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Tapping the genius of nature

Biomimicry movement adapts ideas from the natural world


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Biomimicry Oregon members (from left) Mary Hansel, Ethan Smith, Nicole Isle, Faye Yoshiara, and Greg Smith, look for inspiration in nature to inform engineering and product designs.Human beings are pretty clever. We've forged steel, tamed waterways and even mastered flight. 

But an exciting new field of study that’s flourishing in Portland shows us how we can go even further — and be more sustainable in the process. 

Called "biomimicry" or "biomimetics," it’s a new twist on a very old idea: Take lessons from the natural world and apply them to human designs.

"We think our technology is so advanced, but the reality of that is that we are so far behind nature," says Yves Michel, an industrial design student who recently worked with the new Biomimicry Oregon network to create a better Adidas footwear design. 

Working with biologist and certified biomimicry professional Nicole Isle, Michel was able to envision a lighter shoe inspired by insect wings. 

"I ended up taking a direction I didn't expect. It's definitely out-of-the-box thinking," Michel says, declining to outline design specifics due to a confidentiality agreement. 

Having a network like Biomimicry Oregon to connect across disciplines is essential for creating these sorts of innovations, he says.

"As a designer, it's not in your everyday habits to work with a biologist," Michel says. "It's a field that is completely removed from what we do as designers on a daily basis."

Beyond heat, beat and treat

Patterning our designs on nature not only allows for faster innovation, biomimicry professionals say. It also facilitates technology that is more compatible with our ecosystems.

"You can come up with all the green strategies you want, but when you're looking at models based in science — that's the way it works," says Isle, a Biomimicry Oregon co-founder. "And nature has it right."

Biomimicry Oregon's parent network, Biomimicry 3.8, is named for what practitioners consider the 3.8 billion-year-old research and development laboratory all around us.

By comparison, says Biomimicry 3.8 Executive Director Bryony Schwan, the industrial philosophy of "heat, beat and treat" that has made things like steel, dams and airplanes possible is only a few hundred years old — and if we are to survive on Earth, we need to think differently. 

"Every organism on the planet faces the same challenges, but they've managed to do it without heat, beat and treat technology," Schwan says, citing the example of a spider that makes a material many times stronger than steel but with very little energy and very renewable resources: dirt and bugs. 

Once people are introduced to the idea of looking to nature for solutions, it doesn't take long for it to click, Schwan says. 

"People say: 'Of course, this makes so much sense.' They're not often aware that there are a whole collection of people thinking this way."

Animals as science teachers

Learning from nature has produced some greener approaches to manufacturing, including nontoxic industrial-strength glue and dye-free pigmentation.

Inspired by blue mussels' secure attachment to rocks regularly pummeled by waves on the Oregon coast, Oregon State University researcher Dr. Kaichang Li was able to modify soy proteins to create a robust yet nontoxic wood glue as an alternative to formaldehyde. The resultant PureBond hardwood plywood is currently available through Columbia Forest Products.

The human process of dying materials typically involves a lot of water and a lot of toxic chemicals. But many butterflies' wings are not pigmented. Instead, they physically manipulate certain frequencies of light. In this way, the pigment never fades and never needs a new coat of paint. It can also look different through different filters, thus allowing peacocks to stay hidden from predators in green forests yet appear brilliant blue to their potential mates. 

Biomimicry Oregon formed as a nonprofit in 2011. Since then, it has held a number of workshops and classes aimed at getting everyone from city planners to elementary school students thinking about how nature can inform the way we do things.

People get excited about the fresh ideas and fresh faces at Biomimicry Oregon events, Isle says.  

"You get people together who don't normally get in the same room, and they're talking about common ground and ... how it feeds into the work that they do," she says.

Their latest project, funded from a grant by the Bullitt Foundation, brought together a group of 45 professionals to brainstorm innovative solutions to one of Portland's perpetual problems: stormwater management. 

The Genius of Place workshop looked at local examples such as beavers, the microstructure of wood and the functionality of a forest canopy to see how humans can emulate the way nature manages water — catching, storing and slowing rather than deflecting, diverting and destroying. 

Out of the 25 ideas the workshop came up with, Biomimicry Oregon hopes to facilitate the development of at least one to the marketplace.

Mary Hansel, another Biomimicry Oregon co-founder, feels it's worth it to volunteer her time toward these goals, as they show a way that humans can live in concert with the world around us, instead of in opposition. 

"We face a number of sustainability challenges in our world, and if we look around — if we look to nature — nature has already solved a lot of the problems that we have in a way that is sustainable,"  Hansel says. "As you learn more and more about that, you become more and more awestruck, and that may lead to more desire to protect nature." 

Portland poised for leadership

Based in Portland, Ethan Smith operates Biomimicry 3.8's AskNature.org website — an effort to give broad and easy access to nature's solutions for universal problems. 

Humanity’s biggest challenge is to realign our system to what works on this planet, Smith says. "The industries in this area are ripe for the ideas that create the biomimicry meme.”

Michel, the Adidas design student based at the University of Montréal, says he can easily see Portland becoming a national leader in biomimetics. 

"There's plenty of great design companies there," Michel says. "It would only make sense seeing how Portland is so forward-thinking."

Schwan, based at Biomimicry 3.8's headquarters in Montana, agreed, noting that Biomimicry Oregon is one of the first and fastest-growing networks in an organization that has activity all over the world, including Mexico City and Shanghai. 

"Portland is already sort of on the cutting edge of green building and sustainability," she says, suggesting that the study of biomimetics might take hold here quickly. "Creating that sense of a community of people out there who are innovating this way is very important."

Michel thinks that is the right direction for designers to go. 

"If we were to start to change our thinking and move toward a biomimetic way of design … in all the fields… it would be a much, much different world."

Shasta Kearns Moore is a freelance writer, children's book author and blogger at OutrageousFortune.net.