For 20 years I’ve driven environmental and social impact at iconic organizations including National Geographic Society, The Nature Conservancy and United Way. A few years ago I began to question the efficacy of conventional conservation. One day when talking with a colleague we wondered what it would take to create a world that doesn’t need conserving. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the word “conservation” became as outdated as the word “suffragette”? 100 years ago in the US, that word was a rallying cry for women as they fought for and then secured the legal right to vote. And now that word sits on a linguistic shelf collecting dust.
What if we created a better future where the products we buy and the services we use are designed in ways that are planet positive? How might we create a thriving world where conservation is no longer needed?
This line of inquiry began a journey that introduced me to biomimicry and the opportunity to create products and services inspired by nature that balance the needs of people and planet.
There are several great books about biomimicry but I needed something more structured. Eventually, I found and enrolled in a self-paced course from Learn Biomimicry. Naturally, the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn so I levelled up and joined their Biomimicry Practitioner Program. This program is a mentored and cohort-based 6-month experience that goes deeper on applying biomimicry thinking to a design challenge.
You are expected to bring a design challenge to the practitioner program. This boosts your learning because you’re applying the concepts to a self-driven challenge rather than being handed an abstract challenge or case. I’ve been through other experiences where the learning is very prescriptive based on pre-existing examples and I’ve always struggled to actually learn in those contexts. The Learn Biomimicry team works with you to refine your design challenge before the program starts to ensure you are in the best possible position for a successful learning experience.
The program follows a method that will feel familiar to practitioners of Design Thinking or other creative problem-solving methods.
Once you have a viable design challenge, you’ll begin the biomimicry thinking process by using the biomimicry taxonomy to identify functions which help you translate your design challenge to nature. For example, if your design challenge is focused on making running more comfortable when it’s hot and humid outside then the taxonomy can guide you to a range of functions such as “how does nature: maintain homeostasis; move liquids/gasses; dissipate heat”. You’ll also identify any constraints or guardrails for your idea. And you’ll begin the process of integrating Life’s Principles which nudge your thinking towards the direction of solutions that are grounded in sustainable and enduring options.
Moving on from scoping, the Learn Biomimicry team guides you through a discovery phase where you’ll turn to nature to discover species that match your functions. It’s a dizzying experience that for me was highly iterative. I learned that my initial thinking and list of functions weren’t quite right and as I turned to nature and looked at the clues in front of me I needed to pivot in a different direction.
Discovery is an intense part of the overall process and surfaces lots of species plus the strategies and specific mechanisms they’ve developed to deliver the functions you’ve identified. Roll up your sleeves, there’s a lot of work to be done and it all leads to abstracting your research into several design principles — succinct statements that translate biology into natural language. I struggled with translating my discovery research into design principles. The Learn Biomimicry team was super helpful at coaching me in ways that got me unstuck AND that helped spark my thinking about the create stage. They want you to learn and succeed and are generous with their input.
With sufficient research and a list of design principles at your disposal, now it’s time to create! This stage is very open-ended and in my case involved a lot of diagraming, doodling, sleuthing, mind mapping and head-scratching. I’m very happy with the end result and surprised by how different it is from where I started.
The last part of the program involves evaluating your idea against Life’s Principles as a check to ensure your idea is aligned with these guideposts. You’re encouraged to go a step further and imagine what your idea might look like if ALL Life’s Principles were included. Then all your work is aggregated into a final presentation to summarize what you created, the functions, mechanisms, strategies, species, and design principles that shaped the idea and where it might go next.
The Biomimicry Practitioner Program was an incredible experience for me. It’s a smart investment if you are interested in biomimicry and ready to apply what you’re learning in a tangible way. Some reflections on what made the experience so rewarding:
In my case, I focused on how to make running more comfortable in hot and humid weather. This worked well because I was concurrently training for a 50-mile ultramarathon which meant I’d be doing a lot of long runs during the miserably hot and humid summers in Washington, D.C. My training was basically R&D for this program.
Try to withhold any solutions that come to mind in the early stages of this program and instead remain open to the process which points you in the right direction at each step. The process felt like wayfinding through complexity using a compass and a map rather than having precise GPS-based turn-by-turn directions and for that reason was a richer experience.
Will any of this really create a world that doesn’t need conserving, where the needs of people and planet are in balance and “conservation” slips out of common use? Biomimicry alone can’t achieve that. But it absolutely has the potential to disrupt conventional conservation and business-as-usual sustainability. The path to a better future is absolutely rooted in biomimicry thinking. And the team at Learn Biomimicry has an exceptional platform for spreading this mindset far and wide.
Andrew Courtney, Biomimicry Practitioner
Senior Director, Science and Innovation Programs at National Geographic
About: Andrew excels at developing new products and services that help companies do well by doing good. For 20 years he's driven environmental and social impact at iconic organizations including National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, PBS, and United Way through partnerships with corporations including Salesforce, Esri, JP Morgan, Suntory and Pepsi. Andrew is passionate about the emerging practice of biomimicry as a methodology for driving innovation and solving business challenges by translating strategies perfected by nature into a business context.