Biomimicry Basics

What is Biomimicry? The word it’s self comes from the greek words ‘bios’ meaning life, and ‘mimesis’ meaning to imitate, and basically it means design or invention inspired by nature. It’s a concept with a very long history in human inspiration and invention (although not directly known by this term) Leonardo DaVinci was one of the first ‘biomimics’ inspired by the flight of birds when developing his flying machine prototypes, acknowledging that:

“the genius of man may make various inventions…. But it will never discover a more beautiful, more economical, or more direct one than natures”¹

- photo by nhanusek

The studies of the Wright Brothers are also famous examples of early Biomimicry, they observed the flight of vultures and pigeons to learn the nuances of drag and lift, which helped produce the first flight of modern aircraft in 1903. As scientific knowledge and technology have developed rapidly over the past 100 years, so has the ability to see,  understand and learn from the natural world in a deeper way.

Biomimicry has been most recently coined and popularised by the biologist Janine Benyus, who wrote the book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” (1997). The essence of her perspective is that nature has spent 3.8 billion years testing and refining it’s designs to become the most efficient and environmentally compatible designs possible for their functions. Failures are fossils, so we can learn from this intelligence and apply it to human designs and innovation.  In her book, Benyus describes Biomimicry being achieved by using nature in 3 ways:

  • Nature as a Model- imitating or taking inspiration from nature’s models to solve human problems
  • Nature as a Measure using an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of innovations as nature knows what works, what is appropriate and what lasts
  • Nature as a Mentor- valuing nature and what we can learn from it rather than what we can extract from it.

Biomimicry has so far been most successful in industrial design applications, where new innovation has been driven by relatable natural metaphors. By comparing an existing human built object to a similar or contrastable natural object, a clearer understanding of the usually inefficient human-built system is achieved, and insight into how to improve it is gained. For example: a solar cell inspired by leaf photosynthesis, friction free fans inspired by nautilus, and aerodynamics of the bullet train inspired by the beak of a kingfisher bird, are all successful biomimicry examples.

image from the biomimicry institute

Benyus is generally recognised as the founder and pioneer of Biomimicry, so it’s worth listening to her speak about it first hand:

Janine Benyus: 12 sustainable design ideas from nature (2007)

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in Action (2009)

Janine Benyus speaks at Bioneers (2010)

A multitude of inspiring examples of Biomimicry in action can be found at Ask Nature which is a free online, open-source database of over 1400 biomimetic strategies. This idea was developed by Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute (which she co-founded in 2006) and is a non-profit organisation promoting biomimicry applications globally. The Biomimicry Guild (also co-founded by Benyus in 1998) on the other hand is an innovation consulting firm which works with clients in various industries to guide biomimetic innovation. Biomimicry 3.8 is currently germinating as the next step in the evolution of the Biomimicry Institute/Guild line, claiming to have adapted to the recent widespread growth of interest in Biomimicry… I’m looking forward to seeing what sprouts!

¹ Marshall, S. (2009) Cities, Design and Evolution. Routledge, London.