products, but to incorporate social justice and renewable energy in the manufacturing process. McDonough acknowledges some of the immense barriers, particularly around secrecy agreements and proprietary information, allowing that it’s taken years to build trust.

But Bridgett Luther, former head of the California Department of Conservation, who now directs the Institute, is optimistic.

“You start incrementally redesigning, reducing carbon footprint, slowly moving to more renewables as they become more affordable.” she says. “What I love about Cradle to Cradle Certified is that we work with companies as a team, and over time you get better."

Just in time for Greenbuild 2012, San Francisco’s November expo on sustainable building, the Institute rolled out a training module for a new generation of scientists, guiding companies toward basic, silver, gold, or platinum certification of their products.

But for Luther, certification is merely a vehicle for more profound societal transformation.

“The whole design exercise is very empowering, because when companies go through this process they get really excited, and their products get amazing,” she says. “Cradle to Cradle people are happy, because they can see that the product they’re making is going to make the world a better place, and it leaks down into the whole company. Yes, we’re going to have to make do with less stuff because we’re not going to have enough minerals to go around, but we can invent stuff that’s so powerful that every time you use it there’s a bonus. I think there’s some real power in the vision.”

Having grown out of different strands of scientific inquiry, Cradle 3.0 and Biomimicry 3.8 share a fundamental commitment to the process of reconnecting with the natural world. But rather than providing a rigid set of prescriptions, Benyus and Luther view their disciplines as living, breathing organisms that are constantly breaking new ground, like nature itself.

“Biomimicry isn’t an answer; it’s a way to find answers,” says Benyus.

The goals are as much about detergentmakers altering the chemistry of their soap to use smaller bottles as they are about discovering new processes.

“A lot of products we need haven’t been invented yet,” Luther says. “You think about our lives, and they’re made of a bunch of molecules. Whether
 it’s going into a toy or a piece of toilet paper or the one that’s the new jet fuel, what we want to do is inspire a whole new generation of chemists to get the good molecules working for us. We want kids to say, ‘I can be the person who creates the molecule that makes the world better.’ ”

For Benyus, the next frontier is 3D printing, a mechanized version of nature’s more graceful, “as needed” style of manufacturing. She envisions a world where, instead of shipping countless goods thousands of miles, we would have a Kinko’s for pots and pans and cups – using natural polymers or even beetle shells.

“Our dream would be to have five vials of goop, then add structure to it to make it super strong or whatever you need it to be. At the end of its life you could put your product in a bath of enzymes to disassemble it, and then you'd be able to use it again,” she says. “Fewer materials, better recyclability. To me, this is really exciting.”

3D printing may also be where biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle finally intersect.

“What we’re trying to do with our polymer idea is what I think Cradle to Cradle is trying to accomplish as well,” says Benyus. “Where green chemistry, biomimicry, and Cradle to Cradle meet, we start to talk about rewriting the story of stuff.”

In McDonough’s view, both Cradle to Cradle and biomimicry take their cues from the natural world. But
 a shared philosophy may be their most important link.

“The question comes down to not just ‘What is our technique?’ but ‘What am I doing?’ ” the architect says. “Notwithstanding engineering wizardry, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ must always be the first and ultimate question.”

Currently, he is working to design offices, factories, and schools that are photosynthetic and make energy—buildings with admittedly “magical” characteristics.

But thanks to Benyus, Braungart, and McDonough, such ideas are no longer in the realm of science fiction. From oil-repellent coating inspired by water bugs, to using prairies as
 a model to grow food sustainably,
 to observing how chimps cope with illness, the possibilities of learning from our planet’s unexplored reservoirs of intelligence are vast.

if there was a boat designed to clean the water? Or how about a phone that enhances your hearing?” asks Luther. “That’s the Cradle to Cradle way. You just change your thinking.”

• Sven Eberlein wrote this article for What Would Nature Do?, the Winter 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Sven is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who attracts themes with a hopeful, earthy drift. When he’s not roaming his neighborhood in search of street food and random acts of creativity, he can be found musing on his blog,

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