Bio-Inspired Buzzwords: Biomimicry and Biomimetics

It is finally here!  The first smells of wet soil and old leaves, the first sounds of lazily buzzing bees, the first tastes of … well, anything we can get fresh from a local garden!  As we shake off the dregs of a very long winter and (almost in disbelief) anticipate the emergence of spring, we can’t help but become re-inspired by Nature.  Perhaps with that, you may have a new or renewed interest in biomimicry, innovation inspired by Nature.

When exploring the topic of biomimicry, it is easy to become confused by the terminology you find, particularly when translated from English.  As former Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute, former Project Lead and current SME for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Co-Founder and Director of BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation, I am often asked if there is a difference between “biomimicry” and “biomimetics”.  Here I’ll discuss my personal understanding and view of these two terms.

The word biomimicry was coined by Janine Benyus many years ago (1997) when she came out with her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  Her book is a collection of stories describing the work of scientists, engineers, and inventors who were translating their fascinating observations of functional strategies found in biology into innovative technologies.  Before this book came out, this inspired-by-Nature approach to invention and innovation was referred to with terms like bionics, bio-engineering, or biomimetics.  Benyus recognized that these terms might feel too technical and off-putting for her readers (mostly people interested in Nature), so she came up with the term ‘biomimicry’, which she felt was more approachable.

Benyus wanted to share these new ways of viewing and valuing Nature and what she saw was the great potential for biomimicry to help us achieve sustainable innovation. This book was incredibly well received and Benyus went on to found The Biomimicry Guild, The Biomimicry Institute, and now B3.8. The work of B3.8 is focused on inspiring and teaching people how to look at Nature as “model, measure, and mentor”, including how Nature defines sustainability, and how to create more sustainable designs. If you took a course in biomimicry, you would spend time with and/or in Nature discovering how Nature uses combinations of forms, processes, and systems to accomplish desired functions, and then imaging how these strategies could be used to solve human challenges. You would leave the course with new and renewed connections with and respect for Nature, lots of fantastic ideas for bio-inspired designs, and tremendous inspiration for the potential of bio-inspired innovation to solve the world’s biggest challenges, which you will no doubt want to share with others.

Biomimetics (one of the approaches that Benyus wrote about) refers to the technical translation and realization of functional strategies used by biological organisms or systems in Nature. The goal for biomimetics is to create incredibly novel radical technologies that outperform or even displace existing technologies and, in doing so, result in financial reward.

The process of biomimetics starts with observations and research by scientists who work to figure out how specific functions or processes are performed by biological organisms or systems, typically through a unique combination of chemistry and morphology. The results of this research are abstracted and translated by a combination of scientists and engineers into an idea (which resides in their imagination) and then into a design (which is put on paper).  Working from this design, engineers, in consultation with scientists, work to create an innovation (a functioning technology) which represents the realization of the bio-inspired idea.  At this point, the engineer must work with the likes of designers, patent lawyers, marketing strategists, and business experts to turn the innovation into a viable commercializable product.  Anyone who has attempted it knows that commercializing any innovation is a daunting and often impossible task.  Biomimetic innovation, which usually falls under the heading of radical innovation, is even more challenging; however, the results can be revolutionary.

My personal understanding and experiences suggest that biomimicry is focused on re-connection with and new respect for Nature, inspiration, ideation, and education, with the greater goal of sustainability, and needs the skills of technical and business specialists to yield commercially viable innovations.  Biomimetics is focused on scientific translation, radical technological innovation, and commercialization, with the greater goal of better technologies as well as financial success,  and needs new and renewed connection with and new respect for Nature to yield sustainable designs.

BCI recognizes that both biomimicry and biomimetics face the same great challenge of forwarding radically different thinking, approaches, and innovations in an otherwise conventional world.  I believe that if we want to foster and forward radical sustainable bio-inspired innovation (and any truly sustainable innovation must be radical and probably bio-inspired), we also need to radically transform our organizations – our universities, governments, NGOs, and businesses – by applying the endless lessons we can learn from Nature and our own human nature.  This is what we are calling “ecological thinking for radical transformation”.