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The Forest For The Trees: 2 Women Leading Biomimicry In Design

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was in the thick of my New York life and not taking many vacations out in the greenery, I was invited to go white water rafting. My main occupation at the time was observing street style and finding order and meaning in all of that gritty, gloriously imperfect urban beauty. Mid-afternoon, we pulled our raft into a cove and sat in silence staring up at the stone walls covered in a vivid algae. The colors, the shapes, the water, the rock, the trees, it all took me by surprise. It felt like the first time I'd ever seen such a thing, a beauty that doesn't need any explanation. A perfection that is plain for everyone to see. Without nuance in the sense of a warbled connotation but at the same time bursting with subtlety.

Is it possible that somewhere along the way we forgot to look to nature? The ecosystems that spin, thread, swim and fly around our planet, that make up life as we know it, are the ones that have fixed their bugs and adjusted their processes so that they could survive, sustain and thrive. What can we learn from them?

Dayna Baumeister

That's exactly what Janine Benyus knew and evangelized in her book A Biologist at the Design Table. Biologists, meet designers. Designers, meet biologists. I found Dayna Baumeister, Benyus' partner at the Biomimicry Guild (having not even heard of Janine), and set up a call to find out more about these visionary women and how they use biomimicry to educate design leaders and find solutions for design questions.

First of all, from their site:

The Montana-based Biomimicry Guild is an innovation consultancy providing biological consulting and research, workshops and field excursions, and a speakers' bureau. The Guild helps designers learn from and emulate natural models with the goal of developing products, processes and policies that create conditions conducive to life.

Janine Benyus

After looking at Janine Benyus ideas and talking to Danya, I found a few items worth repeating here. One is that we can learn an idea from an organism and apply it to design. Nature is perfect. Humans tend to put things into silos. In nature, there is no lack of integration, nor information. We can redesign the human world by taking cues from the natural world. Right now we use "heat, beat and treat" to make things. We take a natural element and we heat it up (like metal) then we pound it into a shape, and treat it with chemicals. We should ask ourselves: How does life make things? How does life make the most of things? How does life make things disappear into systems?

And here are a few quick lessons from nature that you can look up to learn more:

1 ) Self-assembly (shells are self-assembling)

Mercedes-Benz bionic car skeleton

2 ) CO2 as feedstock (plants do it)

3 ) Solar Transformation

4 ) Power of shape -- to inform energy efficiency (whale fins' beveled shape are now informing aviation wing design) to make objects self cleaning (the shape of a leaf makes it self-cleaning), to create color without pigment. (Playing with light to produce color instead)

5 ) Quenching thirst (drawing water out of air and fog)

6 ) Metals without mining (microbes do it)

7 ) Green Chemistry (use a smaller subset of the periodic table)

8 ) Timed Degradation (Mussels in the ocean -- their threads dissolve after two years.)

... and so on. Take a look at these 'coolest cases.' Now onto the interview.

When I ask about their partnership, Danya replies:

Janine is the noun and I am the verb. I answer the question, how do you do it? I build content out of the raw material. The easiest way to think of our approach is to think of function. We ask what do you want to do rather than what do you want to create. We don't start with words like 'can opener' or 'knife'. We learn that you want a widget to open cans. Or a widget to cut. You don't want to paint something red; You want to communicate danger. We look at the function first and then examine how that's done in nature.

How do you work with designers?

We ask a LOT of questions. (Laughs). We have a speakers bureau. We go to conferences. We go speak at Universities and companies. We talk to business managers to create better communication systems. We consult from our area of expertise to inform process, product and system design.

How did these two world come together?

Biophilia is affinity with nature. Nobody looks at nature and says, ew that's an ugly color. There are stories in nature we can adopt for our own needs. There are strategies used in nature that we can mimic. I got a doctorate in biology but I minored in fine art. I wanted to design a wall that breathed like skin. I was looking into sick building syndrome. How can we build a wall that can get rid of its own contaminants, buildings that renew themselves the way plants do. That's how I discovered Janine.

How can designers plug into your research? Is there ready access to what you know or do you have to go and present a seminar, or work as a consultant in organizations?

We have a non-profit organization and a for-profit consultancy. We created a website called AskNature.org, which makes biology more accessible. It is full of examples of how life does it. We have had 2 million unique visitors from 188 countries. Also, we suggest that designers just spend more time outside. Absorb it. Ask yourselves what is nature doing better?

Are there any dangers involved in imitating nature so precisely?

When you're involved in nanotechnology, working on such a small scale, yes ... in that case tinkering at the cell level, we can mess with life. You just have to be aware. L'Oreal for example, became interested in structural color but is it safe to apply tiny objects to your eyelid? I'm not sure.

Talk about why this is relevant now.

We need to learn how to fit in again. In the past, life forms with maladapted strategies have become extinct. [Unfortunately] we have maladapted strategies. We need to recognize that we are interdependent. We have to find ways to fit into the larger system. We need to stop speaking in terms of "us" and "them" and integrate with each other and back into nature again.

What are your thoughts on being women in a field on the verge.

There is a place at the table for everyone to be involved in biomimicry. An engineer may be inspired by the hinge of a dragonfly wing but it is part of a system. Designs are in context. They are in relationship, which is very in line with a way a woman's brain works. This is really an interesting opportunity to really resonate with women. We are entering a male dominated space (engineering particularly) but we can show our hearts in the matter and bring the hardcore science. We can show that it's okay to be a woman in this field. Most of the people coming out of graduate programs now are female but mid and upper management is still predominantly male -- but we give these men permission to get emotional about their work.

Office Life in a Qatar Cactus

There certainly is some "green washing" but we vet that out. We are trying to merge innovation and sustainability and a lot of people are interested. People don't want to go to a job every day that has no meaning. WalMart is doing a lot in this area, for example, and yeah it's for the money probably, but they're really doing it. It's not just talk or for PR. They're very active.

How do you imagine the world in 10, 20, 50 years if you have a say in it?

My ideal world would be absent of vibration, of mechanical noise. The way we take care of our needs would be silent. There'd be less drag. We'd have different fuel systems. Systems over all would supersede the people in them.

Who are three women you admire?

  1. Janine. I feel graced to have worked with her for the past eleven years.
  2. Sacajawea -- the only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition. She was also the only Native American. It was a two year expedition during which she had a baby and led them, all eleven men. She crossed gender, cultural and ecological boundaries. She showed resilience and nurtured a child through it all.
  3. The female octopus. They guard the nest. They are fluid and adaptable. Graceful.
  4. Sacajawea Sacajawea

Want more? Here's a great feature on TreeHugger and this, Better By Design pdf.

Read more of Chauncey Zalkin on What Women Make.