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Published on June 18th, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips

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Biomimicry: Learning from Nature’s Solutions

Biomimicry, or biomimetics, is when humans look to nature to learn how to solve problems sustainably. According to the Biomimicry Institute, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Humans have long been solving problems based on what’s the cheapest, easiest, and most rational way to achieve the goal. In some instances, we continue building on an outdated or faulty model.  “That’s how we’ve always done it” prevails, or it would be too costly to start over. Have you ever been stuck in city traffic and wondered if it would be better to just start the whole transportation system over from scratch? It turns out that nature has been solving many of the same problems we seek to solve for longer than we’ve been around. We just need to open our eyes and see the classroom around us.

Origins of biomimicry

The concept of copying nature has been around for centuries. Many indigenous peoples looked to nature for tips on hunting, building, and farming. But as the Age of Enlightenment rolled into the Industrial Revolution, humans took on the mindset that there was no problem we couldn’t solve through science, math, and technology. We increasingly looked to markets to solve problems, forgetting that our first teacher was nature.

Some great 20th century inventors like the Wright Brothers studied nature for inspiration. Otto Schmitt, an American biophysicist, brought biomimetics back into the scientific spotlight in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Janine Benyus’s book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, popularized the term and the idea that it could be a powerful tool for green business.

Applications of biomimicry

It’s a great concept, but what kind of 21st century problems can really be solved by looking at nature? Answers abound. One of the most well-known examples is velcro tape. How do we temporarily fasten something together that we later want to pull apart and re-fasten? We look at burs, which grab on to clothing and animal hair to hitch a ride to a new location. The result – a reusable touch-fastener that uses tiny hooks and loops, just like burs.

In her TED talk, Janine Benyus gives examples of how engineers observed the king fisher to optimize the bullet train, how shark skin inspired a new antibacterial surface being used in hospitals, and how a bug in the Namibian desert has led to a way to coat buildings so that they gather water from fog. How does nature use CO2 as a building block? How does nature purify water? How does nature build strong, reusable materials? How does nature create energy from the sun? How does nature package food? Businesses are stepping in to ask and answer these questions for a more sustainable future.

Want to learn more about biomimicry and the innovations driving a sustainable future? Check out the biomimicry institute. If you’re looking for inspiration, also see asknature.org which seeks to “organize all biological information by design and engineering function.” It’s an open-source database that asks and answers the question, “How does nature ______ ?” So if you’re looking to solve one of humanity’s big problems, or looking to re-solve a problem that has previously been solved in an unsustainable way (like packaging food or making energy), don’t forget to ask nature first!

For other sustainable business strategies, see our article on Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing.

Attribution-free images courtesy of Pixabay.





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