Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts: Janine Benyus

The woman who launched the discipline of biomimicry offers advice for applying “life’s best practices” to our work.

By Amy Nelson

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Founder, Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  In Biomimicry, she names an emerging discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs and processes (for instance, solar cells that mimic leaves). Since the book’s 1997 release, Janine has evolved the practice of biomimicry, consulting with sustainable businesses and conducting seminars about what we can learn from the genius that surrounds us. Over the past 14 years, the Biomimicry Guild and the Biomimicry Institute have developed the practice of nature-inspired innovation and introduced it to the world. They have reached hundreds of thousands through TED talks, feature films and documentaries, and media such as Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Fortune and Wired.  They started the world’s first bio-inspired consultancy, bringing nature’s ideas to the design table and board room of 250+ companies including Nike, HOK, GE Procter and Gamble, Levi’s and General Mills. In 2011, they combined staffs and administration services into a single entity, Biomimicry 3.8.

Biomimicry 3.8 has identified six major “Life’s Principles.” Can you talk us through some of them and provide examples of their application to the planning or design of a site, community, or region?

Life’s Principles are basically life’s best practices. As scientists, we asked, “What do all organisms have in common, whether they are bacteria, fungi, plants, or animals?” While there is an incredible amount of diversity in the natural world among 30 million species, there is some unity in that diversity, and this set of instructions [which answer to that question] is it.

When used together, these instructions help you keep the system in the room when you are making decisions. We use them as a scoping tool before we even start the project. We use them during a project, and we use them as an evaluation tool. You can pick and choose but then you’re not truly being biomimetic. Embedding all of these characteristics allows you to “roll.” If you know about dynamic equilibrium, the steady state is not flat; it’s a bowl, and it’s always moving and shifting. As a ball, you can roll around to different states.

There are six major principles, and beneath each one is a whole list of how to achieve it.

Adapt to changing conditions.

Here we mean within an organism’s lifetime. Conditions are always changing, and you don’t always have a chance to evolve to the next generation. You have to adapt your behaviors right there and then, and this is what enables you to be resilient.

One way to do this is to incorporate diversity and not rely on monocultures of anything. The more diverse an ecosystem, the more robust and resilient it will be to disturbance. In the natural world, resilience means you recover from a disturbance with your essential function intact, and diversity helps organisms do that. There are two types of diversity: functional and response. Functional diversity is when you keep a number of different kinds of jobs in an ecosystem. In a meadow, for example, you have nitrogen fixers, some species that are good in springtime, some good in fall, etc. This is of great importance to cities right now.

For a city, this means not being dependent on one industry, but instead having local, very fine-grained diversity in the services and employment opportunities it offers its community. Response diversity means having a deep bench in all [of an ecosystem’s] functions. So in that meadow, there are enough different kinds of nitrogen fixers that, even if it’s a dry year and some can’t perform well, there are still nitrogen fixers. In planning a city, you don’t say, “We’re going to have one park and that’s our source of recreation” because if something happens to that park, like a flooding event, you don’t have a backup. Redundancy is a good thing in the natural world.

Another way of adapting to changing conditions is maintaining integrity through self-renewal. This means building in an adaptive management loop and constantly using feedback.

Say you’re going to try to create an eco-block in a neighborhood. You try it, and you have to be willing to redo the parts that aren’t working. You don’t make decisions once and for all. This can be hard in cities, where you’re putting in things like infrastructure.

Think about transportation. If you look at the natural world, some of the best transportation network engineers are slime molds. They fan out over the forest floor looking for food. They create a very efficient, single-bodied mesh-like network. It makes a transportation network exactly where it needs it, and it continuously prunes away parts that become unnecessary. So in our eco-block, we may try different subway routes, for example, but we will keep changing them until we meet that efficiency or robustness to resilience.

Becoming a resilient city also means putting in place policies and physical structures that allow you to respond to an incredible drought or flooding. An example would be to put in permeable pavement, green roofs, and all kinds of eco-structure to absorb enough rainfall during the heavy times and be able to use that water to get you through very dry times. You become more able to absorb shocks without disrupting the function.

Decentralization is another factor in resilience. Centralized facilities are brittle. If we have only one sewage treatment plant and it breaks down, we’re in trouble. When we depend on just the sewer system to take in water, we wind up with 700 cities in the U.S. discharging sewage to the oceans and rivers because they are overloaded. That’s what happens when you have centralized systems, rather than neighborhood-scale or building-scale systems.

Be locally attuned and responsive.

Organisms are well aware of the opportunities and limits in their habitats. They’re very opportunistic about the opportunities and very realistic about the limits. They are locally realistic. Being locally self-reliant is one of the most biomimetic things we can do. This means looking around and asking, “In this bioregion, what are we most uniquely suited to do for ourselves and to offer the world?” and then beginning to specialize in that.

We’re starting to do this with LEED. We are trying to build with local raw materials, but…we may be producing a lot of CO2 from power plants in our region. CO2 is actually a resource. Companies like Calera take CO2 and sea water and turn it into concrete. Looking at waste streams as a resource is unusual in a global trading economy. We need to focus on what we can produce locally and then surplus trade very carefully with people who cannot produce what we produce. What will possibly enable this is the move to bring manufacturing back into cities, especially with 3-D printing.

Biomimicry can really influence 3-D printing to the extent that life’s material palette is very small. There are five polymers that life uses all the time. What life does is add design to those materials. For example, when Chitin, which is not a very strong material, is laid up in a plywood hatch the way it is in the exoskeleton of a beetle, it becomes very strong. In a different design it becomes breathable; in a different design it becomes waterproof.  We really need to get ahead of 3-D printing and start to narrow down the supply chain to be a green, safe, subset of materials that can be locally procured.

So when we look at becoming locally attuned and responsive, why not focus on manufacturing? We’re already doing this with food. The distributed local food movement is the beginning of us turning the corner. The next thing is going to be local, distributed manufacturing, but we can only do that if it is safe and cyclical.

Evolve to survive.

This looks at how we change over generations. Once a city has some best practices, how does it codify them? How does it shed what doesn’t work, and keep what works and move it forward into future generations? How does it integrate new ideas—new DNA, if you will—to keep from becoming moribund in thinking?  How does it keep the idea pool fresh? That’s easy to do now. When you get on a sustainability path, you have data. Everything is monitored on dashboards. You are also connected with others who are doing the same thing, and you are learning best practices. This is all about information. Ecosystems run on information; so do cities. You should be running on inexhaustible energy and information.

Be resource efficient.

This is really design. We have bio-inspired energy gathering devices, but there are also lots of things life does that are about sipping energy and shaving material use. Standards are good for rewarding a lower energy footprint. Cities can do that from a policy standpoint, but there is also material use. How much construction waste is recycled, for example?

Multi-functional design is a really slick way to do this. When we [at Biomimicry 3.8] work with city planners, we look at all of the functions of the city. Then, we come up with technologies, approaches, or policy ideas [to ensure those functions] and run them through Life’s Principles.

Here’s an example. Say we have an opportunity to design a city, and we need to treat wastewater. If you look at Life’s Principles, you want to use life-friendly chemistry; multi-functional design; and decentralization. So you may say, “I’m going to rely as much as possible on bioswales, living machines, and constructed wetlands, and I’m going to de-channelize streams, and have the eco-structure work for me to help treat some water. I’m going to try to do wastewater treatment at the building or neighborhood scale…and I’m going to make parks out of these things…and I’m going to have a school there, so a living machine inside the school becomes pedagogy.

Thinking about how ecosystems can serve humans and the broader community on a number of levels is something many Leaf Litter readers already do, though they may not know it as biomimicry.

True biomimicry involves doing a “genius of place” report. You ask, “What’s the ecological story of this place? What are the drivers that make this place tick. What is its Achilles heel?”  Then there’s a survey of the organisms that live in those native ecosystems if this place was not a city. How do those organisms meet their needs? What are some best practices that we can learn from organisms that are there? I did this on my own landscape here in Montana, when we were building a house. I had lived here on this spot for 18 years, but I had never thought it through in this way. I did a genius of place report. When I surveyed all the organisms (everything from ants to turtles to ground squirrels) I realized that in the hottest and coldest parts of the year, they all went underground. So I got a ground source heat pump as my thermoregulation device!

In addition to genius of place, we use something that I now consider vital: ecological performance standards.

We came up with ecological performance standards while working with HOK on a new development in a very hilly place in India. We used Life’s Principles as a lens to develop strategies, but we also understood that the city needed metrics, aspirational goals. As ecologists, we go in and look at the ecological land type and ask, “If we weren’t here, what would the native ecosystem be?” Then we study a healthy, intact ecosystem of that type as a reference. Then we get the metrics around all of the ecosystem services that make sense for that region: How much soil is built every year? How much water is filtered every year? How much biodiversity is supported? How much air is cleaned? What kind of erosion mitigation is there? Those then become the metrics for the city.  This is nature as measure.

With ecological performance standards established, you then say to the city manager, “Meet or exceed the level of ecosystem services that the native ecosystem of this region would provide.” That turns out to be hugely aspirational goal, because we are not anywhere close to that level of producing ecosystem services. That’s a high bar, but look at the Bank of America Tower in New York, which produces air that is three times cleaner than what comes in. Its filtration system is so good that the building is actually generous.

When we were in India, 27 feet of rain fell in three months–and then nothing. We realized that despite this monsoonal effect, the [nearby] Western Ghats have zero erosion during the monsoons. When you’re putting buildings on a hillside, zero erosion is a big goal, so for the city managers to achieve that, they had to change the way they were going to build the buildings. They had to have more awnings to capture the energy of the rain. The landscaping was not so much about how it looked, but about how it functioned. We even suggested that they move to pier-like, root-like foundations.

Ecological performance standards are powerful. They are place-based, so they’re going to be very different in Phoenix than they are in New York, but they do drive design.

Since you mentioned the Bank of America Building, I’m assuming that these standards apply to redevelopment as well as the development of new cities or communities.

Absolutely. It’s about restoring function, to the extent possible, to the city. We understand it when we are talking about stormwater. We have done a very good job of thinking about function and the hydrologic cycle. But there are 20 ecosystem services. Not all of them are easy to do, but they are all important. Take climate change mitigation. Organisms contribute to climatic cycles. You may think, “What can we do about that?” When we studied the Western Ghats, we realized that the moist deciduous forest has a rolling canopy of dark, dark leaves. During a monsoonal event, 20-30% of the rainfall hits those dark, hot leaves, and because of the turbulence of that rolling canopy, it gets turned into water vapor and gets pushed back up to the clouds. They call that a monsoonal engine because it moves the monsoon into inland India. Without that effect, they were having droughts in India. The question became, “Can we do an urban hydro-canopy on the green rooftops? Can we somehow replicate that turbulence and actually encourage some water vapor to move back up during a monsoonal event?” This is a very different way of thinking about your built world.

In addition to this client in India, are you seeing a demand for this new way of designing places?

Absolutely. Some of the people with whom we worked on the India project have moved on to large engineering firms, and they want these metrics. We’re looking at creating Genius of Biome reports and metrics for them because it gives them a place-based measure that is objective, rather than subjective. Biomimicry is the only reality-based sustainability framework. We’re not making those metrics up or saying, “Oh, that would be nice.” They are literally the best practices of a place.  Our dream would be that ecological performance standards would be done for every biome in the world, so if you went to build there, it’d be one of your GIS layers. If you had that on the software you used every day, you’d be able to see that the city is trying to meet this goal, and on this block this building’s share of the ecological performance standards is X. So you could actually design to outcome. It’s not prescriptive, like LEED. The city can decide how it’s going to meet the standards. People who have used ecological performance standards are very excited about it. A city official recently said to me, “I’m cutting a ribbon on my millionth square-foot green roof, but to what end?” He wants a framework. People are looking for these types of “metaspecs.”

How do you ensure that biomimicry will be used in a way that “creates conditions conducive to life?” How do you protect it?

We encountered that early on. We realized that there’s shallow biomimicry, and there’s deeper biomimicry. With shallow biomimicry, you must mimic the form. You may mimic a humpback whale flipper in a wind turbine. But say you’re making the wind turbine in very toxic conditions, and it’s very energy-intensive to make it. Biomimicry at the deeper level is not just mimicking form, but also process – how something is made. At the ecosystem level, mimicking at the systems level is, for us, using Life’s Principles.  When we work on product design, we use Life’s Principles as a briefing scope. If we’re able to reimagine a product and start from scratch, the product should be self-healing. It should be able to be made from local, abundant raw materials. Then, at the end, we look at technologies and run them through Life’s Principles as well. This is what we’ve been teaching to practitioners for 15 years. This systemic lens is our hedge against nature’s ideas being used in a way that’s not sustainable.

Many of our readers are biologists, water resources engineers, architects, landscape architects, and business people. It seems like all of these disciplines are engaged in biomimicry. Who is missing at the table? Is there a discipline you’d like to see get involved?

That’s a great question. Designers in the built world have been the most enthusiastic supporters. Secondarily it became product design and engineering. One of the biggest things we can do is in the realm of chemistry. One of our partners is John Warner, who started the field of green chemistry at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. Chemistry is the basis of our material world, so biomimetic green chemistry is big field.

Believe it or not, finance people have approached us about using Life’s Principles as an evaluation mechanism for financial investments. I can see people in venture capitalists who are trying to decide whether or not to invest in a product or process thinking about whether or not it is meeting Life’s Principles.  So I’d like to have those investors at the table. We are starting to do this.  We are working with [economist] Hazel Henderson, and we have created something called “ethical biomimicry finance principles” that have combined her 35+ years in ethical finance with our Life’s Principles.

How do practitioners of biomimicry regard novel ecosystems , which have changed because of human influence. Can we turn to them as model, mentor and measure? 

It’s very interesting for me to look at the process of naturalization, because that’s what I think we [humans] need to figure out how to do. Lots and lots of species are new to this continent, but many of them have become naturalized. What that means is that they are not a disruptive force, but they actually add [to the ecosystem]. They may have changed the soil, for example, but they may have enhanced it. Every species makes a difference, but the question is whether it is a positive or negative difference.

So when I say a reference “intact” habitat, that’s a really relative term. There is no reference habitat that does not have the effects of climate change or invasive species. Instead of intact, I should say “healthy.” A healthy system is one that, despite the changes, maintains its function. The species composition might be very different, but it has maintained its essential integrity.

We’re not looking at native species at the time of the arrival of Europeans, or after the Ice Age. We go next door and we say, “Relative to this completely disturbed landscape, where evolution has been somewhat unencumbered, this organism in this set of conditions—invasive species, climate change and all—is doing pretty well, so let’s look at how it is functioning.”

We’re not talking about a restoration of one to one. We’re not saying, “In order to have the function that you need in the city, you need to plant exactly these species.” Rather, we’re saying things like, “You need to plant deep-rooted and shallow-rooted species on a landscape.” The species composition might be different, but there are patterns that work on the landscape. We look to healthy ecosystems of the area and their design patterns to inform the project. We also look to the ecosystem services they are performing at that time.

Now, 20 years from now, climate change may have terribly degraded them, but here’s my answer to that: we are such a large ecological dominant on this planet that it is incumbent on us to exceed those ecosystem services in order to make up for our carrying capacity overshoot.

Can you tell us a bit about Biomimicry 3.8’s professional development courses?

What is interesting about this field is that it started with a book. (Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.) In 1997, I wrote this book and afterwards, people said, “Hey, let’s build a discipline around this.” That is the position we have been in. We have been in service to this emerging discipline. Nobody was teaching this at universities or at grade school, so we started an institute and we did educational pieces around that. Mostly, for the last 15 years, our for-profit has been working with practitioners, and that what these courses are.

The first course is for everybody. It’s a three-hour, on line, foundational course on “What is biomimicry?” It really introduces you to the practice of biomimicry. You learn about the field, yes, but you also get your feet wet practicing it. (See Message from the Editor for more about this course.)

We have an eight-month course to become a “Certified Specialist.” This is a course for professionals who want to make biomimicry a part of their other job. Many engineers, biologists, architects, designers, chemists, and business people have taken this course. Participants meet in person three times, in three different biomes, and complete the rest of the course on line.

For people who want to make biomimicry their career (open a consulting firm, teach biomimicry full time, start a business), we have a two-year course to become a “Certified Professional.” As part of the course, participants travel to six different habitats around the world. It’s completely global, and we always have participants from five continents. Many participants have gone back to their home countries, and we now have 30 regional biomimicry networks.

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