They’re springing up like wildflowers - the practices of how we can (and should) learn from the principles of Nature to better survive on this planet! Within biomimicry and bio-inspired movements, new terms and related paradigms are popping up every year and in every emerging discipline. It is a wholly exciting and hopeful revolution of regeneration. These terms may be from the same family - but they are each a different species and thus a different expression of bio-inspiration.
Within this article, we provide an overview of biomimicry, as one such wildflower in the field of bio-inspiration. Here, we dive into the brief history of the field and how it is now practiced and applied. The purpose of this article is to better understand what biomimicry is, and importantly, what it is not - differentiating it from similar (but different) terms in the bio-inspiration field.
What (really) is biomimicry?
The definitions, taxonomy and related paradigms of biomimicry
Biomimicry is the practice of learning from and emulating nature's genius to solve all kinds of challenges within the human design world. The word 'bio-mimicry' comes from the Greek, meaning to imitate life. In ‘imitating life’, biomimicry is about learning from how Nature creates conditions conducive to life. Biomimicry is all about the FUNCTION. In essence, biomimicry is about creating designs that function like nature.
Biomimicry is a (re)emerging discipline of an ancient practice. Many consider it a ‘new’ science that values nature for what we can learn from it, rather than only from what we can extract from it. It’s new because we as humans are still rediscovering the genius of nature, having strayed from creations that function like nature since the industrial revolution (or before).
Taking inspiration from nature is not something new though. In the 20th century, Otto Schmitt established biomedical engineering and coined the term “biomimetics” as he invented the Schmitt trigger, inspired by the squids’ nervous system. In the 1990s the scientist Janine Benyus developed the concept of biomimicry further in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
According to Benyus: “When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods is the natural world.”
Biomimicry has been practised before there was ever a specific word for it, and historically there exists a vast amount of indigenous wisdom that is, overlaps or relates to the practice of biomimicry. Biomimicry is thus an emerging discipline of an ancient practice. The formal discipline of biomimicry is, however, relatively new.
The term biomimicry appeared as early as 1982 in a chemistry thesis. Biomimicry was later popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus and popularised in her 1997 publication, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The wildflower that is biomimicry is now moving into the mainstream as the call for sustainable (and possibly regenerative) solutions are urgently being called for.
Essentially, biomimicry is a practice, meaning you get better at it the more you do it. When we looked at nature with the biomimicry lens, we ask what can we learn from Nature (not just about nature).
What can we learn from a tuna, for example?
The bio-glossary: Biomimicry, biomorphism and bio-utilization explained
Biomimicry is often mistakenly used interchangeably with other similar terms. For clarity, let’s review these terms: There’s the ever-popular “biomorphic” – biomorphic refers to designs that visually resemble elements from life (they “look like” nature), whereas biomimic or biomimetic designs focus on function (they “work like” nature).” “Biophilic” simply means to love nature, and often presents itself in the practice of “greening” spaces – e.g. houseplants or “non-functional” green wall facades. And lastly (probably the most tricky to distinguish from biomimicry) is “bio-utilisation”. This is when nature is used to achieve a particular function (e.g. algal solar cells or fungal bioremediation) but it isn’t integrated into a more regenerative, holistic practice. Biomimicry is not using or farming nature, but can work alongside sustainable versions of these.
There are three key areas which often get confused with one another - biomimicry, biomorphism and bio-utilization.
The formalised practice of biomimicry stems from three seeds that form the act, the intention and the effect of biomimicry. Importantly, biomimicry has an ethos built in. In various degrees of technicality, bio-inspired terms all adhere to the intent of emulating nature’s designs, but what sets biomimicry apart, is its embodiment of ethics through its Ethos and desire to (Re)Connect with nature. In this way, biomimicry is so much more than a discipline of design.
The three seeds of biomimicry: Ethos, (Re)connect and Emulate
Okay, so let’s now cut through the academic glossary and dictionary here, it’s important to note that each approach holds unique value, merits and challenges. In summary, words do matter, but it’s best not to get too constricted or limited by them… as the value exists in any nature-inspired design or innovation that solves a real problem. Whether you’re strictly doing biomimicry, or using biophilic design, no matter the label - you’re inviting nature to the design table… and that is what the world needs more of.
“At the most profoundly poetic level - the very space that we're trying to save on this planet which is nature itself or biodiversity, has the answers for how we can. The more we practice biomimicry the more we learn how we can make a world a built world, a designed world by humans that is beneficial to these systems because we can emulate and copy their shapes their recipes and their systems. That on its own is worth the adventure of learning biomimicry”
- The late Claire Janisch, Cofounder of Learn Biomimicry and Biomimicry Practitioner
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Alistair Daynes and the Learn Biomimicry Team
Illustrations provided by Rebecca MacKinnon and Jess Berliner