What is biomimicry?
Biomimicry is learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more circular designs. The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with: energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more. It is studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell, or a coral reef to make a more resilient company.
In nature there is no waste, everything is a nutrient and feedstock. Mimicking these earth-savvy designs and processes can help humans leapfrog to technologies that sip energy, shave material use, reject toxins, reuse all materials, and work as a system to create conditions conducive to life.
Often, innovating using the biomimicry methodology starts with one simple, but vital, question. Asking “What would nature do here?” can spark not one new idea, but millions of ideas evolved in context, tested over eons, and proven safe for this generation and the next.
How? Let’s start with the three levels of biomimicry that help us design system-wide innovation to catapult us beyond our unsustainable throw away economy, into one that supports a circular economy. Or as we like to say, one that creates conditions conducive to life.
The first level of biomimicry is the mimicking of natural form. For instance, you may mimic the hooks and barbules of an owl’s feather to create a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface. Or you can imitate the frayed edges that grant the owl its silent flight. Copying feather design is just the beginning, because it may or may not yield something that’s actually suitable for the wider system..
Deeper biomimicry adds a second level, which is the mimicking of natural process, or how it is made. The owl feather self-assembles at body temperature without toxins or high pressures, by way of nature’s chemistry. The unfurling field of green chemistry attempts to mimic these benign recipes.
At the third level is the mimicking of natural ecosystems. The owl feather is gracefully nested—it’s part of an owl that is part of a forest that is part of a biome that is part of a sustaining biosphere. In the same way, our owl-inspired fabric must be part of a larger economy that works to restore rather than deplete the earth and its people. If you make a bio-inspired fabric using green chemistry, but you have workers weaving it in a sweatshop, loading it onto pollution-spewing trucks, and shipping it long distances, you’ve missed the point.
To mimic a natural system, you must ask how each product fits in—is it necessary, is it beautiful, is it part of a nourishing food web of industries, and can it be transported, sold, and reabsorbed in ways that foster a forest-like economy?
If we can mimic at all three levels—natural form, natural process, and natural system—we’ll begin to do what all well-adapted organisms have learned to do, which is to create conditions conducive to life. Creating conditions conducive to life is not optional; it’s a rite of passage for any organism that manages to fit in here over the long haul.
If we want to keep coming home to this place, we’ll need to learn from our predecessors how to filter air, clean water, build soil—how to keep the habitat lush and livable.
If we ask, “What would nature do here?” the biomimicry approach can guide the top CEOs and leading organizations from around the globe committed to achieving the goal a circular economy.