"Life creates conditions conducive to life" — Janine Benyus

The future of sustainable biomimicry

DES231: The Future of Work and Play — Assignment: Explore an area of personal interest (work or play) through expert interviews and other research methods to develop one novel insight about the future of the chosen domain to be useful in the year 2027.

Biomimicry cannot be applied only to isolated problems if our societies are to become truly sustainable. Instead, it must reform our entire anthropogenic systems.

3.8 billion years ago, sparked the genius of life. A single-celled organism, 3.8 billion years later, has diversified into a world of insurmountable brilliance; a global community that is resilient, responsive, collaborative and sustainable. Life has used this time to reiterate and perfect elegant solutions to problems that humans barely grasp. We are toddlers and we must look to nature to learn what it means to live on this shared Earth, not destroy it.
Channing Schoneberger, a masters student in Biomimicry, cites ‘Nature’s Unifying Patterns’ as an essential checklist for all designers. These are lessons that nature has implemented in almost all of her designs to achieve sustainability.

What this means for designers is that we must change our definition of success. Janine Benyus, the co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, says sustainability comes when our cities are functionally indistinguishable from forests. That we must no longer judge our designs solely based on their beauty, size or profit, but also against ecological performance standards: how much water it retains or light it reflects, how much carbon it sequesters or pollutants it captures. This, along with Nature’s Unifying Patterns, will help our designs slot into the natural cycles that have kept our planet running for billions of years.

What exists now is a largely fragmented approach, applying aspects of biomimicry to individual problems but still not understanding the system-wide impact. The sharkskin-like wetsuit still pollutes rivers with toxic dyes. The kingfisher-like Shinkansen train still uses electricity from carcinogenic fossil fuels. Just because we mimic nature, doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment. Melanie Kah, an environmental chemist, summarised this perfectly: “The risk that this compound represents, organic or biological doesn’t mean it’s harmless. It may be synthesised by a microorganism in very small quantities, so if you then spray it over a field it will still kill something you don’t want to kill”. It’s essential to understand a biomimetic solution’s natural context and where it will then be applied in order for it to be utilised in an ecologically-and-anthropogenically-beneficial way.

Our societies will not become sustainable if just we steal nature’s designs and apply them to products that continue fuelling infinite growth and overconsumption. For biomimicry to truly succeed, we must learn from the rules of life that have existed billions of years before us; using them to change our mindset about our species’ role on this planet, from one of dominance, to one of collaboration. Life is shaped by its surroundings. It’s in constant communication with what’s around it, always adapting to the ebbs and flows; never rigid in its place. Our disconnection from the environment and its systems has powered this ecological crisis. The only solution is to tune back in to our surroundings and listen to nature’s mastery.

Below is a short-film I created from the research process: