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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

Janine Benyus: The Thought Leader Interview

The biomimicry pioneer is teaching executives that the solutions to their most challenging problems lie in nature.

Photograph by Vern Evans
Within the current wave of corporate environmentalism, inspired by the threat of global climate change, large-scale thinkers are prominent. Many proclaim a new role for companies: to move beyond compliance with regulations to a leadership stance in the green, energy-efficient economy of the future. But in the long run, the most effective thinkers in this arena may well be those who start small, just as nature does. By emulating the patterns and designs and strategies in plants, animals, and ecosystems, they argue, corporations can become cleaner, leaner, and more consistently innovative. For the past decade, one of the most influential voices in this school of thought has been that of Janine Benyus.

Ms. Benyus was the first to identify the nascent discipline, which she dubbed “biomimicry” and galvanized with her groundbreaking 1997 book of the same name. Biomimicry, writes Ms. Benyus, is “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.” To practice biomimicry, a technologist must turn away from conventional “heat, beat, and treat” industrial processes, and study “what works in the natural world, and more important, what lasts.” For example, ceramic manufacturing could emulate the self-assembly of abalone shells; adhesive tape could be patterned after geckos’ feet; and computer chips could be designed to assemble themselves through crystallization, just as microscopic algae called diatoms assemble their shells. More important, each of these innovations (and many more) could be produced with a fraction of the environmental liability — and in many cases the cost — of conventional industrial processes. In nature’s innovation and resilience, Ms. Benyus sees the keys to achieving sustainability, which former Norwegian President Gro Harlem Brundtland defined as the capacity of society and industry to “meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

A biologist by training, Ms. Benyus never set out to become a guru of sustainable business. In the course of writing several books on wildlife and animal behavior, she came to appreciate “the exquisite ways that organisms are adapted to their places and to each other.” The observation led her to a profound realization: “In seeing how seamlessly animals fit into their homes, I began to see how separate we managers had become from ours,” she writes. She set out to identify the people “who know that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved the problems we are struggling to solve.”

What she found was like-minded individuals “working at the edges of their disciplines, in the fertile crescents between intellectual habitats.” Sensing that there were broader applications at the intersection of ecology, commerce, technology, and materials science, she cofounded the Biomimicry Guild in 1998 and developed models for applying biomimicry to industrial design and systems. Among her growing list of clients are Levi Strauss, NASA, Nike, Patagonia, Procter & Gamble, S.C. Johnson, and General Electric.

When she wrote her book a decade ago, she noted that there was no formal biomimicry movement as yet, but that people responded to the idea with enthusiasm. “Biomimicry has the earmarks of a successful meme; that is, an idea that will spread like an adaptive gene throughout our culture,” she says.

Ms. Benyus met with strategy+business at her house at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana, surrounded by the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. Warmed by a stove burning wood pellets on a frigid February morning, Ms. Benyus explained why biomimicry is catching on with business and where it’s going.

S+B: You say that there has been no formal biomimicry movement until now. Do you see one taking shape?
BENYUS:
Absolutely. When I started working on the book in 1990, my source material was all small scientific journals. Very obscure. None of the people doing this kind of work knew each other, and they all had different terms for the same concepts and different ways of describing their work. But now, when they write grant proposals and research papers, they all talk about doing “biomimicry” or “biomimetic research.” It’s now a known term.

 
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