The Biophilia of Biomimicry

Biomimicry gives us a strong logical reasoning for turning to nature for design solutions. The living things on this planet have gone through 3.8 billion years of research and development, refining them into the perfectly appropriate and adapted solutions we see functioning around us today. So in our quest to create a more sustainable built world, it makes perfect sense to study how nature has achieved this successfully. But for many of us there is more to the appeal of Biomimicry than logical design solutions, there is a conscious or unconscious love of nature and a desire to live in a world that is linked more closely to the natural one.

image by alex bellink

Biophilia- the “love of life or living systems” is a term that was coined by E.O Wilson in 1984 in his book “Biophilia”. Wilson is a naturalist/biologist/researcher/Harvard professor who has spent a 60 year career looking deeply into the biology, evolution and socio-biology of life on this planet and the role of human beings within it. It is thought that the close relationship humans had with nature along the course of evolution for shelter and survival, has left a kind of genetic ‘memory-mark’ within us, and we seek out nature to fulfil these instinctual longings.

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”. – E.O Wilson

Wilson believes strongly in the need for conservation of natural habitats to ensure the continuation of biodiversity of the planet. He suggests that not protecting our natural world is actually the unnatural behaviour.

“Perhaps the time has come to cease calling it the “environmentalist” view, as though it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view”. -E.O Wilson

In the design world, Biophilia has been most noticeable in medical and healthcare facilities. It has been well documented that patients who have a visual link to nature and natural light in their rooms have a faster healing and recovery time than those who do not.

Healing spaces of the Jurong Hospital, Singapore, incorporate views to nature and abundant natural light.

Links to the natural environment have also been shown to increase productivity and reduce absenteeism in offices by up to 20%, as well as improve relaxation and psychological wellbeing therapeutic facilities and homes.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s classic Falling Water house and a new drool-worthy favourite of mine in Hollywood Hills by architect John Lautner epitomise the appeal of living closer to nature.

On a city scale, biophilic design is gaining presence and popularity as our suffering from a lack of nature becomes more severe. Biophiliccities.org recognises the benefits of integrating nature more deeply into our cities and promoting a biophilic love for it:

Important ties to place: there are considerable place strengthening benefits and place-commitments that derive from knowledge of local nature; from direct personal contact; enhanced knowledge and deeper connections = greater stewardship, and willingness to take personal actions on behalf of place and home;

Connections and connectedness: Caring for place and environment, essential for human wellbeing and in turn essential ingredient  for caring for eachother;

A need for wonder and awe in our lives: nature has the potential to amaze us, stimulate us, propel us forward to want to learn more and understand more fully our world; nature adds a kind of wonder value to our lives unlike almost anything else; (see the post Springtime Spontaneity)

Meaningful lives require nature: the qualities of wonder and fascination, the ability to nurture deep personal connection and involvement, visceral engagement in something larger than and outside oneself, offer the potential for meaning in life few other things can provide.

Of course Biomimicry can function successfully without a hint biophila behind the intent or execution of a design. Studying a whale’s flipper to create a more efficient turbine design does not necessarily require a love of nature, but I have a feeling it is the driving force behind much hard work that goes into these innovations.

So whether your love of nature comes from a deeply instinctual place, or happy vacation memories, an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of nature, or fascination for the life giving functionality of it, the more this biophilia is recognised and valued as an essential part of living, the closer we can get to achieving it in our designs. Design it for the love of it.

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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.