Written by Amanda Shaftel | September 25, 2015

Written by Janine Benyus

Biomimicry has grown tremendously since I first wrote about it in 1997. In fact, it has graduated from a meme to a movement.

We now find ourselves asking: What if biomimicry influenced as many areas of human endeavor as possible, from urban renaissance, to food security, to CO2 drawdown?

Biomimicry is best known for the design of smarter products and cleaner manufacturing. Today, biomimics also are delving into the patterns of entire ecosystems to bring wisdom to complex worlds such as city planning, finance, and social innovation.

At SXSW Eco, dozens of speakers from our growing edge will paint a portrait of where we are now—like one of those amazing photo mosaics assembled from smaller images. Here’s what you can expect to see and hear in each session:

Business as Nature: New Models and Innovation

Here we’ll see how the discipline of biomimicry is evolving to help business and social innovators learn from complex ecosystem relationships. We’re looking to communities of organisms to understand how to self-organize, how to build resiliency, and how to communicate and cooperate on grand challenges.

I’m especially excited to see biomimicry applied to something as pivotal as investing. Katherine Collins is looking to nature to understand how we can invest in tangible enterprises that nourish community and create true wealth, rather than just multiplying margins a la “Flash Boys”.

At the foundation of all these new models is a paradigm shift. It’s the realization that as part of natural systems ourselves, we needn’t be in head-to-head competition with one another. Rather, we can create networks of symbiotic support.

From Metaphor to Metrics: Net Positive Businesses

This session will examine what it looks like when businesses literally try to function like an ecosystem.

Companies like Kohler and Interface have demonstrated that progressive corporations can be sources of environmental and social solutions, not just problems. For many years the conversation has been about reducing the negative impacts of business—reaching net zero. Now the conversation is shifting to net positivity. How does a company do business so that it heals local economies and ecologies?

Biomimicry can supply companies with the metrics and models for cleaning air and water, supporting biodiversity, building soil, and beginning to reverse climate change. Here, we’ll see that ambitious innovation is no longer about single inventions, it’s about systems-level thinking.

Beyond Biophilic Cities: Solutions Rooted in Place

As with business, we’re also beginning to ask more of another complex system—the city.

When we talk of biomimetic cities, people tend to think: greener, with more trees. That’s part of the equation, but we’re actually setting the bar much higher. We’re asking buildings, and cities at large, to provide the same ecosystem benefits that forests in those locations would. It means designing solutions that produce much cleaner air, much cleaner water, much more fertility. This is a first for city planning.

Behind the Innovation: The Biomimicry Success Stories You Haven't Heard

Building a circular economy, investing in companies that do good—those are all intentions that have to be supported by innovation. What makes biomimicry so compelling is that it provides a coherent vision of a world that works and outlines a granular, practical innovation path.

At Biomimicry 3.8, we haven’t spoken publicly about most of the client work we’ve done over the years. I think people will really enjoy hearing these case studies and learning about how our biomimics assist in solving complex, functional challenges. We’ve created a methodology for distilling the design principles beneath so much amazing biodiversity. We’re just as proud of our code of ethics, which aims to make every cool invention an earth-friendly one. I know my co-founder Dayna Baumeister is going to make this an eye-opener.

Open Innovation Challenges, Inspired by Nature

In six years of Global Design Challenges at the Biomimicry Institute, we’ve learned a lot about what 21st Century inventors look like.

To help solve society’s major problems, we need to look beyond the lone inventor model. Today’s successful inventors don’t have to be a part of a university or a company, either. You just need an earth-savvy idea, the ability to articulate it, and be able to envision it as a business.

We’ve had people from 70 different countries participate in our Global Design Challenge. In fact, the last four winners were from emerging economies: Iran, Egypt, South Africa and Mexico. Here’s another statistic many find surprising: Challenge participants are split 50-50, male and female. I think this diversity is the root of the ingenuity you’ll see in this year’s group of finalists.

Tools to Bridge Science, Design & Discovery

The big goal is to empower people to do biomimicry, to practice the discipline and bring it into the world.

As with any discipline, certain tools are necessary to make it real. Our network is now creating those tools, and several will be discussed in this session. The new version of AskNature.org makes biological intelligence globally accessible and actionable. Zygote Quarterly, a beautiful publication at the nexus of design and biology, is a crucial record and voice of the biomimicry movement. And Terrapin Bright Green is successfully matching biomimetic innovators with the financing they need to enter the market.

Nature is the Epicenter of Innovation

Moving biomimetic solutions into the marketplace on a disruptive scale is the topic of this session.

Mark Dorfman is Biomimicry 3.8’s in-house chemist. Despite the bad rap chemistry often gets, nature is proof that toxins are not necessary to create amazing products. But there’s a big challenge to break away from entrenched product development and manufacturing processes.

Our aim, whether at Biomimicry 3.8 or the Institute, is to work with partners to catalyze nature-inspired innovation. Panelists will discuss how that could be done on a scale large enough to tackle a global issue like climate change.

The Great Reunion: Seeds of a Biomimetic Future

Lastly, in my presentation, I’m going to imagine what the world would look like if we truly succeeded at scaling biomimicry.

That brings us back to the questions I asked above.

What if we embedded biological intelligence in as many human endeavors as possible? How would that move us toward a safe and just world, and how do we unify as a network to get there?

That’s the call to action.


Author Bio

Janine Benyus is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books. Over the past 17 years, she has personally introduced millions to the meme of biomimicry through two TED talks, hundreds of conference keynotes, and a dozen documentaries such as 11th Hour, Harmony, and The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. She is the co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute.