digital edition

Reflecting Nature

March 2011

Interview by Alanna Malone

Janine Benyus is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus has evolved the practice of biomimicry, consulting with sustainable businesses and conducting seminars about what we can learn from the genius that surrounds us.  She also co-founded the Biomimicry Guild and the Biomimicry Institute.

Benyus’s favorite role is biologist-at-the-design-table for various companies.
Photo © Judy Hill Lovins
Benyus’s favorite role is biologist-at-the-design-table for various companies.
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GreenSource: What is the difference between biomimicry and biophilia?

Janine Benyus: Biophilia is our natural tendency as human beings to want to affiliate with other life forms. Biophilic design recognizes that reminders of nature contribute to our well being, helping our productivity and creativity. Biomimicry is the mimicking of natural strategies and designs in order to impart a certain function. Painting a picture of spiral grain on a building column that reminds you of a tree trunk is biophilic design. But if you actually twist the column’s material like a tree trunk to make it lighter but just as strong, that’s biomimicry.

GS: How are you expanding biomimicry education?

JB: We work with universities to bring biology to the people who make our world—the designers, architects, engineers, chemists, etc. Ideally, the first technologies they encounter in their courses would be nature’s technologies. The demand for this kind of education has been huge. We recently created a system of courses called Professional Pathways (www.biomimicry.net) to train and certify biomimicry specialists in all kinds of professions, including business. We have to amplify our effect in the world, and education is the best way to do that.

GS: What are ecological performance standards?

JB: We formed an alliance with HOK and our initial work was with city planning in China and India. So we asked, how does biomimicry work in a city? For us, the best model is the native ecosystem that would be there naturally. Ecosystems are very generous—cities are not very generous but ecosystems are. The forest would purify so many metric tons of air a year; absorb so many liters of water; create so many millimeters of soil, and more. The goal of our “Ecological Performance Standards” is to meet or exceed the services of the native ecosystem that would be there if we weren’t. At that point we’re beginning to consult nature not just as model but as measure.

As we move toward our goal of having zero environmental footprint, the next question to ask is what kind of positive difference are we having? Can we be contributors to this planet? In our journey as a young species, we’re at the point where we have to figure out how to create a net benefit, to actually enhance the places we live, not just keep them from degrading. And that’s a different way of thinking. Frank Lloyd Wright talked about how a building should work or function like a tree—we use life’s principles as a benchmark to see if our buildings really do work like a tree. 

GS: Can you tell us about your collaboration with Paul Hawken?

JB: Well, we’re really in stealth right now, but it’s a combination of green chemistry and biomimicry for a solar cell that is truly affordable and we’re really excited about it.

GS: Is this a time of risk or opportunity for green innovators?

JB: The only risk is that we aim too low. We need breakthrough innovation that rethinks from the bottom-up—not just how the building looks, but how the building functions as a community member in its ecosystem. We have to hold ourselves to the same standards that other organisms do, living within our means but with elegant, habitat-enriching design. In fact, a design does not pass muster in the natural world unless it creates conditions conducive to all life—both the life of one’s offspring and the life of all the species in the ecosystem that support one’s offspring. Life-friendly is not a marketing slogan in nature, but an imperative for each and every adaptation. Creating conditions conducive to life seems like a very high bar for our technologies, but actually, it’s an achievable dream.  Step outside and you’ll see it everywhere.

Biomimics study the organisms who have managed to thrive on this planet to figure out: What are their codes of conduct? What are their best practices? What are the universal laws that all successful organisms follow? When we remember that we are a part of nature, we realize that we are beholden to those same laws. The closer we hew to those standards, the more likely we are to endure on this home that’s ours but not ours alone. If we seize this moment to look at the reality of what’s coming, the answer doesn’t have to be panic. In the natural world, organisms under stress get creative and start innovating. That should be our answer. 

GS: Do you have any last words for our readers?

JB: I’m amazed by the clear set of goals that has been created for the green building profession. By rating buildings, we act as agents of natural selection. Our criteria celebrate the best buildings so that we can create more of them, and that’s exactly what natural selection does. It selects the best of all the ideas in every generation, but the criterion is always the same: does it support the continuance of life?  When we humans put what is good for life at the center of our decision-making, we mimic the most powerful optimization program on the planet. Evolution is the fast track to not just surviving, but thriving.


This article appeared in the March 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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