Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part Two)

Janine Benyus TreeHugger image

How does an electric eel generate electricity without frying itself? How does a tree move water hundreds of feet up without pumps? If we quiet human cleverness and follow nature's lead, says Janine Benyus, we see that most of our challenges have already been solved. Ask Benyus how to be a better biomimic. Two words: get outside!

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download, or read the text version of this interview after the jump.

For part one, click here.TreeHugger: Let's talk about the core principles of biomimicry. What underpins this approach to design?

Benyus: Well, it's really looking to nature for advice. It's learning from, not just about the natural world. It's literally when you have a design problem saying OK, what in the natural world has already solved what I'm trying to solve? The questions are: what would nature do here?

And the locality is important; life adjusts its technologies for a place. What would nature do here is the question you ask. We're working with HOK Architecture, a big architecture and engineering firm, and what we do with them we take the architects out to the site where they're going to build. We find a native ecosystem and say, what would the native ecosystem be doing there?

We look at the organisms and we say, "Look, you're in Phoenix and here's a barrel cactus. Look at that pleating, that's allowing the cactus to shade itself. And to play with wind in certain ways so it creates micro-habitat and it doesn't lose a lot of moisture."

Then, the architect might say, "OK, well what if we were to pleat the skin of our building to be self shading in the same way?" So it's a question of what would nature do here in a very particular way. We say let's go out and see what nature's already doing here and have that inform our design.

The second question is what wouldn't nature do here? Maybe dancing fountains in Las Vegas might be what nature wouldn't do here. Nature-as-measure is pretty important in helping us judge the rightness of our innovation. If you don't see a lot of transgenic engineering—the moving of genes from one class of animals, like fish, into another class of animals, like plants or strawberries—if you don't see that in the natural world, that's probably a sign.

Nature as mentor is the third one. You ask: "what would nature do here, what wouldn't nature do here, why and why not? That's the level at which you start to understand life's principles in general. And you figure out how to live here as a carbon-based life form on this Earth. You learn the ropes. So that's the basis of it. It's learning from rather than just about these organisms.

TreeHugger: How does this differentiate biomimicry from the other bios?

Benyus: It's emulating life's ideas rather than extracting, harvesting, or domesticating an organism. And there's a really big difference here. If you look at the other bios, you can break it up into other ways we've related to the natural world.

You can look at bio-utilization. People say to me, "I have a cork floor, I'm doing biomimicry." Well, no. A cork floor is not biomimicry, that's bio-utilization. It's harvesting of a natural product. That's not biomimicry. There's a sustainable way you can harvest it and an unsustainable way you can harvest it. It's not that it's good or bad. You can do that in a great sustainable way.

The second bio is bio-assisted, and this is the domestication. This is where we have asked organisms to help us do whatever we do. We have a cow in the field to help us get milk. Or we use bacteria to help us clean waste water. Or we use yeast to make bread. That's bio-assisted.

That technology, that domestication technology, has been going on for 10,000 years as well. Some of it's real sustainable, natural breeding, and some of it I would argue is unsustainable, like transgenic engineering.

The third is biomimicry, which is when you are actually borrowing an idea, a blueprint or a recipe. In bio-utilization you go out and you acquire the product. In bio-assisted you domesticate the producer. But in biomimicry, you actually emulate the producer. You become the producer.

For instance, the mother of pearl on the inside of an abalone. It is incredibly tough, twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics. Yet it is made in room temperature, in sea water, basically. It is in sea water temperature.

People study that and say how can we make a strong ceramic like that, a tough ceramic without an oven? If you were doing bio-utilization you would just harvest the abalone. Crack its shell and use it. If you were doing bio-assisted you would farm the abalone. But if you are doing biomimicry you would actually try to create a ceramic using the recipe of the abalone and using the design blueprints of the abalone.
The abalone stays in the ocean. You can see, it's really different. Interestingly, I have been working with IUCM. Those are the people who do the red list, every year, of endangered species at the United Nations' environment program. What they are talking about now is rewriting the asset and benefit sharing, or bio-piracy, protocols.
For COP 10, in December 2010, they will come up with a new list of these protocols. Interestingly, because biomimicry is not extractive—it's not going and getting a plant from the jungle—there is a whole new set of legal precedent that has to be set.

How do we avoid bio-piracy when you are talking about going into an area and learning something from the organisms that live there? How do you give back? It is something new for us.

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