Biomimicry: How Business Learns From Nature

A new interview with Janine Benyus
Oct 14, 2015 9:10 AM ET

Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimcry 3.8 interviewed by Katherine Collins, founder of Honeybee Capital

What does biomimicry have to do with Green Money? Well, everything. Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of nature’s wisdom, a methodology that is based not on harvesting nature but on learning from nature. This approach is beginning to shape our cities, our companies, and our social sphere, and has profound implications for investing and for life.

Katherine:  Janine, there is greater recognition of nature’s wisdom these days, and there are a number of “bio” approaches. What makes biomimicry such a unique framework?

Janine:  It’s true, there are a lot of “bio’s”. There’s bio-utilization, using natural products, which is a form of harvesting nature. And there’s bio-assisted technology, where we combine biological and technological products, which is a form of domesticating nature. Biomimicry is different in that it looks at the ideas from the natural world and tries to mimic its wisdom. Rather than harvesting an organism or domesticating it, you’re emulating it.

Biomimicry is not a fleet of products; it’s an approach to problem solving, a kind of scientific method. It’s a way of looking at the world through this lens of nature’s ideas, tested over 3.8 billion years, and applying those lessons and principles to our own innovations.

Katherine:  This approach seems unusual in that it gets beyond a product-oriented mindset. It focuses on the “how” beyond the “what.”

Janine:  Yes, you can find a technical innovation, but then what about the creation of that innovation, the distribution, the selling, the packaging, the manufacturing, the recovery and recycling? All of those processes should meet the principles that govern life on earth. We try to find systems of solutions, not just individual solutions.

Katherine:  There seems to be a big shift in thinking underway, from silos to systems. Do you find you’re getting different questions from partners, or working with different partners than before?

Janine:  Absolutely, systems literacy is up, and that means the partners and clients are shifting. Gatherings like Bioneers have made a real difference: it’s still rare to go to a conference where you have indigenous people talking to agricultural people talking to water systems people. These conversations where the whole system is in the room, like at Bioneers, are essential. They connect and extend the questions to a systems level.

For example, if we’re looking at an entire community rather than a building, we’re talking with developers or municipalities, rather than individual architects. In fact we often see all three working together now. For example, we’re working with one developer where the project has a big impact on a nearby estuary. At first they said, “we don’t own the estuary,” but as we assessed the outcomes of their project the links were clear. So we started asking, if you benefit the estuary and then you look at climate forecasts, a healthy estuary provides big benefits in flood attenuation, and increases the value of your own property. There are cost savings that come along and we also reduce the risk of the project – this flipped the estuary question from a liability to an asset.

What this shift to systems thinking means is that increasingly we’ll be helping the helpers. It’s the understanding of the complexity of organisms. You can’t improve a plant! Are you kidding? All you can do is create conditions conducive to the helpers. The same is true for communities. How can we help the helpers?

It’s a very simple but powerful idea: life makes more of what works. So if you start focusing on the good things, you make more of them, and then you have a solid framework for what “good” means, and it can adapt over time. Our job in biomimicry is to make sure that people understand that true success has to look like ecological health.

Katherine:  What’s an example of the systems-level ideas you’re working with now?

Janine:  Our cities work is a beautiful example of this, because we’ve been brought in to do biomimetic solutions at the building scale. And you can do that piece by piece, finding a building skin that cleans itself or photosynthesis-inspired solar cells. But what we find even more useful is to see that building as a system and to look at collections of technologies that work together. For instance, think of the water cycle for a building. You could harvest water with biomimetic shapes that enable fog harvesting. You could use green roofs that mimic ecosystems.

Then when you expand this idea to the city level you can look at nature as measure, asking questions like, “what if this city functioned like the forest next door?” This leads us to measures like ecosystem services, instead of single-point outcomes. And ecosystem services – things like cleaning water, storing carbon, supporting pollinators – are measurable. So you have clear performance standards for buildings and cities. Plus, those metrics are multi-functional, so when you start looking for a way to clean water with wetlands near a building, you’re also preserving biodiversity and increasing pollinators and providing recreation and spiritual space. You protect the green that’s left, you restore what’s been damaged, and you mimic nature in your built environment.

The same questions translate to a company level. For example, Interface is looking for the next goal for the company, because right now the goal is “mission zero”. Zero waste. What about “mission generous”? Can we produce net positive impacts? Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, said to me early on, “I want my company to function like a forest.” We can begin to address that question now.

Read the full interview here- 

Cliff Feigenbaum, founder and managing editor
GreenMoney Journal and
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