Biomimicry: sustainability drawing examples from nature
Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, speaks to us about biomimicry
I am a naturalista! And proudly so. I belong to a worldwide movement of women of African descent who do not use artificial chemicals on their hair. It is interesting how a seemingly insignificant thing like the choice of hair products can cause such furore. However, for about ten years, thanks to the Internet, a growing number of people have been sharing their natural hair advice via blogs, websites, forums and YouTube videos. The movement has also drawn in celebrities like Lupita Nyongo and Erykah Badu. What is remarkable is how the natural hair choice has span to include other choices like being vegan and gluten-free. More often than not, a naturalista is also concerned about making healthy food and lifestyle choices.
Wouldn’t it be great, therefore, if the sustainability movement would draw the same high-profile attention that the natural hair movement has? After all, the effects of climate change and continued social inequalities are far more serious than the use of chemical relaxers on one’s hair. Perhaps Biomimicry is the solution. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes and policies— new ways of living—that are well adapted to life on earth over the long haul. I recently caught up with Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership who is also a member of Biomimicry South Africa group. She shared her thoughts on how nature has the solutions that Africa needs to innovate around sustainability. The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.
A key area where companies can use the biomimicry principles is around handling their waste. How can they emulate the natural system, which does not understand the concept of waste? One example that Elspeth shared with me is that of ‘Blue Planet’. When Brent Constantz, CEO of carbon capture company Blue Planet, was looking for a way to process carbon dioxide emissions, he found inspiration in nature. Coral reefs and rainforests, the largest natural structures on the planet, are made of carbon. Reefs, in fact, not only sequester carbon, but also reuse their own waste byproducts. When they produce calcium carbonate, they release carbon dioxide. This feeds the symbiotic algae that help support them. Beginning in 2011, Blue Planet has worked with DeepWater Desal, a combined desalination plant, power plant and data storage facility in Moss Landing, California, to mix waste carbon dioxide released by its natural gas power plant with the calcium produced from water desalination. The result is calcium carbonate – limestone – a building material that California’s construction industry needs. And, not incidentally, the same material that coral reefs are made from.
The Biomimicry Institute, a US-based nonprofit, is taking the trend a step further with its Food Systems Design Challenge, encouraging a cadre of entrepreneurs to improve the food production system by emulating techniques and processes found in nature. Hexagro, one challenge finalist, has combined agriculture with the design genius of one of nature’s most famous structures. A modular aeroponic home-growing system, it is made up of individual hexagon-shaped bins that are inspired by bees’ honeycombs. Designer Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel wanted his product to circumvent some of the environmental problems associated with large-scale agriculture, such as carbon emissions, pesticide use and fertilizer runoff. His solution was to make it easier for people living in small urban spaces to grow pesticide-free food at home.
A similar design has been adapted by group of young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs known as Ukulima Tech. Based in Nairobi, the start-up has developed ‘vertical gardens’ from plastic piping, tested soil and manure, aluminum among other accessories all dependent on a client’s specification is relation to the space available. The vertical gardens come in various shapes and sizes but the standard system measures 1.8 feet by 1.5 feet. Ukulima Tech aims to sensitize the society on sustainable use of environmental resources in food production while ensuring that the society is aware of hazards arising from improper utility of farming methods and farm inputs.
There are therefore opportunities for African companies to use biomimicry principles in their operations. Biomimicry thinking helps create products and processes that are sustainable by following life’s principles. These instruct us to build from the bottom up, self-assemble, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, and use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the bio-sphere. By following the principles life uses, you can create products and processes that are well adapted to life on earth, perform well and save energy. Biomimicry can help you create disruptive technologies, that transform your industry or help you build entirely new industries. It can also help you create whole new growth areas, reignite stale product categories and attract both customers who care about innovation and sustainability. Finally, creating biomimetic products and processes will help your company become known as both innovative and proactive about the environment.
Elspeth suggests starting with local sourcing of resources such as local forms of energy and ensuring that you do not have any toxic chemicals in any of your products. Sounds to me like the beginning of a ‘natural’ movement in the corporate sector. Hopefully biomimicry can give the sustainability movement the ‘star-quality’ that it needs to move to the next level.