Biomimcry: innovation inspired by nature

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Feb 18, 2016

What can we learn from the natural world? As it turns out, a huge amount. Recently, at a talk on biomimicry How nature has already solved our business problems at the Business School at Exeter University, Taryn Mead described some fundamental aspects of this field, including the approach that is taken, some major areas of difference between natural and artificial solutions to problems, and addressed some organizational and philisophical issues which arose in subsequent discussion.

As a source of inspiration, biomimcry is providing innovative solutions in areas of materials, structures and processes. By emulating the natural world, fundamentally different approaches yield dramatically higher performance than our conventional technologically driven approaches.

Taryn has worked with one of the pioneers, Janine Benyus who has written extensively, and founded several important organizations, in the biomimcry field.

She described the important point that biomimicry is not simply the use of natural proceses and materials. It is the use of nature as inspiration for novel solutions that yield some of the same advantages as natural solutions provide. There are some themes running through the field.

One of the themes relates to energy use. People in the biomimicry field describe many human engineering processes as "heat, beat and treat". By contrast, in the natural world, high performance materials and structures are produced without the use of heat. Processes are typically performed at much lower temperatures, using lower power levels, and, ultimately, much less energy. Examples include spider's webs which are stronger than steel. There are animals with extremely hard shells which were not built using the high temperature processes that we require to achieve the same performance. And humans are not the first to build innovative structures, including some that provide effective ventilation and cooling.

Another theme is the lack of wastage in the natural world. Our technical processes are described as: "take, make and waste". We consume large quantities of material without recycling it. In the natural world, everything is recycled in some way, and nothing is wasted.

During the discussion after the talk, the topic of the behaviours and structures of organizational groups was raised. This is a fascinating area because human organizations tend to be less adaptive as they become larger. In the natural world, however, many organizations avoid this through being organized "bottom-up" rather than "top-down", as Janine Benyus described in this TED talk in 2009.

On the other hand, in cases where there is allegiance to a central individual in an organization, such as bee hives with a queen bee, the organization splits from time to time into smaller units. A very small number of businesses have been doing this for some time, such as W L Gore & Associates, and companies in the Virgin Group, but it is a relatively rare capability.

The potential importance of this topic of behavioural differences between humans and animals, seems to me to be encapuslated in the wonderful book: "Who moved my cheese?" and how much more effective the animal behaviour was in that simple story.

In order to make more information available to people, whether they are merely curious or they are in need of solutions, the website asknature.org provides facilities to aggregate available information and to answer questions posed about problems for which solutions exist in nature.

Finally, perhaps not surprinsingly, during discussions after the talk, the major question was raised about whether there is any fundamental distinction between humans and animals at all, or whether human behaviour isn't simply part of nature. For some people, this might be a substantial philosophical issue. On the other hand, there are certainly some other animals that make a mess of their environment!

Questions

Let's discuss the topic of biomicry and its role in innovation during #innochat on February 18th, 2016, starting at 12pm Eastern time, on the basis of the following questions:

  1. Where is the greatest potential for nature to show us innovative, high performance solutions?
  2. Where and how can substantial energy savings be achieved by mimicking natural processes?
  3. Where can we reduce waste, and what do we need to learn from nature to achieve that?
  4. Which natural organizational models provide inspiration for human organizations?
  5. In what senses does biomimicry assume that humans are unnatural, and is it true?

Downloads

All donations go to help defray hosting, maintenance and domain name costs. Thanks!