Biomimicry for Business?
Biomimicry is an exciting emergent discipline which explores how nature works and how we can learn from nature to solve human problems. Humans have been learning from other species for many thousands of years, yet biomimicry as a formal concept is more recent. The word itself, “biomimicry”, was coined by Janine Benyus (author of the book ‘Biomimicry’) and originates from the Greek bios (life) and mimesis (imitation).
In the words of Janine Benyus, biomimicry has three aspects to it:
1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new discipline that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.
2. Nature as measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovations. After 3.8 billion tears of evolution, nature has learned what works, what is appropriate, and what lasts.
3. Nature as mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it.
After years of work with ecologists, Janine Benyus pulled together Nature’s Laws:
Nature runs on sunlight
Nature uses only the energy it needs
Nature fits form to function
Nature recycles everything
Nature rewards cooperation
Nature banks on diversity
Nature demands local expertise
Nature curbs excesses from within
Nature taps the power of limits
To provide guidance to designers using biomimicry, the Biomimicry Institute has developed a framework based on the principles and conditions under which life operates referred to as ‘Life’s Principles’:
Life adapts and evolves by:
• Being locally attuned and responsive
• Using constant feedback loops
• Antenna, signal, response
• Learns and imitates
• Resourceful and Opportunistic
• Free energy
• Shape rather than material
• Builds from the bottom up
• Simple, common building blocks
• Running on cyclic processes
• Being resilient
• Decentralized and distributed
• Cross-pollination, common information system (genetic)
Life creates conditions conducive to life by:
• Optimizing rather than maximizing
• Using multi-functional design
• Fitting form to function
• Being interdependent
• Recycle all materials
• Self organization
• Using benign manufacturing
• Using life-friendly materials
• Using water-based chemistry
• Using self-assembly
Examples of innovative biomimicry designs include:
• Velcro is probably one of the best-known examples of biomimicry when Swiss engineer George de Mestral in the 1940s noticed how bur hooks gripped on to fabric loops.
• More recently, the communications company Qualcomm uses the iridescent principle of butterflies and peacock feather which refract light to provide colour. Through its product, Mirasol, it applies this refraction technique to electronic displays from cell phones to table computers, in turn using significantly less energy whilst providing good useability. In 2010 they won Best Enabling Technology Award in Laptop Magazine.
• A high-speed train front-end was inspired by the kingfisher’s beak allowing more efficiently travel through different air pressures (tunnel and open-air). The design of the Shinkansen Bullet Train of the West Japan Railway resulted in a quieter train and 15% less electricity use even whilst the train travels 10% faster.
• The Eastgate Building, an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, uses 90% less energy for ventilation than conventional buildings its size by taking inspiration from termites’ self-cooling mounds.
• A high-performance underwater data transmission method, used in the tsunami early warning system throughout the Indian Ocean, inspired by dolphins’ unique frequency-modulating acoustics, developed by a company called EvoLogics.
• A carpet tile range which random design is inspired by the aesthetics of leaves on a forest floor. As a result the carpet tiles can be installed in any direction which reduces installation time and allows replacement of single tiles without damaging the overall look of the floor. The Entropy product line became InterfaceFLOR’s fastest bestseller. InterfaceFLOR estimate that the Entropy product line wastes 1.5% of the carpet compared with the industry average of 14% for broadloom carpet.
• Regen Energy’s smart grid technology became inspired by swarms in nature, for example bee behaviour, referred to as ‘swarm technology’, in optimising peak power loads over the network.
• British Telecom used a biological model based on ant behaviour to overhaul its phone network, avoiding a 10-year multi-£bn exercise.
As exemplified by the innovations described above, biomimicry, in the main, has been applied to product design, manufacturing, green chemistry, structural planning and architecture. However, nature’s wisdom can also inspire and inform organisational transformation. Such emulation of nature’s genius for organisational structures, processes and people behaviour may be better described as ‘bio-inspired’ rather than biomimetic, as it is not limited to scientific extrapolations and copying nature but also metaphorical and behavioural based inspiration, although perhaps still falling within the third part of Benyus’ definition of Biomimicry: ‘nature as mentor’.
Our understanding of nature has evolved over the last few decades, from viewing nature as a battle ground of competition to one of dynamic non-equilibrium, where an order within chaos prevails due to unwritten natural patterns, feedback loops, behavioural qualities, interdependencies and collaboration within and throughout ecosystems. Nature adapts within limits and creates conditions conduce for life. Recent discoveries in microbiology and quantum mechanics uncover the importance of cellular membranes in the adaptation and evolution of organisms. Likewise, the perceptions and beliefs of the individual, organisation and ecosystem can affect their ability to sense, respond, adapt and evolve to volatility in their environment.
The more we grapple with the challenges our businesses now face in these volatile times, the more we realise that nature’s patterns and behaviours can inspire approaches for our own evolutionary success in business and beyond.
The more we build a bridge between business and nature, the more we realise what good business sense really is.
Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI), a collaborative of specialists applying ecological thinking for radical transformation, has developed a set of Business Principles for The Firm of The Future (developed from the Life Principles created by the Biomimicry Institute).
Nature’s Business Principles
It’s more effective to build resilience than to correct poor risk-based decisions that were made with partial information. A business inspired by nature builds resilience by:
• Using change and disturbance as opportunities rather than fearing them as threats.
• Decentralizing, distributing, and diversifying knowledge, resources, decision-making, and actions.
• Fostering diversity in people, relationships, ideas and approaches.
Optimising delivers better results than maximizing or minimizing. A business inspired by nature does this by:
• Creating forms that fit functions, not the other way around
• Embedding multiplicity into both functions and responses
• Creating complexity and diversity using simple components and patterns
Being adaptive pays back better than “staying a fixed course”. A business inspired by nature adapts by:
• Creating feedback loops to sense and respond at all levels of the system.
• Anticipating and integrating cyclic processes.
• Being resourceful and opportunistic when resource availability changes.
With limited resources and a changing environment, it’s better to be systems-based rather than independent. A business inspired by nature works with whole systems by:
• Fostering synergies within communities.
• Fostering synergies within energy, information and communication networks
• Creating extended systems to continuously recycle wastes into resources.
Navigate by Values
In uncertain times, it’s better to be based on a compass of values than a fixed destination point or set of pre-defined metrics. A business inspired by nature reflects values by:
• Knowing what’s really important to the communities in which it operates, interacts, and impacts.
• Using values as the core driver towards positive outcomes.
• Measuring what is valued rather than valuing what is measured.
In the long run, it takes less effort and less resource to support life-building activities than to be damaging or toxic and pick up the cost later. A business inspired by nature supports life-building activity by:
• Leveraging information and innovation rather than energy and materials
• Creating support for individual components that can support the whole ecosystem; supporting the ecosystem so that it can support the individual.
• Making products water-based, renewable, bio-based, and biodegradable.
These Business Principles build on a wide set of existing business theories and are not aimed at providing perfection in organisational design (if such would ever exist). They provide a framework to guide successful transformation towards a Firm of The Future, a business inspired by nature.
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