The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

"With contributions from 30 leaders in the sustainability field, this book (The Natural Advantage of Nations) contains a wealth of practical, as well as theoretical, frameworks."
Janet Graaff, Instructor, University of Colorado Leeds School of Business

Principles and Practices in Sustainable Development for the Engineering and Built Environment Professions 

Unit 3 - Biomimicry/Green Chemistry


Lecture 9: Biomimicry - Design Inspired by Nature


BIOMIMICRY is one of those rare hopeful notes in the modern chorus of environmental warnings. Janine Benyus offers a radical alternative to today’s industrial model of progress – an elegant survival strategy drawn from a better understanding of those natural systems on which we are still totally dependent. Perhaps the best thing about this ‘quest for innovations inspired by nature’ is that it is more than just a theory. It is already underway.

Jonathon Porritt, Chairman, Chair of the UK Prime Minister’s Sustainable Development Commission, 2006[1]

Educational Aim

To discuss the concept of ‘Biomimicry’ and the principles on which the field is founded. To also discuss the role of the professional community in applying this methodology as a global network of Biomimicry practitioners. This lecture has been developed based on extensive conversations with Janine Benyus and is a testament to her leadership in the field as we attempt to communicate the concept to engineers.


Required Reading

Benyus, J. (1997) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, HarperCollins, New York, Chapter 1. Also, Biomimicry an Introduction (, pp 1-10.

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M. (2006) ‘Innovation inspired by nature – Biomimicry’, ECOS, no. 129. Available at (3 pages), pp. 27-29.

Hargroves, K., Smith, M. and Paten, C. (2007) Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program, Critical Literacies Portfolio – Role of Engineers in Sustainable Development A, The Natural Edge Project, Australia, Unit 2 Lecture 7.

Learning Points

* 1. Building on from knowledge gathered over centuries of harvesting and harnessing nature, engineers and designers are now exploring the exciting field of emulating nature’s successes to assist sustainable development.

* 2. Most of the solutions from the last 300 years have been poorly adapted (or mal-adapted) to natural ecosystems. In fact, many of these ‘solutions’ have lead to significant global challenges such as those caused by the creation and dispersion of pollution, including greenhouse gases, toxic chemicals and other hazardous substances.

* 3. Faced with the need to address these challenges, engineers and designers will be tempted to emulate the way humans have problem-solved, rather than asking nature’s advice. Russian researchers working on a global database for patents (TRIZ)[2] uncovered an overlap of a mere 10 -12 percent between man-made patents and natural systems. As Janine puts it, ‘when we look to nature, 90 percent of the time we will be surprised!

* 4. If we are to achieve harmony between development and nature on a global scale, we need to combine our engineering knowledge with the knowledge contained in natural systems, rather than just extracting resources from it, to deliver solutions that are well-adapted to our global environment... Innovation inspired by Nature.

* 5. In the words of Janine Benyus, Biomimicry is quite simply, ‘the art of asking nature for advice’ to assist in creating more sustainable ways of living.[3]

* 6. In engineering terms, Biomimicry describes the enquiry-based process of studying and mimicking the design and behaviour of nature, to inform the development of solutions that meet the needs of society while being in harmony with the planet’s natural systems. It is the cross-over between Natural Systems and Human Systems – using the knowledge of nature and a method of enquiry to inform the built environment.

* 7. In almost every field of endeavour, innovators are mimicking nature’s design elegance to create sustainable solutions.

Brief Background Information

Understanding the Relationship between Natural Systems and Human Systems[4]
It is apparent on a global level that many current practices harnessing nature’s resources are unsustainable - we need to rediscover nature’s knowledge. Consider that for the majority of our time on the planet as a species, we have been hunters and gatherers. As hunters and gatherers (harvesting nature) and then as Agrarians through pre-industrial times (harnessing nature), we paid a great deal of attention to natural systems as a source of knowledge - we naturally mimicked the organisms that we admired.

As our knowledge of natural systems increased, we began to harness those organisms that we needed, then to process nature’s raw materials to produce products and services (for example through agricultural practices, and steel and plastics manufacturing). Once we realised that we could make value-added products from nature’s raw resources, we began paying less attention to natural systems, seeing them more as a source of inputs for our products and services. As we transitioned from organism domestication to mass production and industrialisation, ‘transgenic engineering’ emerged, with the mindset of ‘animal as factory’.

Today, when we try to solve problems (such as filtration, adhesion, desalination, energy harvesting etc), we nearly always study the way human’s have problem-solved in the past, rather than how nature has done the very same thing. However, combining our knowledge of processes with our knowledge of natural systems, we now have the opportunity to build products and services that are in harmony with natural systems – ‘Biomimetic’ solutions.

The Natural Systems Understanding Map (Figure 9.1) represents the transition in application of knowledge - from harvesting or using Nature, to innovations that are inspired by Nature, where:

  • Harvest [Take] refers to using materials provided by nature – plant or animal – with no human intervention in the production process itself. This includes using rainforest timber, or fishing for seafood. This is also known as ‘Bio-Utilisation’. However, rather than simply living off nature, if we instead saw nature as a source of ideas and inspiration (‘Nature as Mentor’), we could seek to live in balance with nature.

  • Harness [Adapt] refers to domesticating the producer - domesticating organisms to assist us in product development. This includes for example agricultural practices using ‘beasts of burden’, and using bacteria for the production of insulin. This is also known as ‘Bio-Assistance’.

  • Harmony [Copy] is the art of asking nature for advice, to assist in creating more sustainable ways of living. As Benyus explains, ‘This includes studying nature’s best ideas, designs and strategies and then emulating them so that we might live more gracefully on the planet’.[5] This includes for example designing the front of a train like the beak of a bird, or an adhesive tape like the pads of a gecko’s feet. This is also known as ‘Bio-Inspired’ or ‘Bio-Mimetic Design’.

Figure 9.1. Natural Systems Understanding Map: showing the relationship between systems knowledge, enquiry, and the application of biomimicry to human systems
Source: The Natural Edge Project, Biomimicry Guild (2006)

Innovation from nature can be drawn from a number of areas, such as:

  • The structure, or form, of nature (‘Nature as Model’), i.e. aerodynamic shapes, non-chemical adhesive methods and structural finishes and colour.

  • The process of nature, i.e. cooling systems, nutrient cycling, filtration, desalination and energy supply.

  • Nature’s ecosystem, i.e. feedback loops, diversity, organism niches and interactions, symbiotic relationships, food webs, energy and material flows, resilience, and the role of redundancy.

Besides providing the model, nature can also provide the measure (‘Nature as Measure’). We can look to nature as a standard against which to judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovations. Are they life promoting? Do they fit in? Will they last as long as is needed, and no longer? A well-adapted product or service would address all three innovation categories, whereas mal-adapted products or services may focus on one or two of the categories to the detriment of the others. As Janine explains in Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,[6] we could manufacture the way animals and plants do, using sun and simple compounds to produce totally biodegradable fibres, ceramics, plastics, and chemicals. Our farms, modelled on prairies, could be self-fertilising and pest-resistant. To find new drugs or crops, we could consult animals and insects that have used plants for millions of years to keep themselves healthy and nourished. Even computing could take its cue from nature, with software that ‘evolves’ solutions, and hardware that uses the lock-and-key paradigm to compute by touch.

In each case, nature can provide the models: solar cells copied from leaves, steely fibres woven spider-style, shatterproof ceramics drawn from mother-of-pearl, cancer cures compliments of chimpanzees, perennial grains inspired by tall grass, computers that signal like cells, and a closed-loop economy that takes its lessons from redwoods, coral reefs, and oak-hickory forests. Most of nature’s products and services are biotic; their processes are carried out in ambient temperature, low pressure and low toxicity conditions (with the exception of a volcano, tidal wave, hurricane or bush fire, which are considered abiotic).



Key References

- Benyus, J. (2002) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, HarperCollins, New York.

- The Natural Edge Project and Biomimicry Guild (2006) Australian Tour 2006 Resources. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007.


Key Words for Searching Online

Biomimicry, Biomimetic engineering, Biomimicry Guild.


[1] Porritt, J. (2006) Capitalism as if the world mattered, Earthscan, London. (Back)

[2] The TRIZ Journal (n.d.) What is TRIZ?. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[3] BRC (2005) Video Interview with Janine Benyus - Author, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[4] This lecture has been developed in collaboration with Janine Benyus. (Back)

[5] BRC (2005) Video Interview with Janine Benyus - Author, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[6] Benyus, J. (1997) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Harper Collins, New York. (Back)

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