December 20, 2015

What is Biomimicry?

I’ve been immersed in biomimicry for four months. My experiences in New York City and South Africa this fall have confirmed that biomimicry—as a practice and discipline—is emerging and diverse. The undercurrent of my year is to explore the field and start to understand how I might add value alongside those working in this emerging field. Here is a round-up of some of the patterns I’ve seen so far—elements that I imagine might also be true of other emerging fields in technology, design, and science.

Who’s out there in the world of biomimicry?

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of biomimicry is the deep interdisciplinary nature of the work. Inherent to the this practice is bringing together technical and non-technical professionals alike. The success of any given project depends on the collaboration of biologists, ecologists, designers, artists, and experts in business. This diversity of talent and skill is something that initially drew me to the field. Now that I’ve been at the table and have seen how well this combination of talent works together, I better understand how powerful it is.

On a bigger scale, biomimicry is applied across dozens of industries from advanced materials to water treatment. Interface has looked to the forest floor to design and manufacture entirely more interesting and sustainable carpet, Ecovative uses mushroom material instead of styrofoam to pad goods, PAX Scientific has emulated nature’s spirals to completely reimagine fan and propeller efficiency, and The Land Institute is exploring how farms can function like prairies. There are even investment companies like Startup Nectar that focus on commercializing biomimetic technologies. These few examples are only a few of hundreds of biologically innovative organizations.

What are the boundaries of biomimicry?

The wide spectrum of people and organizations who draw on biomimicry in their work create a wide variety of definitions in the field. The essence of biomimicry is to gather information and inspiration from nature’s strategies so that we can design more eloquent and sustainable human-centered products, processes, and systems. But I’ve found that learning about how plants and animals function and thrive is only the beginning of how the field operates.

I’ve come to accept a broad, encompassing view of all the things that I would include in the term biomimicry. Some of the disciplines that I think fall under the biomimicry umbrella, or at least deeply intersect, include bio-inspired innovation, bionics, geomimicry, ecological resilience, ecological restoration, agroforestry, polyculture, as well as good old-fashioned biology and ecology. Many of these disciplines and phrases were unknown to me just weeks ago. I'm now beginning to learn some of the nuances of each.

How are biomimicry professionals spending their days?

My most meaningful finding is that working in biomimicry is not synonymous with spending a lot of time outside. Anecdotally, there are definitely those who have found ways to carve out meaningful outdoor work, but they appear to be largely in the minority. Many people working in biomimicry work like the rest of us—around conference room tables, research labs, and at their computers.

This was surprising to me, and, on the surface, a little counter-intuitive. What I’ve found is that people working in biomimicry are enthusiastic outdoor lovers. However, most economically viable business models keep biomimicry practitioners indoors in front of their screens.

On day one of my study, I would have said that doing meaningful work outside was a cornerstone of biomimicry. Four months later I have a different perspective, and I’m motivated to explore how this could change. The arc of my year at Ei continues to evolve, but I’m interested in testing this hypothesis: optimizing time in inspiring environments (for me, the outdoors) is an economically viable way to discover and apply connections and deep patterns found in nature.

One of the most inspiring parts of this experiment is finding relevance beyond the field of biomimicry. The thought of creating a path that connects more creative people to the outdoors is a compelling one. I'm excited to see where this path will lead.

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