Biomimicry evolves from concept to concrete

Pigmented domes on alligator, Author/Photographer/Artist: Roger Smith

Photo via Roger Smith on asknature.org

Aron Bosworth, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorJennifer Barnes, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Aron Bosworth and Jennifer Barnes

Brightworks Sustainability Advisors

Why would we invite an alligator and a San Diego Zoo staff member to an educational workshop geared toward architects and designers? The answer lies in biomimicry, the field of studying and emulating nature’s patterns to create innovative and sustainable solutions to today’s business challenges.

Biomimicry has received acclaim for years as a potential game changer for sustainability. Only recently, however, has it started to take hold in design communities and prove itself to private businesses. As private industry, research and government unite around the concept and put it to work, we will see new success stories that demonstrate biomimicry’s evolution from exciting concept to proven design tool.

A New Way to See Nature

Most if not all of us have a desire to connect with nature – we try and schedule time in our busy days to spend time outside: getting a breath of fresh air during a work break or going for a weekend hike. Edward O. Wilson refers to our subconscious yearning to connect with the natural world as biophilia, and suggests it’s deeply rooted in our biological DNA.

Our interest in nature is embedded in our evolutionary dependency on it – we’ve evolved, as have all organisms, to be dependent on nature for life-supporting conditions. The continued emergence of biomimicry is forging a renewed relationship with the natural world, putting our biophilic love of nature to use as a teaching tool.

The methodology behind biomimicry is rooted in learning from nature’s patterns. Knowing how these patterns function and in what context they occur, we can apply the principles of these patterns to overcome human design challenges. At its essence, biomimicry encourages a fundamental shift in how we view nature – from a resource we exploit to a resource we learn from.

Strength in Diversity

In nature, organisms have figured out they accomplish life-supporting functions more efficiently by partnering with a neighbor. Nature cross-pollinates to increase diversity and exchange information. Biomimicry draws on these principles by uniting seemingly disparate groups of people and skills. Through collaboration, biologists, zoos, businesses, designers, educators, policy makers and others uncover new design solutions hidden to those who work alone.

Within the communities served by Brightworks, we see growing collaboration and information sharing around biomimicry. Brightworks is involved with new, regional biomimicry networks, including Biomimcry Puget Sound, Biomimcry Oregon and the Bay Area Biomimcry Network. These networks are incubators for creating connections between experts in natural world subject matters (e.g. zoos, biologists, universities and research centers) and the businesses and investors that are essential to helping biomimicry fulfill its potential for change. While these networks are still in their infancy, they will help cross-pollinate new forms of innovation and business opportunity as sustainability increasingly becomes a central design parameter in all things we create.

At a recent biomimicry workshop we facilitated for the public for San Diego Gas and Electric, we invited the San Diego Zoo to speak about BRIDGE, the San Diego biomimicry network dedicated to supporting research, education, innovation and investment. Claire Wathen, from the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, explained that several San Diego institutions – including the Zoo, four San Diego universities, a business accelerator and the City – have combined efforts with the goal of making San Diego a biomimicry research and innovation hub.

Through the BRIDGE collaboration, promising biomimicry research at universities is more likely to gain support from business and investment accelerators, as well as get noticed by the public through the zoo’s outreach and education programs. BRIDGE is a great example of how biomimicry inspires diverse collaboration and leverages interdependencies across the greater system.

From Concept to Reality

In terms of its commercial value, biomimcry is a key to unlocking vast market opportunity for industries that are challenged to constantly innovate. Columbia Forest Products’ PureBond technology is a wood glue for finish grade plywoods.  To avoid using harmful formaldehyde as a binding agent in their glue, Columbia Forest Products modeled their adhesive after the natural process blue mussels use to stick to rocks underwater, even in the face of strong ocean currents.

Sticky proteins serve as glue: blue mussel, photo by Sarah Nuehring

Photo via Sarah Neuhring at AskNature.org

Interface Carpet’s i2 line uses a non-directional design for their carpet tiles that mimics the uniform chaos of the forest floor.  This design varies pattern, color and directionality so that like the forest floor, any tile will match any other tile without some looking faded or misplaced.   But the innovation is more than skin deep – customers don’t need to buy and hold an overstock of one dye lot to make sure everything matches, and installation waste is reduced by 12.5% because there is no such thing as a pattern mismatch.

More recently, Calera Corporation, a manufacturer of a supplementary cementitious material (SCM), is working on a way to produce SCM by absorbing carbon dioxide from point-source pollution, such as industrial plant emissions. Calera’s process was inspired by ocean chemistry – the processes by which oceans absorb CO2 and convert it into minerals. By learning from nature, Calera is making progress toward creating a competitive alternative to commonly used Portland Cement that also sequesters CO2 emissions, one of the worst aspects of conventional cement production.

These are some of the many demonstrations of the business opportunity in biomimicry. Application of biomimicry has the potential to add $300 billion to U.S. GDP and $1 trillion to world GDP by 2025, according to a 2010 economic impact study produced by the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute, a member of BRIDGE. In the U.S. alone, these numbers translate into 1.6 million jobs. Although these are just projections, the bottom line is investors and governments are paying attention to biomimicry.

We’re not surprised. We’ve seen client interest in biomimicry increase in the last couple years. Requests for workshops and webinars are more frequent, and clients are beginning to move beyond education and ask how a biomimetic approach might impact their active projects. We feel it’s a matter of time before clients view biomimicry as standard practice rather than a curiosity.

We know instinctively that nature has a lot to teach us – if we’ll only pay attention. Biomimicry offers a framework for this inquiry and an invitation to appreciate nature as our greatest teacher on how to live within the means of this planet.

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