This is a brief introduction to the subject of biomimicry, a concept developed by Janine Benyus twenty years ago. I’m using it to prompt an upcoming discussion by a Teal business group on how self-managed businesses might draw on natural processes to improve their own, and what an OD program about biomimicry might look like.
For almost 4 billion years, 100 million species, our biological mentors on the land, in the sea and air, and even underground — have evolved chemical, technological and engineering adaptations to deal with problems critical to their survival, using abundant, natural, local materials. Biomimicry (aka biomimetics) is the study and application of these adaptations to human problems.
Here are eleven examples of biomimicry from Janine Benyus’s introductory video:
|NATURAL “PROBLEM”||NATURE’S “ANSWER”||HUMAN APPLICATIONS|
|Spiders need a means to build strong, mobile, weather-resistant homes to catch prey||At room temperature and low pressure, spiders have evolved a self-manufactured fibre that is 5x stronger than steel||A wide range of engineering and textile applications|
|Abalone need to build shells that are tough enough to withstand abrasive sand||Abalone “paint” their shells with proteins that form ionized crystals in an iridescent mother of pearl finish that is twice as tough as ceramics||No-kiln ceramics;
Sea-water-and-protein based “manufacturing”
|Plants need to create strong fibres to withstand the elements, and pests||Nature converts CO2 to cellulose and other strong and flexible “building materials” that are then used to build wood, shells, coral and other structures||Captured CO2 and methane is being used to make biodegradable plastics and packaging materials and even strong, lightweight furniture. And sequestered CO2 and seawater are being used to make low-emission concrete|
|Insects need to convey information and instructions collectively to achieve shared purposes||Insects use sophisticated “hive” communications physics and chemistry to convey precise information and instructions||Algorithms based on insect communications are being used in “smart” buildings to enable multiple sensors to minimize energy use|
|Fish need to conserve energy when swimming long distances in “schools”||Fish have evolved “eddying” motions of their tail fins that draw in the fish swimming behind them (birds in flocks use similar “energy-saving” techniques||These motions are now being used in wind farms so that each vertical rotor amplifies the movement of nearby rotors, increasing efficiency by a factor of 10 with less land use|
|Desert creatures need to find ways to collect scarce water||Pointy structures on some desert creatures’ wings act to condense water out of fog||Fog catching nets in agriculture; surfaces on the inside of water bottles that condense humidity and self-fill the bottle|
|Ocean fish cells need fresh water to survive||Fish membranes (like those in our kidneys and red blood cells) are natural desalinators, using a combination of a unique surface shape and ionization that attracts and produces pure H2O||“Forward osmosis” desalination plants mimic this natural process to desalinate 10x more effectively than traditional plants|
|Some plants need to survive in extreme heat and drought conditions||Synergistic fungus in the roots of these plants trap moisture and keep out heat||Fungus-inoculated rice seeds produce 5x the amount of rice with ½ the water|
|Some flying creatures need colour to attract mates but can’t “afford” the weight of pigments||Hummingbirds, butterflies and peacocks are ‘naturally’ all brown; it is light refraction depending on the angles of the wing molecules that produce the profusion of apparent colour, not pigment||“Structural colour” (surface refraction colour) is 4x brighter than pigment colour and never fades; used in aerospace ‘paints’ and un-counterfeit-able currencies, may soon be used on cars|
|Leaves need to stay ‘clean’ to be able to photosynthesize||Lotus leaves have tiny waxy ‘bumps’ that cause rainwater droplets to ‘ball up’ and slide down off the leaves, taking dirt particles with them||“Lotus effect” fabrics, roofing tiles and exterior paints that never need cleaning|
|Some slow-moving sea creatures need protection against hostile bacteria||Some sharks have evolved a surface skin shaped with tiny sharp ridges that bacteria cannot adhere to, and body chemistry that repels bacteria||Some door knobs and hospital surfaces now use a thin-film anti-microbial coating similar to sharkskin; some hospital fabrics use threads with ‘natural’ metals that repel bacteria|
There are lots of other examples. Airplane shape, wings and tails. Structure of skulls of birds used to design strong, lightweight materials. Velcro, based on burrs, and other non-chemical adhesives based on geckos’ feet (pictured above). Bullet trains and boxy cars modelled on bird and fish body aerodynamics. Beehives inspiring hexagonal structures. Mosquitos inspiring new hypodermic designs. Sonar. Mycorrhizal (plant/fungus) associations for information gathering and communication. Bird and bee navigation. Did you know swimsuits with textiles that mimic the low-friction surfaces of sharkskin are actually banned from professional swimming competitions?
The above are mostly product examples. Biomimicry can also be used to draw on natural solutions to improve services and organizational processes. For example, some creatures, particularly females, instinctively make sounds of a type and pitch that has a calming effect on babies and even peers in stressful situations. Much study is being made of bird and bee navigation systems, and pheromones that have profound effects on behaviour of many creatures of the same species, and even on their predators and prey.
In biomimicry, the question to ask is always: How does nature deal with this problem?
One of the problems we face when trying to apply biomimicry beyond the mysterious physical/structural, chemical and technological ways nature solves problems, is anthropomorphizing. Particularly when we look at animal behaviour, we expect and look for animals to behave the way we do, and ascribe human-like causes to their behaviour.
So, for example, we are prone to saying that wild animals live in strict hierarchies, with the “alphas” dominating the rest, when closer study shows this is rare: the leaders of most animal groups are selected by the groups themselves, and leadership changes often and generally entails more work and hardship than benefits. We ascribe individualistic, “selfish” behaviours and conflicts to wild creatures when most of their behaviours are collective and done for the benefit of the whole group. We imagine wild creatures living perilous, anxious “dog eat dog” lives “red in teeth and claw”, when the natural state of most wild creatures varies between equanimity and enthusiasm, with the fight/flight/ freeze moments being extremely rare. We love to say that many animals “mate for life” when very few actually do.
But if we can get past the anthropomorphizing, there’s lots to learn about how animals live and ‘work’ together, collaboratively and cooperatively. The first thing to witness is their capacity for paying attention. They learn by watching others — what foods their parents eat and which they avoid, how to do just about anything more effectively, and even how to overcome those annoying squirrel baffles. They use workarounds and adaptations to adjust their behaviours to better suit their current environment and situation, instead of brute force trying to change the environment and situation to suit them.
Workarounds are, in fact, the way most human activity in larger workplaces actually gets done. So a computer system that, in the interest of top down command and control, blocks the front-line service person from doing what needs to be done to reasonably satisfy the customer (be that a refund, price reduction, replacement or credit), is preventing the precise workarounds that are essential to customer satisfaction. In a healthy workplace, everyone is free and empowered to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy, even if that means tossing out the SOP manual. Block the workarounds and not only is the customer enraged, the employee’s morale is battered as well. Everyone loses, just because the system is inflexible.
We can use a process called “cultural anthropology” to just watch and notice where the “wear patterns”, awkward (and sometimes ingenious) workarounds, and other signs of dysfunction and adaptation are, and then institute processes to unclog the former and enable and encourage the latter.
There’s lots of other lessons to learn from studying wild animal behaviour as well. The only limits on our capacity to improve our organizations’ processes to everyone’s benefit, are our attention, our imagination, and a willingness to let go of (illusory) control and let the principles of self-organization, curiosity, and trust that everyone’s doing their best, determine what gets done and how. But few organizations (especially large ones) are willing to do so. Far too many have bought the propaganda of patriarchy, coercion, control, competition and rigidity. Nature knows better.