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Design from nature March 28, 2010

Posted by David Cooperman in Design-related Books, Systems Thinking.

A review of Biomimicry by Janine Benyus

In several of the design lectures I’ve attended over the past few months, the speaker has pointed to the desks and lights and computers in the room and claimed that everything except nature is designed and is thus the domain of the designer. Biomimcry is an ode to the design genius of the natural world and a call to society to make use of the elegant solutions that living things and ecosystems can offer us.

This book makes a strong case for devoting more of our resources to studying biological models for energy generation (photosynthesis), farming (diverse perennials), disease treatment (plant-derived drugs), computing (protein communication), manufacturing (room temperature, non-toxic, and waste-free), and business models (the closed-loop efficiency of a forest). These are big ideas that would cause huge changes in human society. Benyus makes them inspiring and accessible by introducing us to the researchers at the forefront of each of these areas.

As an environmentalist, I found the real beauty of a biomimetic approach to be the following: solutions that work with the planet by design are invaluable as we attempt to reign in our polluting, resource-intensive ways. Biomimicry is thus a powerful approach for sustainable design. Indeed, many of the ideas that Benyus highlights have gained traction in the 13 years since Biomimicry was published. Nanotechnology is now a household word, and books like Cradle to Cradle have further articulated the biomimetic approach to a product’s lifecycle. Most large corporations have completed at least partial lifecycle analyses of their major products. Broad substitution of natural processes and products for petroleum-based synthetics has not occurred, however, pointing to a continued need for expanded biomimetic research.

Benyus presents biomimicry first as an engineering approach. Nature has it figured out when it comes to producing energy, food, houses, medicines, and knowledge storage devices (brains). Re-engineering industrial society in nature’s image is thus a great idea.

She expands her definition of biomimicry to include a deep respect for the natural world as not only a source of knowledge but also as a support system for human society. We can’t just plug in nature’s solutions where they will drive profits. We must also design within nature’s limits and thus away from our oil and coal-fueled, throw-away economy. Only by respecting nature and opening ourselves up to its intricacies and limits will we as designers find truly sustainable solutions.

So how does a designer balance the human user’s needs and wants with the long-term health of the planet? In many cases, as Benyus reports, the models we find in nature are truly elegant solutions for both. Problems arise, however, when biological models conflict with human social and economic systems. For example, the carpet company Interface had to fight an uphill battle to convince customers that it was more sustainable to rent carpet tiles, which would be replaced and recycled if damaged, than to simply purchase carpet. People resist change, and making the switch from human-made industrial products and systems to nature-inspired alternatives will hurt a lot of egos. Harnessing and imitating nature’s ingenuity means admitting that we might not have all the answers, that we might not need to design everything.

And yet nature cannot show us how to navigate human social motivations. We might marvel at redwood forest, but most of us wouldn’t want to live in one. Our aesthetic includes modern architecture and paved cities and chemically supported cornfields. Thus biomimic ‘engineers’ need designers at their sides. A designer’s ability to empathize with users, distill out their needs, and incorporate those into a user experience is essential to adoption of nature’s beautiful design solutions.

At the same time, I think that designers would benefit from reading Biomimicry because it opens the door to nature’s astounding body of work, all of it in place long before humans showed up and decided to make buildings, plastic toys, and computers. Design usually exists in the context of the built environment and the industrial economy. This is where our clients live. This is how we tend to define our profession. Biomimicry (and E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia) shines a light on the appeal of the natural world. We are drawn to that redwood forest, and the designers who can understand that attraction will facilitate the transition to a more sustainable human existence. It is both humbling and inspiring to think about the beauty of nature’s designs and their power to improve society—with our help.


1. Kevin Kuramura - March 29, 2010

Great review, David. I never finished reading that book, but as an undergrad I was able to attend a talk Benyus gave at Haas. I was a lowly freshman then, unable to absorb a lot of what she said but it definitely planted in me a seed of interest in Biomimicry.

Engineers interested in this topic may want to look into Professor Dharan’s course Engineering Biomimetics (ME C217) or Berkeley’s “CiBER”: http://ciber.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/twiki/view/CIBER/CenterObjectives

2. Jon Pittman - April 1, 2010

It has now been 12 years since Biomimicry was first published. While the ideas seem very good, they do not seem to have taken root in an meaningful way. Do you have any sense as to why? We do see a few examples of mimicing nature, but they tend to be exceptional?

Is it an education problem, an inherent flaw in the approach, or something else?

I’d be interested in your opinions.

Mansi Thakkar - April 18, 2010

Jon – I’ve been wondering about the same thing. When these ideas seem to be so good and proven to be successful why haven’t they gained the momentum they should? I think it has to do with the fact that we, as humans, subconsciously believe that our progress will come at the expense of other entities. That with the rate at which we’re growing, we need to use resources (fossils, water, energy) to progress and we’re doing the best we can (by reducing, recycling, and reusing). It’s not enough that the ideas presented in Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry reach out to a bigger audience. In my opinion, what needs to be done is actually provoke the audience enough to get up and be responsible for this change. We need to unlearn some of our practices since the Industrial Revolution and re-do the way in which we do things. And I think that that is a big challenge considering how humans are uncomfortable with change and ‘unlearning’.

Jon Pittman - April 22, 2010

You might want to look at The Story of Stuff http://www.storyofstuff.com – Annie Leonard does a great job at addressing the issue of unlearning.

Her video is nicely designed, too. She found that she was being too technical and discovered this video as a way to convey her message.

Mansi Thakkar - April 25, 2010

That was an excellent video – it conveys what it has to without getting too technical and compels us to make a change.

Another issue that limits the spread of these ideas, I think, is awareness. A lot of people that I know are truly concerned about their environmental impact and are often working in the field as well. However, they are limited to assessing impact and finding the best solution among existing alternatives. If they knew that some more drastic was possible – that re-designing the entire system might give them the best results, they’d perhaps do it. But they don’t even know about these principles suggested in Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry. I think creating an awareness is important as well. And the best way to create an awareness might be the government and the media.

3. Kevin Liu - April 7, 2010

This reminds me of a guest lecturer that we had in an Opportunity Recognition MBA course I took last year. He was the CEO of PAX Scientific, a company that designs solutions to fluid-related industry problems (i.e. efficient wind turbines, water mixers, etc) Their entire line of products is designed by using biomimicry. You can check out more cool stuff at their site here:

4. Mansi Thakkar - April 18, 2010

Hey David, that’s an awesome review! I actually just mentioned this book in my review and I do think that Cradle to Cradle also promotes ideas very similar to Biomimicry.

5. Sara Beckman - April 18, 2010

Tom McKeag has also taught a class on biomimicry at Berkeley in the past, and teaches presently at the California College of the Arts. He teaches these concepts to elementary school kids in very cool ways. Here’s link to some of his stuff:


6. Ping Hay Lam - April 18, 2010

I think bio-mimicry have at least 2 levels. On the small level, systems or processes could be designed by mimicking a biological cells or mechanisms. On a bigger level, it could mean that the design takes into consideration of the ecology of the product lifecycle. I think that bio-mimicry is a good approach towards greater sustainability in designing new products or services. It would be great also to have a new discipline sprung out of the traditional education of biologists, something that combines biology and product/service design, something like bio-designers. That would be really cool!

7. Jon Pittman - April 22, 2010

Ping – this may come sooner than you think. Nano-technology allows you to “grow” things out of very small components rather than making them by bending, forming, and other processes. The design paradigms for this kind of production may very well be more inspired by biology

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