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Design from nature March 28, 2010

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