Using Nature as a Design Guide
Using Nature as a Design Guide

Janine Benyus, dean of the burgeoning "biomimicry" design movement, helps companies look to the natural world to help take their business green

by Matt Vella

Spot the common theme: a bullet train with a distinctly bird-like nose; massive wind turbines whose form was inspired by the shape of whales' fins; ultra-strong, biodegradeable glues developed by analyzing how mussels cling to rocks under water. The creators of each product used nature as their guide. In the past 10 years the practice, known as biomimicry, has yielded a variety of compelling, quirky, and elegant innovations across industries. And as consumers and companies alike find themselves grappling with ever-larger ecological footprints, the design method is taking its place as a core sustainability strategy.

Enter Janine Benyus, the driving force behind the movement. Benyus is the biologist-cum-evangelist who first defined its contours in her 1997 book, Biomimcry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. In it, she detailed how companies could study nonpolluting, energy-efficient manufacturing technologies that have evolved in the natural world over billions of years, delivering in the process a lesson on the importance of living in harmony with nature.

In the ensuing decade, with concerns of sustainability coming to the fore for companies and consumers alike, Benyus has proved well placed to continue preaching her philosophy. Named by Time magazine as an environmental hero of 2007, she's now preparing to take the wraps off the sequel book, Nature's 100 Best Technologies, and an accompanying Web project that could, if successful, radically increase the reach of her thinking and consolidate biomimetic design as a go-to corporate sustainable strategy.

"Biomimicry is an idea that just acquires people," says Benyus, from her office in Missoula, Mont. In other words, the simple, elegant mechanics developed by nature often make sense in a human context, too. And Benyus, who divides her time between the research nonprofit Biomimicry Institute and the for-profit innovation consultancy, the Biomimicry Guild, is on a mission to show engineers and designers how to translate those ideas into a corporate, commercial context.

Along with strategic consulting and sustainability-focused workshops, the Biomimicry Guild provides a "dial-a-biologist" service that makes one of her team of 10 scientists available to answer designers' technical questions and runs a referral service connecting engineers with field scientists who may be working on relevant research. To date, the Guild counts among its clients companies including General Electric (GE), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), IDEO, and NASA.

In the past few years the consultancy has broadened its scope to help clients improve internal processes, too. "Often we find ourselves being asked not just how to green a product but how to begin greening a whole company," she says. For instance, Benyus consulted with Interface, a company that famously transformed itself from being the poster child of environmentally harmful textile manufacturing into a $1.3 billion model of sustainability, with biomimetic design one part of its strategy. "More and more, we are helping clients think about running their business like a food web," she adds, referring to self-sustaining biological ecosystems that produce no waste or harmful byproducts.

Biomimicry has also gained traction outside of Benyus' practice, with a wide variety of innovations from companies of all sizes making it to market in the past decade. In 2005, Ford's (F) Volvo Div. developed an anti-collision system based on the way locusts swarm without crashing into one another.

By studying the neurological mechanism that governs how locusts fly in groups, the car company began devising a system that can sense an impending crash and simultaneously trigger an alarm for drivers. Known as the Accident Avoidance System, it's now available on Volvo's high-end vehicles. IBM (IBM) designers analyzed the way abalone shells form by melding microscopic particles of calcium carbonate chalk in a process called "self-assembly." They're now applying the same principles to the development of a series of processors. While still experimental, results reduce energy consumption by some 35%.

With hopes of fostering more bio-inspired innovation, Benyus' next book will be an encyclopedia of unusual forms and processes devised by nature that have yet to be used in industry but which might help solve common problems. "It'll be a compendium of the elegant solutions in nature that answer a lot of questions business people are asking right now," says Benyus, noting that the book will include industry investment analyses to help executives understand the potential economic consequences of implementing designs that specifically follow the natural world's lead.

And in a wily streak that reveals Benyus' inner activist, most of the innovations will be taken from organisms on the so-called Red List, an international inventory of severely endangered species published annually by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources. That, Benyus hopes, will create an embedded incentive for businesses to safeguard imperiled habitats, protecting nature's design lab not just as a matter of stewardship but as a matter of economic self-interest.

A companion Web project, meanwhile, will give the compendium a life of its own online. The Biomimicry Design Portal will be a free, open-source, wiki-like database enabling anyone to read and contribute examples of nature's solutions to industrial problems. Entries will be cross-referenced so users searching for adhesive mechanisms, for instance, can find articles on species that create natural glues, their chemical properties, as well as bios of the prominent scientists working in that field. Submissions to the site will be thoroughly peer-reviewed by academics in a fashion similar to the rigorous vetting that scientific research is subjected to before being published. The portal site is intended to be a practical guide for scientists, engineers, and designers as well as students and more casual readers.

There's still plenty more work to be done. Biomimetic design, while a compelling strategy for creating green products, doesn't ensure market success. Nike's (NKE) so-called Goat Tek running shoes were discontinued last year, after just one season on the market. The design of the shoes faithfully mimicked the feet of go-anywhere mountain goats. Human beings, apparently, aren't interested in having goat feet, however nimble it might make them. But while a Nike spokesperson declined to comment on specifics, the company's failure may provide a valuable lesson about the challenges of biomimetic design-that it may be more profitable not to copy nature, but instead to translate ideas in a way that's appealing or even invisible to a human audience.

Still Benyus, perennially optimistic, says the demand for biomimetic design is only likely to grow. "More and more, consumers are asking for the backstories of where their products come from." This, she says, is encouraging companies to look further "up" the production chain to find out exactly where products come from and assess their environmental impact. As green concerns become more common preconditions of purchase, companies will increasingly ask questions of how nature has solved similar design problems. If Benyus has her way, this fall's release of her new book and online portal will begin answering those questions.