Oliver Balch explains key topics in academic thinking and research on sustainability
Imagine a tree that creates electricity. That’s precisely what scientists at Iowa State university did. The result is a prototype faux tree that mimics the leaves of a cottonwood tree. Each leaf is equipped with a specialised plastic, which, when blown in the wind, generates an electric charge – known as a piezoelectric effect. As the researchers reveal in a new paper on the experiment, they chose the cottonwood leaf specifically because of its vertically flattened petioles, the stalk that joins a leaf to a stem, which compel the plastic strips to flutter side-to-side, thereby concentrating energy into one oscillating mode.
Whether the invention will ever rival conventional wind turbines remains to be seen, but the paper’s title is telling: Wind Energy Conversion by Plant-Inspired Designs. Academic interest in the inspiration that plants and nature at large can offer is escalating, especially in product design circles. Think Velcro, an invention that owes its origins to the prickly burrs of the burdock plant, renowned for sticking to fur or clothing. Or consider Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train, whose inventor turned to birdlife for his inspiration, drawing specifically on a kingfisher’s aerodynamic beak for the train’s nose and on the structure of an owl’s wings to reduce noise volumes. Spider webs, which are renowned for being both lightweight and extremely strong, have inspired the development of a host of innovative new materials.
A recent report by consultancy Terrapin Bright Green, Tapping into Nature (pdf), lists more than 100 bio-inspired innovations, ranging from industries such as agriculture, building systems and textiles, through to chemical manufacturing, electronics and food manufacturing. According to the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute at California’s Point Loma Nazarene University, new products based on principles observed in nature could be worth $425bn by the end of the next decade (pdf).
The term given for this biologically inspired approach to product design is “biomimicry”. First coined by Janine Benyus, an American natural science expert and author of the 1997 classic, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, the term derives from the Greek “bios” (meaning life) and “nimesis” (imitation). The core premise is that nature is the supreme innovator, constantly adapting and evolving to meet changing circumstances and to solve enduring challenges such as energy generation, food production, climate control and transportation.
Among biomimicry’s key concepts is the idea of function, a reference to the “roles played by a living system’s unique strategies that enable it to survive”. A related concept is that of biological strategy, which relates to a “characteristic, mechanism or process that performs a function for an organism or other type of living system”. The Biomimicry Institute, a US-based education and advocacy organisation that was co-founded by Benyus, has put together a list of 15 such strategies. Titled “Life’s Principles”, they include concepts ranging from free energy and cyclical processes to resilience and cross-pollination.
As well as product design, biomimicry is becoming rapidly adopted by specialists in green chemistry, structural planning, manufacturing and architecture. Its integration into organisational theory remains nascent, however. This is perhaps unsurprising. Aspects of nature may be beautiful and inspiring when viewed in isolation, but observed as one they are frighteningly complex. Nature comprises order-within-chaos, constant evolution and a perpetual struggle of “dynamic non-equilibrium”. In short, it is tricky to copy like-for-like.
Yet biomimicry isn’t just about modelling nature in a literal sense. The concept boasts two other conceptual threads as well: “nature as measure” (namely, the use of nature as a yardstick for what is ecologically feasible, sustainable and durable); and “nature as mentor” (ie nature as a “source of ideas instead of goods”, to quote Benyus).
Six steps for companies
It is in this last guise that organisations are best-placed to become bio-inspired, drawing on natural behavioural principles in particular as a guide to effective modes of organisational adaptation and evolution. Borrowing from the Biomimicry Institute’s Life’s Principles, an interdisciplinary network of 16 specialists calling itself Biomimicry for Creative Innovation has developed a similar list of tenets for companies.
1. Build resilience See change as opportunity; distribute knowledge, resources, decision-making, and actions; and foster diversity
2. Optimise Create “forms that fit functions”, embed multiplicity into both functions and responses; use simple components and patterns to create complexity and diversity
3. Adapt Create feedback loops; integrate cyclic processes, and be opportunistic in resource-stretched situations.
4. Integrate systems Foster synergies within communities and within energy, information and communication networks; recycle waste.
5. Navigate by values Use values as the core driver towards positive outcomes; measure what is valued rather than value what is measured.
6. Support life Leverage information and innovation rather than energy and materials; make products water-based, renewable, bio-based, and biodegradable.
One of the leading thinkers about the replication of nature in business systems is the UK writer and one-time PWC sustainability consultant Giles Hutchins. Author of three books on the subject, Hutchins calls for a new norm of leadership, one that requires a recalibration of our “ontological and epistemological threshold” or, more simply, our way of being and knowing. First, leaders need to begin to see businesses as living systems, not machines. Second, leaders need to see themselves and their teams as inter-related and emergent with their organisations and stakeholder ecosystems, not as individuals operating separately.
As Hutchins states: “Rather than control-based hierarchic logic and fear-based carrot-and-stick approaches, as leaders we have the humbling responsibility to create the conditions conducive for life to flourish through empowerment, local attunement, self-management, humility, love, respect, courage and authenticity.”
If that all sounds a little whimsical and abstract, then take a break from your screen a minute and step outside. As Albert Einstein once advised: “Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.”
Janine Benyus (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Perennial, Harper Collins.
Giles Hutchins (2016). Future Fit. CreateSpace.
Fausto Tazzi & Cinzia de Rossi (2014). Biomimicry in Organizations: Drawing inspiration from nature to find new efficient, effective and sustainable ways of managing business. CreateSpace.
The Biomimicry Institute: https://biomimicry.org
Biomimicry for Creative Innovation: http://businessinspiredbynature.com
Main image credit: Hellen Grig