Is Biomimicry actually sustainable?

Sounds like a silly question for a technique that uses nature as it’s “Model, Measure and Mentor”, but sustainable outcomes cannot be guaranteed from even the best intentioned methods, and it can all depend on what your definition of ‘sustainable’ is.

Biomimicry had a slightly dubious reputation among my lecturers at uni. I think the main reason for this being one too many students coming up with building designs that have some vague (or literal) resemblance of a plant etc, calling it Biomimicry and expecting automatic sustainability points. Also the success of Biomimicry coming from producing more efficient marketable items seems to cause some distaste from a group dedicated to knowledge without the financial rewards of the commercial world. All this leading to a general suspicion about the sustainability legitimacy behind Biomimicry.

Greenwashing

The greenwashing of products to make them appear more sustainable or eco friendly than they actually are is a big problem today. It not only allows products to continue damaging the environment while fooling consumers into thinking they might be helping, when the truth is exposed it damages public trust and belief in green solutions.

There are some pretty obvious examples of greenwashing out there, products that slap a picture of nature on their bottle, increase the amount of the colour green they use in branding, and start including vague phrases like “environmentally sensitive” in their advertising  with no real sustainability science or product changes to back it up. It happens in architecture too, put a livingwall on a buildings street facade, call it sustainable and see how much publicity you can get. Then there are more insidious examples of greenwashing, like oil companies that make big public performances about how environmentally responsible they are, then destroy anti-pollution laws in secret.

Why pretend to be green when they are not? The power of people voting with their wallets about how they want to see a greener and cleaner world has made sustainability profitable, which some scumbag companies want to exploit. There are numerous blogs and up to date lists of greenwashing exposed out there, add even more power to your consumer choices by finding out which companies are doing the wrong thing and try to avoid them.

Green colour background- check. Out of context use of the word 'eco'- check. Pretending that making their bottles lighter is for the environment rather than to save them money- check. Greenwasharama.

Where Biomimicry could possibly step over the line into the realm of greenwashing is a little more complicated. In her book Positive Development: From Vicious Cycles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design (2008) one of my lecturers Janis Birkeland discusses the danger of using natural metaphors to make mechanical systems appear greener than they actually are, and for symbolism to substitute content. She goes on to say that in the context of market capitalism, Biomimicry applied to building technology “could perpetuate the current tendency to substitute nature with resource intensive and often unnecessary production lieu of passive solutions”.

An example of this would be instead of designing a space that allows for natural ventilation with thoughtful placement of windows and vents, but rather adding a fan based on a efficient natural design to ventilate a space. Even if it is more efficient than a normal fan, it is unnecessary if smart free passive design is possible.

Effieciency Vs Ecologically Restorative

Birkeland’s criticisms go deeper than greenwashing however, to essence of her view of sustainability (and my own educational foundation) that ‘doing less harm’ to the environment is not good enough, our designs need to make positive impacts on restoring ecologies. This sentiment is embraced by other sustainability and green design experts such as Ken Yeang and William McDonough. It is based on the realisation that eco-efficiency does not halt the depletion and destruction of the natural environment, it only slows the process. They believe the ultimate failure of the ‘less bad’ approach is a failure of the imagination, to believe that poorly designed and destructive systems are the best that humans can do.

The 1987 definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely accepted as the global standard for sustainability:

“development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for  future generations to meet their own needs”.

But this vision doesn’t take into account the enormous damage already done to the natural world by human development, and the critical need for immediate restoration to prevent ecosystem collapse. Sustainability experts recognise this and are looking far beyond more efficient and less damaging designs, to a whole new level of restorative, eco nurturing design.

McDonough’s goal is to ‘close the loop’ of development so that materials and resources are recycled and regenerated in a ‘cradle to cradle’ cycle like in nature, rather than in the linear extraction-consumption-waste system currently prevalent. Like Biomimicry, his approach “recognize(s) the natural world as the unrivaled model for human designs” .

http://www.ted.com/talks/william_mcdonough

Ken Yeang uses the term ‘ecomimicry’ to describe architectural systems that emulate the properties, structure, functions and processes of in nature, and enhance the ‘bio-integration’ of man made and natural environment. His ecoarchitecture goes beyond the current LEED and BREEAM standards of sustainability, utilizing passive design techniques as well as exploring a new eco aesthetic.

Birkeland presents the theory of ‘positive development’, suggesting that the built environment “could generate healthy ecological conditions, increase the life support services, reverse the impacts of current systems of development and improve life quality for everyone”.

Bioconfusion

There is also a general confusion over the term ‘biomimicry’ and other similar fields such as ‘bionics’ and ‘biomorphic design’ which perhaps have edges that overlap with Biomimicry, but are distinct areas. Biomorphic Architecture (sometimes called biomimetic architecture) uses natural algorithms to develop forms and structures that certainly can look organic and ecological (and sometimes fantastically beautiful), but they don’t actually achieve sustainable outcomes. Sustainability is not generally the intent of this specific line of study and design, and it doesn’t usually propose or pretend to be sustainable, it’s purely focused on the exploration of form.  But the linguistic similarity and the use of nature as the basis of design can cause confusion about the true sentiment behind Biomimicry, and give the impression that it is only about a visual replication of natural form.

Benyus’ Biomimicry

Biomimicry as put forward by Janine Benyus has much deeper links to whole systems sustainability. She acknowledges the superior model of  nature and “the intricate interliving that characterises whole systems” which are able to maintain dynamic stability while continuously juggle resources without waste. She envisions this application of Biomimicry is what is required to achieve the complexity of sustainable solutions in the future. The Biomimicry Design Spiral created by the Biomimicry Institute helps innovators in a practical way to follow the biomimicry process, while ensuring a deep consideration for biological problem solving, rather than a superficial replication of nature.

So for Biomimicry to be considered a legitimate sustainability process to the academics out there, it needs to go beyond increasing efficiencies of products, to improving ecosystem health through design. I think that with Benyus’ theoretical roots, and a designers intent for positively contributing to ecologies, Biomimicry has the highest of all potentials for achieving genuine sustainability through design.

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