What is Biomimicry?

Life on Earth has evolved over 3.8 billion years, demonstrating a remarkable model of sustainability. Nature efficiently recycles waste, harnesses renewable energy from the sun, adapts to changing conditions, and self-regulates through intricate feedback loops. But what if we could apply these operating principles from nature to redefine our human existence? What if we could thrive without harming the delicate ecosystems we rely on for survival? This is the essence of biomimicry – learning from nature.

Biomimicry has been defined as ‘learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs’ (Baumeister, 2014). It does this based on three inter-twined values:

  • Reconnect: Learning from nature requires deep curiosity and observation, going beyond mere utilitarianism. It’s about recognizing our inherent connection to the natural world and understanding that our survival depends on maintaining a harmonious relationship with it.
  • Ethos: Acknowledging our integral role within nature, we approach biomimicry with care and empathy for all life. We intentionally seek solutions that align with natural balance and promote life-friendly conditions.
  • Emulate: By closely observing nature, we discover a wealth of strategies used by organisms to meet their needs. Many companies now apply these strategies in product design, minimizing our impact on the Earth while solving human problems.

As you work through the NatEnt activities, you might choose to ‘challenge’ students around the Ethos of the ideas they generate.

Emulating nature can be broken down into three components:

  • Form: In biomimicry, we observe the shapes of organisms and natural objects and then imitate them. For instance, the design of the bullet train and Velcro was inspired by natural forms. Students often find this approach straightforward.
  • Process: Another aspect of biomimicry involves understanding how nature constructs things. Consider trees, which build mass primarily through photosynthesis. While this concept can be complex (involving chemistry), it’s crucial for designing sustainable materials. Like nature, we should create materials that break down into naturally occurring elements after use.
  • System: Everything in nature is part of a larger system. Think of yourself as part of a family system, nested within a community system, which in turn is part of a country system. Encouraging students to recognize these interconnected systems helps them understand the impact of their inventions.

How does nature offer answers?

Biomimicry principles can be readily understood by observing nature (which helps develop essential observation skills) and by asking questions (another crucial skill). Rooted in scientific knowledge, biomimicry also involves life-centered design and business modeling. This combination of approaches is employed to create products, services, processes, and entire systems.

For instance, consider the principle that ‘nature recycles everything.’ This phenomenon is evident in leaf litter. While trees produce an abundance of leaves that eventually fall, none of these leaves go to waste; they serve as food for other parts of the ecosystem. To achieve this efficiency, nature constructs everything using locally available resources, primarily carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Trees, for instance, consist of 99% carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which they extract from the air. How can industries adopt this principle to design products that generate no toxic waste? One inspiring example is the US company bioMASON, which grows bricks for the construction industry using bacteria to create the ‘glue’ that binds sand particles into bricks. Remarkably, this process occurs at ambient temperatures and utilizes locally sourced materials (Smith et al., 2015; BioMASON, 2023).

Biomimicry naturally aligns itself with the STEM curriculum, establishing clear connections with subjects in the natural and physical sciences. However, it also requires a cross-curricular mindset, encouraging links between often distinct subject areas. Many schools now favour this approach, recognizing that knowledge and skills are reinforced through interdisciplinary learning. By integrating biomimicry across various subjects, students naturally discover common ground between disciplines.

For instance, biologists might explore how the Saharan Silver Ant uses specially shaped hairs to efficiently reflect light and dissipate heat, allowing it to stay cool in hot climates. Designers can then apply this principle to building surfaces, keeping structures cool (Shi, Tsai, Camino, Bernard, Yu & Wehner, 2015). Similarly, chemists study how bacillus bacteria secrete limestone when exposed to moisture and air. Engineers can leverage this knowledge to integrate bacteria into concrete, enabling self-healing properties when cracks appear (Justo-Reinoso, Heath, Gebhard & Paine, 2021).

The possibilities within the curriculum are limited only by imagination. Biology teaches us about nutrient cycling in woodlands, which can inspire innovative approaches to technical nutrient cycles in product design. Chemistry reveals how nature creates diverse shapes and forms using simple formulas that degrade harmlessly into elements and compounds. Notably, nature employs only 28 of the 118 elements, with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen as its primary building blocks (Biomimicry Institute). Physics demonstrates how forces can be harnessed to reduce energy consumption. Technology and engineering can draw from the science of nature to create new products, processes, and systems that elegantly mirror nature’s sustainability

Biomimicry is a proven design method used to create solutions inspired by nature. Natural Entrepreneurs provides a step-by-step guide using biomimicry to solve the challenges of today and shape the future. The Biomimicry Design Process used in the Natural Entrepreneurs project is based on the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Toolbox. It is detailed and a useful reference source to refer back to as you work with the NatEnt platform.

There are lots of good video resources. An excellent start is from Janine Benyus below.

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Credit: www.treemedia.com

This next video provides a quick overview of biomimicry and also provides examples at different scales.

Credit: Vox.com

Visit the Biomimicry Institutes YouTube channel for many more inspiring videos and examples of biomimicry inspired design solutions.

An excellent overview can also be found on the Biomimicry Institute website.