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.


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” .

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”.


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.

Uuuuuuuh climate change…. sigh.

Uuuuuuuuuh climate change…. Will we ever reach a consensus on you? So many talks, so many conferences (including the recent UN Climate talks in Durben) and still no decisive actions to be taken. Frustration is an understatement.

Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” really got the ball rolling on this topic for a lot of people, sparking renewed and intensified public concern about the state of the environment and our future in it. Frightening predictions are made about the impacts of current human behaviour, warning that coupled with exponential population growth we are looking at a high potential for ecological disaster and mass species extinctions, maybe including our own.

It’s fair to say that in the 6 years since then a lot of green initiatives have been set off, and a pretty widespread moral shift has happened regarding our role in ruining the planet. The architecture industry has followed the public demand for sustainable buildings, as inhabitants start demanding healthier environments, tenants see the economy of passive design features and developers see profit in the green building market. Green building councils have been set up and green design rating systems implemented to assure that progress in this area is recognised and encouraged and standardised.

“There is enough peer pressure within the culture of architecture now for architects to be uncomfortable with, if not ashamed of, being associated with the more obvious examples of energy profligacy or material waste”.

But the total inability of the global political community to take decisive action on environmental and climate change issues is so disappointing, and my frustrations are running high at our supposed ‘leaders’. From what I can figure, there seems to be three main reasons why they are still in stalemate…1) Inability for global political collaboration and compromise, 2) underlying fear of economic loss from changing the status quo, and 3) the complexity of the science behind climate change.

Al Gore put forward a lot of persuasive graphs and charts illustrating the scientific evidence that human actions are thickening the layer of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, enhancing the ‘greenhouse effect’ and leading to global warming and the variety of natural disasters this would cause.  Since then there has also been a huge amount of information  put out that contradicts this ‘science of global warming’. Whether this is legitimate data and scientific discussion or oil company propaganda is pretty unclear to non-scientists, and this confusion has made it very easy for change makers to put off making change until it is clear.

This  infographic from the marvellous, attempts to clarify both sides of the argument.This is a fascinating video that solves the whole issue for us as an exercise in logical reasoning and risk management. Greg Craven asks the question ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’: The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See – YouTube. Would you rather global economic collapse or global environmental collapse? Well it’s not really that simple, holes have been found in his theory since the time this video was made (which Craven explores on his website).

My personal view on this topic actually has very little to do with the science and politics of it all.1) I love and treasure the beauty and function of the natural environment, 2) I feel the direct effects of breathing smog and pollution everyday on my health and I don’t like it, 3) As a designer, I believe if that if there is a better cleaner way of doing things that supersedes old damaging patterns, then bloody do it! For a civilization that loves progress it’s incredible how unwilling some sectors are to change to the new and improved methods.

Anyway, now that I’ve vented some of my big picture frustrations, and before i get totally dis-heartened by the scale of it all, I’ll remember my mantra ‘small flowers crack concrete’ and get back to work.

¹ Bennetts, H., Radford, A., and Williamson, T. Understanding Sustainable Architecture.

A tool for innovation- the biomimicry design spiral

Biomimicry design spiral developed by the Biomimicry Institute

The Biomimicry Institute has provided a tool aiding innovative design using the Biomimicry process -The Biomimicry Design Spiral provides a clear process to follow in order to produce a design inspired by nature which utilizes solutions found in nature to solve problems in innovative ways. The seven step guide helps to ensure a deep consideration for biological problem solving, rather than a superficial replication of nature.

Step 1: Identify. Find the core of the problem and the design specification by asking “what do you want your design to do?” rather than “what do you want to design?”

This step involves developing a design brief that clarifies the specific problem to be solved. This is done by identifying the core function that the design is intended to accomplish (asking “what do you want your design to do”), rather than immediately implying a design solution (“what do you want to design”). This is attempting to avoid the traditional ‘top down’ approach which enforces a preconceived concept of a solution (a design) onto the problem.

Step 2: Interpret– Biologize the question, as “how does nature do this function or solve this problem?” and “how does nature NOT do this function?” Define the habitat/location more specifically.

This step involves ‘biologizing’ the question, the most distinctive feature of this problem solving tool. It requires the designer to look at the various outcomes of 3.8 billion years of environmental research and development which has occurred in nature to produce complex sustainable systems, to reconceive the problem from this basis.

By defining the specific conditions under which the function is achieved in nature, such as the climate, nutrient, social and temporal conditions, the focus will become more specialised and reduce the quantity of possibilities. This biologising of the question instils a greater chance for the outcome to be ecologically sustainable.

Step 3: Discover- Find the best natural models to answer/solve your challenges, find champion adapter by asking “whose survival depends on this?” consider literal and metaphorical models.

This step involves finding specific examples and models of solutions to the biologized problem as established in the previous step. Seeking in particular organisms who are champions in this area and those whose survival depends on their means to solve this design challenge. Collaboration with a biologist is recommended at this stage to provide in depth biological knowledge.

Step 4: Abstract– Find the repeating patterns and processes within nature that achieve success.

This step involves the process of abstraction, which can clarify the essence of the subject without forfeiting its complexity. It allows concepts and solutions to be communicated without specific details which may convolute them and therefore be transferred multi-disciplinarily.

Step 5: Emulate- develop solutions that apply these lessons from nature as deeply as possible in your design, mimicking form, mimicking function, mimicking ecosystem.

This step involves developing practical solutions to the design challenge based on the natural models identified in the previous step. This is where the scale of the solution must be carefully considered and it’s interconnectedness with the surrounding environment analysed to ensure ecological sustainable outcomes.

Step 6: Evaluate- how do your ideas compare to life’s principles (sustainability imperative imbued).

This step involves evaluating the product of the process so far against ‘Life’s Principles’ by asking questions such as whether it produces ‘conditions conducive to life?’, ‘can the design adapt and evolve?’ or ‘is it closed loop’? This is the point at which to critically review the solution to ensure the outcome is sustainable.

Step 7: Identify- develop and refine design briefs based on lessons learned from the evaluation section, repeat the process.

This additional step is the point at which the process begins again from the beginning ‘identify’ step and repeating all the stages of the process with a now deeper understanding of the problem and considering the issues identified in the previous ‘evaluate’ step. This aspect of the tool is what makes it an iterative process, cycling continuously through the stages, but also spiralling down to a more specific and refined outcome. This process is itself mimicking nature and the process of learning and adaption which occurs through small reiterative feedback loops.

I really enjoy this process as a design and problem solving technique. I find that it really helps to align my thinking with biological processes, and pushes me to explore and learn from successful natural designs. Importantly it sets a new biological standard of sustainability to aim for.

“No problem can ever be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – Albert Einstein.

10 ways the world could end and what i’m not going to do about it

image from

I found this talk on TED a few years back, and it really got me thinking in new ways about the mortality of the earth, and the  precariousness of human life on it. Stephen Petranek outlines the 10 most likely ways he foresees the world coming to an end. The humour and intelligence of this talk is a refreshing take on a subject that has mainly been tackled by hollywood sci-fi movies, doomsday prophecies and media hype. Although it is now almost 10 years since the talk was given, the points are still relevant, and the solutions he presents still need to be implemented.

Watch it here: TED Blog | 10 ways the world could end: Stephen Petranek on

10 ways the world could end suddenly:

# 10: We lose the will to survive.

#  9: Aliens Invade Earth

#  8: The Ecosystem Collapses

#  7: Particle Accelerator Mishap

#  6: Biotech Disaster

#  5: Reversal of the Earth’s Magnetic Field

#  4: Giant Solar Flares

#  3: A New Global Epidemic

#  2:  We Meet a Rogue Black Hole

#  1: A Really Big Asteroid Heads For Earth

It’s an overwhelming list, especially having a look at it again now, when Asteroid 2005 YU55 (a 400 meter wide asteroid) is passing between the earth and the moon tomorrow afternoon, and extreme sun spot activity is lighting up the magnetic fields and aurora’s above my head most nights. I try to keep my eyes open to the big picture of life, I like the perspective it gives me and the way it can clarify personal decision making and priority setting. However as someone who is also bent on solving problems, it can be a double edged sword. It’s easy to feel disempowered by the scale of these threats which are highly complex problems with no simple answers.

I think that #10 on that list should read ‘We lose the will to survive and we lose the will to fight the good fight’ because when we are faced with these kinds of global catastrophes, does saving a few litres of water or recycling that plastic bottle or adding that green roof to a building really matter? And when we can’t see the direct rewards of our efforts, it gets even harder to stay motivated. In my moments of despair and exhaustion at the challenge of making a positive impact I try to remember that

“we cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once”- Calvin Coolidge

photos by timlings

As useful as it is to see the big problems in their fullness, the power of small cumulative actions shouldn’t be underestimated either. Small steps lead to big steps, and when growing numbers of people take these steps, big change can happen. So I’m going to keep taking my little steps towards solving #8 through my particular line of work and study. But I’m also going to keep my fingers permanently crossed that we don’t encounter a rogue black hole, practice gratefulness for everyday we don’t get fried by a giant solar flare, and maybe even look into the logistics of building an underground bunker….

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.

Where to start?

If in doubt mind map! that was my motto going through university, and in particular when writing my master’s thesis on ‘biomimicry in architecture’ a deceptively broad topic that ended up producing a 12,400 word monster of a paper. This piece of butterpaper you see here with my scribblings all over it was in fact a somewhat refined visualisation of what I wanted to research earlier on in my process. “What a fascinating mess” is what I interpreted my supervisors response to it to mean (the word fascinating may or may not have been used by her) but fascinating it all was to me, and still is, this interconnected web of architecture, nature and the critical need for global sustainability and ecosystem regeneration which has created the possibility for a new species of built environment that behaves like the natural environment.

The title of my thesis ended up being “Evaluating the Biomimicry Design Spiral as a tool for complex problem solving in Ecological Architecture”, a chunky mouthful which awkwardly covers the main topics I wrote about- Biomimicry, the Biomimicry design spiral as developed by the Biomimicry institute, complexity in design, complex problem solving tools, ecological architecture, the historical relationship between humans and the natural environment and the current environmental sustainability crisis. All of these things, as well as some of the others on that mind map that couldn’t be jammed sideways into my thesis, I would like to cover in more bite sized pieces in this blog. My aim is to keep my personal knowledge fresh, current and organised, but also to share what I have found and hopefully spark some discussion on the topic.