Biologically inspired innovation

In general, the biologically inspired innovation process is to identify a particular need or design problem, for example, ‘how can we create an effective non-toxic adhesive?’ and then to identify a biological analogy to learn from and be inspired by — to follow the example: a species that manages to stick itself to a surface in an effective way. The common or blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) manages to ‘glue’ itself to rocks in the intertidal zone where it is exposed to strong wave and current forces.

Blue Mussle (Image Source)

Once we have identified a promising biological model, we study it in detail and explore what patterns, principles or processes can be emulated and abstracted to inform possible ideas on how to apply what we have learnt to our design challenge. The biological model can inspire innovation at different levels: either at the level of chemistry, form and function, process and pattern, or systemic integrations and synergies. At each of these levels we can find a series of biologically inspired design solutions. These are then applied to our prototype designs, tested, evaluated, and (if necessary) redesigned and optimized, until we reach a design solution that we are satisfied with.

PureBond formaldehyde free plywood panels by Columbia Forest Products (Image Source)

In our mussel example, Dr. Kaichang Li, from Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, found that the blue mussel’s ‘byssal threads’ are made of a special protein that acts as a very strong and at the same time flexible glue. Funded by Columbia Forest Products, Li applied biomimicry thinking and eventually managed to create a new kind of adhesive resin by modifying soy proteins to function in a similar way to the byssal threads of mussels. The biomimetic invention led to a way to create urea formaldehyde-free plywood panels, which in turn help to reduce the build-up of toxins in indoor environments where these products are used (Columbia Forest Products, 2014).

Globally, we are at the cusp of a biologically inspired transformation of how we do business and innovate. In The Shark’s Paintbrush — Biomimicry and how nature is inspiring innovation, serial entrepreneur and inventor Jay Harman (2013) shows how bio-inspired design is already transforming industry. The book offers hope for anyone still doubting that we are capable of co-creating regenerative cultures.

Jay Harman and Pax Scientific are the inventors of the Lilly Impeller and many other technological innovations inspired by biological form and flow in nature (Image Source)

Jay, the founder of Pax Scientific, has built-up, worked with and studied a number of different biomimetic businesses. He suggests that some of their defining characteristics are that they are built on transdisciplinary collaboration involving biologists, engineers and designers as well as entrepreneurs. He stresses that this creates a certain need for translation between the languages and perspectives of these different disciplines.

“Bio-inspired solutions usually represent not just an incremental change to an existing technology but also a total rethink of how to solve a problem.”

— Jay Harman, 2013: 219

Culture change takes time. Ground-breaking new technologies usually take at least 15 years to break into markets and replace established ways of doing things, but the transition towards bio-inspired technologies is already gaining speed. The numbers of registered innovations, publications on biomimicry and the amount of investment in biomimetic technologies have been growing rapidly over the last ten years (p.22). “Bio-inspired products already have generated billions of dollars in sales” (p.20).

A 2010 study predicted that, by 2025, biomimicry-based technologies and businesses could turnover a trillion US dollars (San Diego Zoo, 2010: 33). Many ethical investors are keen to invest in this growing sector (Katherine Collins, 2014). This shift in investment flows away from degenerative and towards regenerative investments actively contributes to the transition towards the “solar age” (Henderson, 2014) and the spread of regenerative culture. Ethical Biomimicry Finance offers support to such investors.

Major foundations in the USA and elsewhere are moving their investments out of fossil fuel sectors and into renewable energy, resilience building and innovation in biomimicry and green chemistry. When the heirs of an oil tycoon like John D. Rockefeller move their $870 million fund out of oil and gas investments, the writing is on the wall.

Tim Dickinson reported in a Rolling Stone article that “as climate-change activists pressure public institutions to dump their fossil-fuel investments, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do” (Dickinson, 2015). We are learning! Biomimetic innovation stands to benefit from this.

Biomimetic innovators aiming to bring transformative innovations and designs to existing markets will often hit the wall of first horizon management. H1 management is concerned with keeping the existing business going and biomimetic innovation tends to be disruptive innovation.

It is also important to recognize that not all biomimetic innovation is necessarily sustainable. There is a lot of bio-inspired design advancing weapons and military technology. This is a clear example of disruptive innovation being captured by Horizon 1.

Yet, by and large, biomimetic innovations have the inherent potential to be H2+ innovations helping us build a bridge towards cultural transformation and systemic biomimicry, towards the third horizon of a regenerative culture.

“Biomimicry lays the groundwork for future profitability and by providing solutions that don’t create new problems; it offers something that short-term, cost saving solutions can’t.”

— Jay Harman, 2013: 231

Jay Harman knows from his own experience that “bio-inspired business needs to be prepared for the long haul” (p.233), yet it has an important advantage.

“Biomimicry offers the ultimate in performance — which industry is increasingly recognizing.”

— Jay Harman (p.247)

The team at Biomimicry 3.8 describes three levels of biomimicry: learning from nature’s patterns; learning from nature’s processes; and learning from nature at the level of ecosystems. Each of these different levels can be applied to different scales of biologically inspired design.

As I already mentioned, one of the great transitions of the 21st century will be the shift towards a solar chemistry inspired by the way that life creates effective chemical compounds based on renewable energy and material resources. ‘Green chemistry’ and biologically inspired material science are important foundations of design for regenerative cultures.

Other scales of design to which we can apply biomimicry thinking are: product design, architecture, community design, industrial ecology, urban planning, and bioregionally centred circular economies. Figure 10 illustrates the different scales of design and how different design approaches reach across these scales in an attempt to connect them in a scale-linking manner. Let’s explore some examples at these different scales of design in more detail.

Firgure 10: The scales of regenerative design and innovation (From ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ by Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl)

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

Zygote Quarterly is a publication focussed on biologically inspired design and innovation. Here is and interview with Daniel Christian Wahl from ZQ17, 2016

Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as a consultant and educator in regenerative development, whole systems design, and transformative innovation. He holds degrees in biology (Univ. of Edinburgh / Univ. of California) and Holistic Science (Schumacher College) and his 2006 doctoral thesis (Univ. of Dundee) was on Design for Human and Planetary Health. He was director of Findhorn College between 2007 and 2010, and is a member of the International Futures Forum, a fellow of the RSA, a Findhorn Foundation Fellow and on the advisory council of the Ojai Foundation and the Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation. Daniel’s clients have included UNITAR (with CIFAL Scotland), UK Foresight (with Decision Integrity Ltd), Ecover (with Forum for the Future), Bioneers (with the Progressio Foundation, and with the Findhorn Foundation), the Dubai Futures Foundation (with Tellart), The Commonwealth Secretariat (with Cloudburst Foundation), Gaia Education, the Global Ecovillage Network, the State of the World Forum, Balears.t, Camper, LUSH and many educational NGOs, universities, and design schools. He is co-founder of Biomimicry Iberia (2012), and has been collaborating with ‘SmartUIB’ at the University of the Balearic Islands since 2014, and works part-time as Gaia Education’s ‘Head of Design & Innovation’ since 2015. His recent book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in the UK in May 2016, has already gained international acclaim, and his blog on Medium has a large international readership.


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