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strategy and business
 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


Janine Benyus: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B: And the cost of not stepping up becomes prohibitive.
The cost of not stepping up is either regulatory burden or a loss in market share, or you end up buying other companies’ carbon credits, and so forth. [See “Unrecognized Assets,” by Molly Finn, Gary M. Rahl, and William Rowe Jr.] No one can really say how savvy consumers are going to be, but if you’re a company that’s not innovative in your processes, you might ask yourself, How long is it going to be until the eco-literacy of my customer base rises and my product is seen as a risk, and they go with the other company? At what point are the taboos going to be about my products? Some companies are trying to be the obvious leader in that space — the new space which is not just green but smart, hip, and innovative. They’re saying to stockholders, “You should invest in me because your dollars will be safe with me.” They’re saying to customers, “Buy my products because it will encourage more of this kind of innovation, and you’ll be seen as innovative because of what you’ve bought.”

This gets back to that taboo-and-status aspect of consumerism. People are proud of their brand-new, energy-efficient clothes dryers, which happen to be the coolest-looking dryers on the market. Environmentally intelligent products are seen as “best in show,” not just for the sustainable-lifestyle consumer, but for anyone who cares about good design.

S+B: There’s an essential optimism in your work compared to many who write about climate change or environmental damage.
I have chosen to focus on the solutions. I’ve chosen to align myself with companies that are moving toward sustainability. I would rather work out of hope — I’d rather get busy than get depressed. But the only reason you’d ever do this kind of work is that you know how bad things really are.

Dee Hock, the founding CEO of Visa International, says things are too bad and it is far too late for pessimism. So I have chosen to find what’s working and make more of it. Because that’s how life works. Everybody thinks of life as a big struggle; something’s always dying out. And that does happen, through evolution. But I think of it as more than just failures dying out. What’s really instructive is to look at what gets selected to live on in the next generation. The adaptations that work are the ones that survive.

That’s all biomimicry is, when you think about it. It’s about finding the things that work. Right now designers across the globe share best practices with fellow designers. They’ll notice when someone in Sweden, let’s say, is doing this innovative green thing. Biomimicry is similar, except that it looks for the best practices of the 30 million species out there that have been figuring out chemistry, engineering, and physics — trying to live on this planet without destroying the place that sustains them. We are in exactly the same situation. We’re trying to live on this planet without destroying the things that sustain us. So let’s share best practices from the overlooked, undervalued, underappreciated geniuses that surround us. When you realize that organisms are the embodied wisdom of living well in place, you begin to see nature in a whole new light.

And all it takes is building a structure to get the ideas from biology flowing into human design. Is that hopeful? Yeah, definitely. But don’t forget that you can also use biomimetics to create a more dangerous weapons system. Or you could borrow the recipe from a spider to make a fiber as strong as spider silk. But you’d lose the holistic value of biomimicry if you turn around and make that fiber in a sweatshop and then put it on a truck spewing diesel fumes. Unless you biomimic everything — the product, the process, and the whole economy — you’re not quite there. That’s why I look at it as a three-part pursuit. You mimic the form for design, you mimic the process for manufacturing and chemistry, and you mimic the ecosystem within which companies operate — creating industrial food webs so that the waste of one company is the raw material of the next. If you were to apply nature’s principles at each one of those levels, then you really might get something that approximated how well these systems work in nature. That’s a big endeavor, and it takes more than just technological know-how from the natural world. It takes humility, will, and wisdom.

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