Pure Genius

How nature can solve our engineering -- and life -- challenges

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For Janine Benyus, the answers to our most complicated questions can be found in a place we often overlook: nature.

For Janine Benyus, the answers to our most complicated questions can be found in a place we often overlook: nature. A champion of biomimicry, Benyus wrote a book, launched a consulting firm and heads up an institute on the subject of natural solutions. A recent Heinz Award winner, Benyus spoke with me last month. Below are excerpts from our interview.

How did you come to be an expert in the way nature can provide solutions for our engineering challenges?

I started as a natural history writer. I'd written five books all about plant and animal adaptation. A couple were guides to wildlife habitats. It was about the organisms there, why they were so well adapted. It was all about nature's technology. For example, how leaves are able to capture solar energy in shady environments. It's always been a fascination of mine.

I wondered who was trying to emulate some of these technologies. I'd heard about Leonardo da Vinci and others, but I wondered why only a couple of people through history made it their mission to look to nature. Is there a field in which this is happening? It wasn't in the media. It didn't have a name. One of the first things I found was artificial photosynthesis -- looking at a leaf to design a better solar cell. I realized our solar cells don't look anything like leaves. This shocked me.

People are learning about nature, but who is learning from it? That is a profound difference. Those who are learning from it go through a path where they study the phenomenon, like photosynthesis, and figure out the mechanism. The next step is to try to make a product out of it. I'd take science which would help with sustainability, look in the patent database to see if there was a scientist trying to emulate it and then look to see if a company had been started.

We've been following this field since 1990. In about 1998, we started a consulting firm. Companies started to call us. They read my book. They said: 'We're inventing right now. Can you send some biologists over?' We didn't have any biologists. We realized this could be a new career for biologists. It's about doing a report on a particular function and then showing inventors the solutions, which are probably also going to be sustainable. Companies get that. This is a place they haven't looked before.

You work as a consultant for NASA, nonprofits, corporations and others. Could you give an example of how you've used nature's solutions to solve problems?

One of the examples we're proud of is with a company called Interface. They make carpet tiles. They're a highly sustainable company and we've been consulting with them for years. One of the first things we did was a workshop with their designers on how nature would make a carpet. We began to look at the random patterns in the natural world. When you pick up a leaf off the forest floor, nothing changes. That was interesting to us.

With carpeting, a pattern is printed onto a big rug. They cut it into squares. When they put it down, they have to match the pattern. When one of the squares gets soiled, they put down a new one. Interface will take back your bad squares and send you new ones. But there was a 'sore thumb' effect. You'd put down a new carpet tile and see the difference. Therefore, you pick up the whole carpet and throw it in a landfill. The innovation was to make every carpet tile different. You can lay it down anyway you want and there's no sore thumb effect. That is now 40 percent of their carpet tile sales.

Can we find these natural solutions to problems in everyday life?

One thing we do -- and we don't get to talk about it much -- is a list called Life's Principles. This is a list of best practices that are ubiquitous in the natural world. We said to ourselves as scientists, 'What do all organisms have in common?' To us, that's an operating manual for how to be a good Earthling. For example, life runs on current sunlight. It doesn't run on ancient sunlight or fossil fuels. Life is locally attuned and adapted. It gets its needs met locally. Life is resilient because it is diverse. It embraces diversity and doesn't put all its eggs in one basket. It is decentralized. It is self healing. It uses information and feedback to constantly learn and adapt and evolve. It emphasizes cooperation more than competition. A company like Interface began with some technical challenges. But they're not just interested in greening their product. They want to green their company. They're in the process of looking at Life's Principles. You can use Life's Principles to figure out how to plant your garden or how you're going to live your life.

Life's Principles have become an important part of our work. What if we had all our products meet these Life's Principles? What if our company met Life's Principles? Does our company run on information and feedback? Do we get most of our resource needs met locally? Are we decentralized or are we moving toward centralization? As people are looking to become more resilient in the face of constant change, life knows how to do that. If you use this as a design checklist and say, 'Does my company do this?' it's quite challenging.

Another example of biomimicry on an ecosystem level is something we're hoping will spread to a lot of cities. We work with a company called HOK. They're one of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the world. We work with them on city planning. We've done most of our work on cities in India and China. We have something called Ecological Performance Standards. These use nature as a measure. We go into a city and say, 'What native ecosystem would be here if we were not?' We look at what the services of that ecosystem would be. An ecosystem service is something like how many tons of carbon are stored by that ecosystem in a year. We say a city should challenge itself to meet or exceed that level of ecosystem service. It's very aspirational. It changes design, it changes the way cities think about themselves. In 20 years, we're going to try to meet or exceed the ecosystem services of the forest that New York City used to be.

Talk about your project Ask Nature.

In 2006, we started an institute to educate the next generation of biomimics and do things in the public domain. We realized there were untold numbers of inventors who we would like to have the same access to this biological inspiration. Our goal with Ask Nature was to organize the world's biological information by function and to be an online library of nature solutions, so any inventor in the world at the moment of creation can type in the function and [read about a nature solution]. I'm trying to reduce impact using a helmet and up will come woodpecker skulls. We've got just north of 1,300 strategies now on the site. We have an active group of students in design programs right now, which is exactly what we want. They're doing biomimicry projects everywhere we look and they're using Ask Nature as their source of information.

Congratulations on your Heinz Award. Do you have any plans for the grant?

I do. I have been collecting for a new book I want to work on about nature's deepest and most ubiquitous patterns and principles. It's things we see over and over again in the natural world that designers and innovators have not picked up on. They're very common, but very different from how we do things. It'll be a source book for people who want to learn from the natural world, whether it's for products or everyday life. So many people say we should work more like nature does, but people don't really know what that means. This puts flesh on those bones. These are the things that characterize life on Earth. This could be a more effective, more well-adapted way to fit in on this planet. That's the ultimate goal of biomimicry: to fit in and flourish here.

Photo: Janine Benyus

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure