Janine Benyus: we need to go way beyond energy efficiency in design

| 30th June 2010
Janine Benyus
The president of the Biomimicry Institute on learning from nature, designing cities to perform like ecosystems and why chemists, engineers and architects need to learn more biology

Laura Sevier: How did you get into biomimicry?

Janine Benyus: Twelve years ago my career as a 'biologist at the design table' didn't exist. In 1990 I started to see a faint signal in the biological literature that scientists were studying not just 'about' the natural world - they were trying to learn from it. I found people who studied leaves to make better solar cells based on photosynthesis.

This was something that was fundamentally new. Early on, biomimicry was mostly in academia, and was mostly funded by the military and space agencies. It was not necessarily about becoming more sustainable. In fact, biomimics in those agencies were consulting nature in order to create faster rockets or allow for more stealthy approaches towards the enemy.

When my book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature came out in 1997 I was really surprised by all the excitement it created. I expected environmentalists and conservationists to be calling, but instead businesses like Interface, Nike, General Electric, Kraft, Procter and Gamble called. Then architectural firms like HOK started to call and we began to work with planners and architects.

Our clients wanted a biologist who could come and talk about how life worked, the key point being that the people who make our world - industrial designers, chemists, engineers, architects, etc - are not trained in biology. They don't know how life filters, adheres, handles compressive forces, creates colour without toxic pigments or how life manufactures or generates energy.

LS: Can you give me some examples of some of the best applications of biomimicry that are available on the market?

JB: There's a building façade paint called 'Lotusan' - a self-cleaning paint based on how lotus leaves are self-cleaning. It's really elegant. Rainwater cleans the building rather than detergents or sand blasting.

There are industrial fans that are based on the flippers of humpback whales. There's a blue mussel-inspired, waterproof glue. Sharklet makes an anti-bacterial clingfilm whose bumpy structure keeps bacteria from directly adhering without chemical use.

InterfaceFLOR's best selling product is Entropy. Each carpet tile is different and yet harmonious with the next, in much the same way as you see random, yet beautiful order in the natural world. Thanks to the lack of rigid pattern, replacement tiles fit in without a 'sore thumb' effect, and waste is greatly reduced.

LS: Do you think there needs to be a biomimicry label? Or is any product able to say it's ‘bio-inspired'?

We've thought about this a lot. Can you label a product biomimetic? Is it the form or the process that's biomimetic? How far does it go? If we were to do some sort of a labelling the goal would be to encourage the company to continually ask nature the questions. So rather than a product, it would be more that this is a company that uses the biomimetic process and life's principles in its innovation.

It's more like: ‘this product had bio-inspired thinking in it, because the designers practice biomimicry.'

Biomimicry is not a product category or a durable solution. It's a durable way of finding solutions.

LS: Is cloning or transgenic engineering biomimicry?

JB: In transgenic engineering, you take a gene from a fish and put it into a strawberry plant to keep it protected from frost. But that's transferring a gene from one class of animals to another class, and that doesn't regularly happen in the natural world. Clearly, it's not biomimicry.

The ethics part of biomimicry asks not just 'what would nature do here?', but also 'what wouldn't nature do here?' Biomimics look to nature as measure as well as model and mentor.

LS: What is the latest thing you've been working on?

JB: I'm really interested in biomimicry at the level of cities. Our biologists at the Biomimicry Guild are working with HOK, the world's largest architectural and engineering firm, on master-planning cites. Planning is basically like setting up the DNA, the coding of the cities.

We said to ourselves (and this is back to 'nature as a measure' question): 'How could a city perform like an ecosystem - like the native ecosystem that would be there if we weren't there?' The goals are very locally informed by the ecological land type.

Ecologists, who have a very specific idea about performance in the ecological realm, can calculate ecosystem services as a metric - how many tonnes of carbon does a forest sequester a year, how many millimeters of soil are created, how much water is filtered and how much is absorbed in a storm, for instance.

We call these metrics 'ecological performance standards' and say that the city as a whole has to meet or exceed that level of service. It sounds obvious - that a city should perform at least as well as the ecosystem that it replaced - but this is a very aspirational goal.

LS: Can biomimicry tackle more than just design?

JB: The various approaches to sustainability are, thankfully, quite diverse. The mosaic of solutions include Cradle to Cradle, Natural Capitalism, Natural Step, Industrial Ecology, Global Footprinting, Transition Towns, Living Building Challenge - all great frameworks.

Biomimicry lives at the innovation stage - what you do on Monday morning to redesign the 'story of stuff'. We're collecting a tool kit of nature's solutions (see AskNature.org) to help designers make better decisions on materials, manufacturing processes, and how to deal with waste, for instance. Biomimicry is just one of the tools in the toolkit.

People sometimes think biomimicry is copying the form of something in nature. But just mimicking form is not enough. You can be inspired by a shape in the natural world and make a fan that is 50 per cent more efficient but then the question becomes: What material do you use to make it, how do you package it, how do you ship it, what kind of business model do you use?'

Life's principles are a tool to help with the biomimicry approach to design and sustainability. It's like nature's eco checklist. You can find the principles on the Biomimicry Guild's website. That's where we get a more holistic look. Try evaluating, for example, your mobile phone or your digital camera using life's principles: Is it free of toxic materials? Is it self-healing? Was it manufactured using benign processes? As you ask yourself questions like these, you develop a list of new design challenges, new questions for the natural elders of our planet.

LS: There's a lot of emphasis on whether a product is energy efficient at the moment. Is this too narrow a way of judging a product?

We need tools to help us see the whole system. We tend to cheerlead one particular thing, which right now is energy, when really, 'friendliness to living tissues' should be paramount. 'Is it life friendly?' is a very different question than, 'is it energy efficient'?

A bird building a nest never asks only 'is this energy efficient'? Life-friendly comes first because eggs are going to be brooded there.

When you challenge yourself to take care of a living thing you've got to have a holistic approach that goes way beyond energy efficiency. It goes all the way to delight. You travel from the realm of good environmental design all the way up to nourishing the human spirit.

Just as Churchill says, we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us. It's the same thing in the rest of nature. The environment shapes the organism but the organism very much creates its environment as well. What it breathes out, what it excretes, the materials it concentrates and discards.

A tree creates its environment just by shedding its leaves, which decay and change the soil over the years. We're doing the same thing. We're changing our environment. We're ecosystem engineers. The question is 'Why does this tree have a positive effect over the long haul, while our actions tend to have a negative effect? How do we become a net-benefit species? A generous species?' That's our design challenge.

This interview is based on a talk by Janine Benyus ‘Beyond Design: Biomimicry and Sustainable Businesses' and Q&A in London, hosted by InterfaceFLOR.

Janine Benyus is President of Biomimicry Institute, a natural sciences writer, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including her latest, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

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