One of the more interesting ideas I’ve run across recently is that of biomimicry. The basic concept is that the best way to find sustainable innovative ideas is to mimic natural processes as much as possible. There are a wide range of r&d projects going on in this field at the moment, like trying to make solar power cells that actually photosynthesise.

There’s a nice brief intro to the idea here at, which includes an interview with Janine Benyus. She’s the writer that has done the most systematic thinking about this idea, and she’s also the president of the Biomimicry Institute.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely innovation that takes time into account, so in that respect it’s good. Overall, I think it’s a pretty interesting concept, and worth checking out in more depth…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “biomimicry

  1. Tim,

    Biomimcry is an intriguing avenue for innovation. But I think that there are some important differences between natural processes and socio-technological process that need to be resolved somehow.
    First, a conceptual worry: Take my (admittedly naive) view of innovation. Innovation is the activity of solving existing problems in new ways (by way of inventing, borrowing or adapting solutions.) And contrast this with (my admittedly naive view of) what Nature does. Nature does not solve problems; in Nature there are only processes of natural selection and some sort of competition between agents for limited resources. For example, Nature does not adapt “solutions” from one environment to another (Nature is no sentient). Rather, we call such things convergent evolutions, divergent evolutions, and so on.

    If this is correct then Biomimcry is not a searching the natural environment for a solution to some socio-technological problem. Biomimcry is, itself, *a solution* of the problem (that takes its cue from Nature.) It is a solution among many and its merits need to be justified by showing that it is somehow more effective or more efficient than other solutions.

    But that’s where we can find trouble. Nature’s “solutions” are neither more effective nor efficient than other solutions (at least not necessarily so). Contrary to popular belief, survival is often not of the fittest but of the merely adequate. Many natural “solutions” far more complex and inefficient than necessary. (Indeed, every now and then, Humans give Nature’s products a push to be more effective and/or efficient)

    I think that Nature’s products as a category of potential solutions for our socio-technological problems is a valid and long overdue move (as long as we do not fall into Nature worship.) What is far more appealing about Nature, though, is that it is a fully integrated autonomous invention system.

    Now, if we can mimic that, we will be set.

  2. I think all of that is generally true Marco. And I definitely agree about survival of the adequate – that’s a really important point that too few people understand.

    On the other hand, I think that the promise of biomimicry isn’t necessarily that natural solutions are inherently better (though in a lot of cases they are – e.g. it would be great to have a rope with the tensile strength of your average spider web…), but that they’re likely to be more sustainable. At least a bit more likely.

  3. Tim,

    I also would like to add that Nature’s way of inventing is limited to those products that afford gradual improvements over time. This is why Bats, for example, developed radars (echolocation) but not radio transmission.

    I am not entirely sure, though, what you mean by sustainable solutions, Tim.

    Do you mean that the products of Biomimicry are themselves more likely to be eco-friendly? or that Biomimicry is a sustainable innovation process?

    I suspect you intend the former. But I am not sure that eco-friendliness is guaranteed. If we discover a way to make ropes out of spiderwebs, then we can expect the arachnid population to be decimated by the pressure of mass exploitation. (Compare, for instance, with the detrimental effect that biofuels have on farmed land.)

    If the latter, then yes; Nature is a great and potentially sustainable source of innovative solutions. But, again, these solutions are bounded by Nature’s creative and technical limitations.

    Perhaps you care to elaborate?

  4. I was meaning more the latter Marco.

    The rope example is one where they are not trying to anything that uses spider webs, they’re just trying to reproduce the process. So in this case, a successful biomimic solution will replicate the natural process (and outcome). Although you’re right – that’s not by definition sustainable. One of the things that they seem to find in a lot of these cases is that they can end up mimicing particular processes, but the solutions don’t scale. That appears to be the current big problem with this line of research…

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