Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts: Taryn Mead

This biologist and sustainability strategist tells us what it’s like to be a pioneering practitioner of biomimicry.

By Amy Nelson

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Founder, Symbiosis

Taryn Mead is a biologist, sustainability strategist and Certified Biomimicry Professional who has consulted with corporate, municipal and nonprofit clients using biomimicry as a tool for innovation and sustainability. A pioneering practitioner of biomimicry, she has worked on domestic and international projects ranging from new product design to industrial ecosystems to new cities for two million inhabitants.  She has also served as the lead facilitator for numerous biomimicry workshops with corporate clients and blossoming biomimics. Her current work is focused on helping companies take biomimicry from a budding design idea to a practical solution ready for the marketplace. Her firm, Symbiosis Group, helpsclients develop systemic approaches to their sustainability challenges by drawing on parallels between the cycles, processes and system dynamics found in biological systems and those found in human experience. 

Taryn holds degrees in Biology and Environmental Studies, and she brings to her work a perspective on both the physical and socio-economic aspects of sustainability. Before founding Symbiosis Group, Taryn was a consultant, educator, and lecturer for Biomimicry 3.8. Earlier in her career, she worked as a field biologist and regenerative landscape designer.

We had a chance to chat with Taryn and learn more about what it’s like to be a practicing biomimetic.

Tell us about your firm, Symbiosis Group

Following the Bioteams Model, Symbiosis is a network of independent team members who self-assemble into project teams based on the needs of a particular client. We have a biologist (Karen Allen), an industrial designer (John Paulick), a business catalyst (Barry Patterson), a manufacturing infrastructure specialist (Demetria Giannisis), and a leadership and management expert (Toby Herzlich).

We have a diversity of clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies that are seeking product innovation in their products to architects and engineers who are looking for new tools for place-based design in the  built environment.  Our clients are unified in their desire to create a better world while they are creating a better position in the marketplace.

Each client’s ability to innovate using biomimicry varies depending on how the company is structured and regulated, the culture of the organization and what access they have to various resources. Each has different leverage points where biomimicry can inform a solution and the outcomes range in scope from minor tweaks in process to creation of a brand new product line. When a client comes to us and says “We want to do biomimicry”, the first part of our engagement is a thorough assessment of what this means to their organization and the capacity of their innovation infrastructure.   The next step is to identify how we can integrate the insights that the natural world has to offer and the path for the team to solve specific challenges.  This framing process enables us to define what we mean by ‘doing biomimicry’ and align all team members on what success looks like.

For instance, a cosmetics company client wanted to create new, more sustainable packaging. I did the initial research on how different organisms use materials and shape to store liquids, and then gave the research back to the client so that their design team could apply the design principles in their own time and process.  A few months later, we facilitated a workshop with several members of the R&D department and outside design firms to find new solutions for biomimetic packaging using the research along with other field observations.  The leverage points were once again a critical component to find the best solutions for this client.

A lot of solutions that might be good biomimetic solutions would involve new materials. But this company is not necessarily interested in being the leader in biomimetic materials – their core competencies are in cosmetics -so we had to seek materials with biomimetic properties that were already available from their suppliers. We looked specifically at opportunities for the client to influence change within their circumstances: changes in suppliers, forms of packaging, how the user interacts with packaging, etc. to their packaging solutions.

One of the biggest challenges with biomimicry is making the vast vision accessible to managers and innovators who are working on the ground level of sustainability and our work targets this level of implementation.

Have you applied biomimicry to help a client with a project that increased resilience in the face of climate change?

That’s an interesting question, and it comes up frequently. I have talked to a lot of people about how different organisms respond to climate change. But this doesn’t ask us functional questions about problem-solving in a particular place. Organisms are constantly responding to environmental pressures. They’re trying to perform the basic functions of life while wrestling with the environmental pressures around them. Climate change is one more pressure, but at the end of the day, we have to function regardless of those conditions. There are some instances where organisms are changing behavior patterns in response to climate change, but the functions are still the same. Plants are moving toward higher elevations in mountainous regions. Eventually, they’re going to get to the top of the mountain and without anywhere else to go, they’re going to die off. But they’re effectively still trying to maintain constant temperature, get the appropriate amount of water, etc., regardless of where they are living.

I think the interesting questions around climate change for humans will be patterns of migration, population dynamics and resource use in times of scarcity.  There are numerous organismal models that can inform our challenges, but the data alone is not enough to change our behaviors or our fate.  The organismal strategies only illuminate what humans could do to change our circumstances.  The implementation of these strategies is another issue.

When it comes to your work, are there different levels of application of biomimicry (mimicking form vs. process vs. ecosystem)?

Yes. I’d also add in patterns, functions, principles and metrics as additional entry points into biology. Formal training in the various industries and disciplines teach people to see the world in very different ways and some entry points work better for some disciplines than others.  For instance, architects tend to focus on form and function as they design.  Engineers often focus on metrics.  Business people often find principles and patterns to be most helpful when thinking about organizational structures.  The level and depth of biology provided is most effective when tailored to the existing frameworks and mental models in the industry.

Speaking of patterns…what patterns in nature can best guide development and/or redevelopment?

There are so many possible models, its hard to know where to start to respond.  There was a great case study recently about how the growth patterns of slime mold can inform the most efficient transportation routes in urban areas.  Murray’s law which gives us the optimized flow patterns in natural systems can be very informative when planning urban infrastructure. Other important models can be found in the details of ecosystem dynamics and the basic principles of interconnectedness and niche differentiation in ecosystems. And, of course, the patterns found in each local ecosystem tell a site-specific story about settlement and migration that can be very informative.

Our readers work on projects that range greatly in scale. Is there a scale at which biomimicry works best? Worst?

The scalability and effectiveness of biomimicry depends on the ability of the designer to affect a leverage point. Take interior design, for instance. There are many interior designers who love to use biomimicry and oftentimes, they cannot influence the materials they are using within the timeframe of the project. They want to incorporate biomimicry, but they may come up against some limits as to how deeply they can implement. In those instances, the best applications are in the use of space and nature’s patterns to influence the flow of the people, ideas and energy.  It’s less of a scale issue and more of an issue of accessibility to influence, solutions and materials at the scale the necessary scale accomplish something biomimetic.

How much of biomimicry begins with a human challenge and asks “How does nature handle this?” versus beginning with noticing a form/process/efficiency in nature and asking, “How could this guide, or be applied to human problems?”

If you look at the case studies that have emerged, it’s about 50-50. Within the last 10 years, there has been a surge in the latter research, on new applications for organismal strategies.  For those researchers, the challenge now, is to make their efforts relevant in the marketplace.  Early on in my work in biomimicry, I thought that the idea itself was cool enough that it would just be obvious how important it is to take the ideas forward.  What I’ve come to realize is that it is only as useful as its application and its ability to solve pressing challenges, both for the environment and for the marketplace.  Just one or the other is not enough.  This is where the research world needs to meet the business world and where the most opportunity awaits.

In Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, published in 1997, she is critical of science education, including her own, labeling it reductionist.  You earned a degree Environmental Biology and Environmental Studies fairly recently. Have things changed?

I went to a liberal arts school [Western State College of Colorado], which makes a big difference.  My biology degree included coursework in geology, physics, and bioethics. My environmental studies degree included environmental sociology, ethics and economics.  My educational experience was very interdisciplinary. I think that’s par for the course in most environmental science programs these days. There are still plenty of researchers who are doing very reductionist science work, but I believe that we on the verge of a paradigm shift from the linear thinking of Henry Ford to the systems thinking of based on our newfound ecological understanding of the last 40-50 years. Children now learn about ecology in early elementary education.  That wasn’t the case ten to fifteen years ago. Because our understanding of ecology and systems has gotten so much better, we are becoming much less reductionist in our approach to problem solving and more equipped to understand the overlaps [in disciplines].

I read an interview with entrepreneur & natural fluid systems expert Jay Harman, who says that biomimicry is in the “post-embryonic phase,” on the “cusp of a tidal wave.” Do you agree?

Yes.  I usually describe it as jumping onto surfboard on a tidal wave and learning how to surf! I get a Google alert every day on biomimicry and the number of hits rises every all the time. We are now at a place where there is enough general education about it conceptually and the public is ready to see some big results.

I would guess that there are many barriers to acceptance of the biomimicry approach, such as fear of failure, lack of case studies or lack of data showing return on investment, etc.  As a practitioner, what do you see as the primary barrier, and how do you handle that barrier?

The barriers really depend on the person or company.  You just hit on three of the big ones. Another key barrier is that most people want instant results. We have an expectation that we can solve problems quickly, but in the natural world, evolution happens over generations. Many biomimetic solutions are still young, and haven’t had several generations of trial and error to be “perfected” and honed. For many companies, the investment in biomimicry is short term and the outcomes that they are seeking require a longer-term investment.  The outcomes of using biomimicry don’t always produce instant results in efficiency or cost-savings, but rather a more holistic perspective on sustainability that isn’t always measurable in the short term.

Many of our readers are working with scarred landscapes (both visible and invisible wounds).  Is there a way that an organism or natural system heals itself that can be applied to the healing of a scarred landscape?

Because of the broad nature of that question, there is no one specific organism that can solve all of those challenges. However, Life’s Principles are a powerful guide in taking that broad approach. Life’s Principles can serve as a template for any project, regardless of the site-specific context and functional challenges. They would be a good place to start.

A recent issue of Leaf Litter explored the topic of Traditional Ecosystem Knowledge.  To what degree do you turn to TEK, as opposed to knowledge gained by Western science?

Often the non-biologists with whom we work are intimidated by science. One of the things we encourage them to do is use their observational skills and train those skills so that biology is accessible. We help people relearn how to see things when they are in natural environments so that they notice details, patterns, functions, and systems. Once we start pointing these things out to people, they become very curious, and they begin to notice things in ways they hadn’t before.  This is a kind of traditional knowledge. We, as a species, used to know how to notice these things. Biomimicry is a powerful tool in helping us to relearn that.

Many of our readers are biologists, designers, and engineers who may be quite used to working in a multidisciplinary environmental, but very new to the world of biomimicry. You are a Certified Biomimicry Professional. How has that certification changed your career?

As one of the first employees hired by Biomimicry 3.8, and I helped develop the curriculum for the Biomimicry Professional Program, and I was “grandfathered in,” so the Biomimicry Professional certification didn’t necessarily change my career. What it has done, however, is create a community of professional practitioners that is broadening a great deal because of the certification. Having a network of professionals and peers is extremely helpful in this emerging discipline.

What would you say to a biologist who is considering obtaining the certification?

There is a real need for biologists who can provide a different angle on the value of biology. Being able to identify the functions in any organism or human design challenge is sort of a strange skill, but it helps create a bridge language for people who don’t otherwise have access, or a reason to access, biology.  It enables you to start a conversation.  You can say, “Wow, did you know this organism has a similar challenge, and they solve it by doing X, Y and Z?” It provides a different framework for communicating about biology, making it relevant to a broader audience.

One of the most powerful aspects of biomimicry is its ability to transcend discipline jargon for interdisciplinary teamwork.  For me, that has been the most valuable aspect of my professional growth during my time in biomimicry.  Learning to communicate with people who see the world in drastically different ways is a challenging endeavor and translating science into common terms helps everyone come to neutral ground. This one component of a biomimicry process could be enough to change the way we view sustainability challenges and how we approach solving them.

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