Bio-inspiration: from knowledge to solutions

BioCultivator diagram: a vegetable cultivation system for urban dwellers © Miroslav Chovan and Zuzana Tončíková

The Biomimicry Institute, an American NGO, was founded in 2006 by the biologist Janine Benyus, one of the first people to coin the term “biomimicry”, and by the social entrepreneur Bryony Schwan. The Institute aims to promote bio-inspiration as a tool for the production of sustainable goods and services.

The NGO, which primarily targets innovators (entrepreneurs, designers, etc.) and teachers (researchers, professors, etc.) and is also backed by a consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8*, which delivers training and support programmes to promote the inclusion of the living world in the creation of value. SUEZ met the biologist Megan Schuknecht, Director of the “Design Challenges” at the Biomimicry Institute.

 

How do you promote biomimicry to audiences of innovators and entrepreneurs?

First, we encourage all our audiences to look at how biology can shape design. The ultimate goal is to encourage the development of bio-inspired solutions that address the major issues related to sustainable development.

Our programmes focus on education and entrepreneurship. We offer courses or training for school and university students and teachers in the fields of design, science, technology, creativity and project design methods. Finally, we created “Youth and Global Design Challenges” that reward sustainable initiatives inspired by nature. We also support start-ups through a “Launchpad”, which is the only start-up accelerator in the world that promotes the marketing of biomimetic or bio-inspired solutions. Our AskNature web portal helps everyone intuitively gain access to knowledge of biology by offering a library of biological “strategies” organised by function, ideas for inspiration and teaching materials. So we have multiple impacts. Our efforts have given birth to around 30 local networks over the world, plus a network of several thousand teachers who have incorporated biomimicry in their courses.

Our design challenges and our incubation programme have supported or led to the creation of numerous companies. Examples include Biofractal, a consulting firm in bio-inspiration in Mexico, and New York-based Nexloop, which designs biomimetic systems that capture water in the atmosphere for urban agriculture. But also Mangrove Still and BioCultivator, two teams taking part in a large-scale project in Greece to create a sustainable closed-loop community water system.

 

How do these “Design Challenges” help your initiative and what types of solutions do they develop?

They serve two purposes: to offer the teams of students and professionals who enter this annual contest an opportunity to learn free of charge, and to provide a terrain that is conducive to the launch of biomimetic solutions on the market.

One of the most creative solutions I have seen so far is the Air Ballast freighter, which reinvents the management of ballast water that ships release to remain stable, in order to reduce the transportation of non-indigenous species1, a major ecological disaster for the marine world. This ship design uses air for ballast, instead of water. The team developed the solution by observing how aquatic organisms remain buoyant by regulating the quantity of air in their different internal compartments, without using any water. They imitated this type of strategy by designing a series of inflatable compartments attached to the hull of a ship in order to maintain its buoyancy.

 

The Mangrove Still project, which draws its inspiration from salt marshes and mangroves swamp to produce fresh water © Emma Charalambou

How is biomimicry spreading today? Has is extended beyond the world of design?

Today, we can no longer keep up with all the networks of players and the university courses dedicated to biomimicry! The European Biomimicry Centre of Excellence. (CEEBIOS) in Senlis, France, Biokon in Germany, Biomimicry NL in the Netherlands, Bioversum in Austria, Akron University in the United States and many more are all working to promote sustainable innovation initiatives inspired by the living world. To begin with, the work was commissioned by architects, designers, biologists and, occasionally, entrepreneurs. But biomimicry has broken into many new disciplines in recent years and this trend should continue. It will become more academic and scientific, and will be used by economic players in a more rigorous manner.

We can even look forward to the deployment of numerous tools that will make for easier access to knowledge in the field of biology. The technologies developed by research laboratories will multiply. In the field of engineering, there is a huge potential in the material sciences, energy and water management. Nature also has many lessons to teach us about carbon sequestration and utilising abundant resources to manufacture goods. Blue Planet Ltd., for example, uses abundant CO2 as a raw material—much as corals and other cementitious organisms do—for making carbonate rock for cement, sequestering carbon in the process. In view of the current and imminent impacts of climate change, it is imperative to continue learning from nature how to store carbon and utilise waste or atmospheric carbon as a building block.

 

* Biomimicry 3.8 is the world’s leading bio-inspired consultancy. The consulting firm works with diverse audience: engineers, business leaders, architects.

1Species that are introduced into waters where they did not previously exist, in this case by discharging the untreated ballast water.

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This article was published in the sixth issue of open_resource magazine : “Towards a bio-inspired future

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