Focus on Leadership: A talk with Janine Benyus, founder of the biomimicry movement - Aug/Sep 18
Interview by Jessica Chevalier
Janine Benyus authored Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, released in 1997, and thereby founded the biomimicry movement. Over the years, her platform has developed, and today she teaches the concepts and practices of biomimicry through three organizations: Biomimicry 3.8, a consultancy; The Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit; and a master’s program at Arizona State University.
A nature writer by trade, Biomimicry was Benyus’ sixth book, and she was already in the process of writing her seventh when, in her words, “Biomimicry lifted me like a wave and said, nope, this is what you’re going to do.” Today, Benyus and Biomimicry 3.8 have helped many large corporations-including Interface, GE, Boeing and Patagonia-reconsider their technology and processes through the lens of nature’s expertise.
Benyus lives with her partner on eight acres in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley.
Q: How did you get from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where you grew up, to Stevensville, Montana, where you now live?
A: I was working on a series of field guides and went all over the U.S. on windshield tours. I drove into the Bitterroot Valley, where I now live, and I had this sort of homecoming. The area is within one of the largest continuous wildernesses in the Lower 48. Once the Internet was born-and I knew that I could still get books out here-I made the move.
Q: How did your book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and, more broadly, the concept of biomimicry come to be?
A: Earlier in my career, I created a group of ecosystem-first field guides. These enabled me to talk about things like, if I go for a walk in the Ponderosa Forest, what kind of critters will be there? And that allowed me to talk about how the critters in these areas have adapted to the places in which they’re living. All these years later, after writing many books about animal behavior, I’m still fascinated by the adaptations of animals and other organisms as they change within their environments. For instance, how do plants up 10,000 feet keep from fading? That’s something we might apply to flooring-how do you protect a carpet, for instance, from UV fading?
Organisms have to solve these challenges through principles of chemistry, physics and engineering. At a certain point, I realized all the answers are here in the sustainable world, and I thought certainly there is a discipline-related to design or engineering maybe-where you’d look to the natural world for ideas. For instance, if you’re going to make a fuel cell, you’d ask, how does nature harvest sunlight for energy? I was shocked to find that there wasn’t such a field.
In 1990, I started collecting articles where I found scientists studying spider silk, for instance, in the development of fiber or studying shells in the development of ceramics. It was as if we, as a society, had sort of woken up all of a sudden-the confluence of us starting to realize the unintended consequences of our technological adventures and the start of the sustainability movement.
So my partner Dr. Dayna Baumeister-co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8-and I found some biologists and started training them to understand industry issues, to look for natural solutions and completely new ways to do things. How does nature design a surface? Handle microbes? Create cushion? All those concepts are applicable to flooring.
I named the book, and that became the name of the field, and then companies started to call. Interface was an early one. They said, “We are trying to solve sustainability challenges, and we read your book. Why don’t you bring some biologists out and work with our team?”
But the whole thing started with my fascination with cool organisms-my eight-year-old self. Now it’s what I do for a living: survey animal adaptations and bring a solutions catalog to the people who make our world.
Q: Explain nature’s priority.
A: This is a big concept, and something that we think a lot about.
A priority is how you judge success. So what is natural selection’s priority? How does nature judge success? Life creates conditions conducive to life. Nature’s priority is the continuation of life. Success in nature means that your genetic material is still in the gene pool thousands of generations from now, so if you are an organism, you have to figure out how to take care of your offspring 10,000 generations from now. The only way to take care of them is to take care of the place that will take care of them, so they fertilize the soil, clean the air, make the place more fertile and conducive for life to come.
It’s like the market. The market chooses winners to move into the next generation. What is the market’s choice based on? In biomimicry we ask, does this organization and its adaptation or technology create conditions conducive to life?
At the center of our decision-making, we must consider, is the manufacturing process conducive to life? And, if not, when do we get to the point that it is? If carpet ends up out of the landfill, is it conducive to life? Not just for the baby crawling on it in a home but throughout its lifecycle. If you were able to answer that question ‘yes’ on every point, you’d really have something, right? Of course, life has had 3.8 billion years to figure it all out.
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: We’ve had Biomimicry 3.8-our consultancy-for 20 years; we’ve had The Biomimicry Institute since 2006, which trains and educates people around the world. Now we have The Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University too. I feel a huge sense of pride in those three organizations.
My proudest accomplishment is almost invisible but runs through the whole movement. Dayna and I created a code of ethics around our work because biomimicry can mean mimicking the shape of a penguin to make a torpedo. So across all the organizations, our DNA is to respect nature as mentor but also understand that this shouldn’t be ripped off in order to kill life. It’s important what you do with the knowledge.
One of the ways we make that happen with clients working on technology is that we come up with a series of ways that nature achieves the goal. Life does chemistry in water and uses a small subset of friendly materials, so in manufacturing we want to analyze materials, making sure they’re not toxic, not carcinogens, and that the manufacturing process is safe-low temperatures and low pressure, if possible. We look at life’s principles as a checklist of how to keep manufacturing as biomimetic as we can. We don’t just look at a humpback whale flipper and mimic it to create an efficient wind turbine, but we also ask, how does the product enter the market? I am proud of that next step to make biomimicry as deeply emulative of the natural world as possible.
Q: What is the coolest product that’s been developed through nature’s teaching?
A: That’s a really hard question, so I’m going to point to something that solves a very big problem. One of our very big problems right now is climate change. We have a lot of legacy CO2 in the atmosphere. In fact, even if we stopped emitting CO2 right now, we would be living with the effects for hundreds to thousands of years. We have to get it out of our air.
Interestingly, everything green sees carbon as a building block, as do ocean reefs. And today we see companies using CO2 to create products-sequestering the carbon in the material. The company Blue Planet makes concrete out of CO2 and brine, an environmental hazard. They mimicked the coral reef recipe to make a building material. I call this CO2-to-stuff. If we can make CO2-based plastics, could we someday make CO2-based nylons?
Q: Tell us about the Interface Entropy project.
A: David Oakey became interested in biomimicry after reading my book. He brought Dayna and me out to Interface, and we did workshops with his folks. One day, David took Dayna outside at Pond Studios, and they walked around. They started asking themselves, how does nature make a carpet? They were talking about cushioning and color palette and such, but they also realized that if you lean down and pick up a leaf, you can’t tell that it is gone. There is a random order in the forest’s patterning.
Of course, back then, the industry was designing carpet tile like broadloom-making a design and cutting it into tile. Then it was like puzzle pieces to install, and it created lots of waste. In addition, Interface was trying to do a takeback program for tile, so that if one got worn or damaged, the customer could send it back for recycling and get a new one, but the new tile would stick out like a sore thumb and often the customer would end up tearing up the whole carpet and landfilling it.
So we started to ask, what if every tile was different? What if it didn’t matter how the installers laid it down? Entropy was an amazing win. There was less waste. There was no sore thumb effect. Installation went like a breeze. It changed the industry to realize that nature does a lot of random ordering, that variation is okay.
Q: Can you explain why the human body is better suited to living in an environment surrounded by natural elements?
A: Have you ever considered why women love flowers? The reason is because women were the ones out doing the gathering, and flowers meant fruit eventually, so women were very happy when they saw a flower.
It wasn’t long ago that we were living in the natural world all the time. We evolved inside natural habitats, walking through jungles, seeing fractal patterns in the natural world. We got good at recognizing health. Muddy, stagnant water wasn’t something to camp near because muddy, stagnant water makes us sick.
In addition, we learned to be afraid of certain colors. Black and yellow-the colors of wasps-are a warning combination. Red and black were chosen for stop signs because, as the color of the coral snake, they naturally make us stop.
Today we know that when we can see trees, we heal
better-we learn more, we’re more creative, we remember more. Imagine being surrounded by good design all the time-design that works and has been honed by evolution to do what it does really well.
Q: So is a wood-look plastic floor good enough?
A: I don’t believe something that looks natural is as good as something that is. I think we’re more discriminating than we think.
Hardwood, for instance, is not just a visual experience. There is a smell, a feel underfoot. I think we trust it more. Real wood speaks to us. Throughout time, we used it to build our fires, depended on it, made things from it. It was precious. We’ve been given so many facsimiles that we don’t even know what we’ve lost.
Q: What types of flooring do you have in your home and why?
A: Karri wood, which is this amazing reddish, blondish wood. It’s a eucalyptus, a huge tree and one of the hardest woods. It originally came from Australia, but there is a silver mine in Idaho that used karri to line the shafts they’d use to pull metal buckets up and down. They imported karri wood by the tree, and it would last for decades. When the old mine closed, a friend got a block of it that hadn’t been used, and we had it dried and milled into tongue and groove flooring.
In addition, we have Interface carpet in our exercise room and guest room, and old wool rugs from India and Asia.
Q: Please explain a few of the fundamental teachings from nature, such as sipping energy and minimizing material usage.
A: Life has to work or barter for every bit of energy or material it gets. Things are precious. So life succeeds by using as little as it possibly can. One of life’s big energy reductions is in how it manufactures. When material scientists talk about their processes for creating a new material, they refer to it as “heat, beat and treat.” How high do you heat it? How much pressure do you put it under? And what chemicals do you treat it with? Life can’t do that. Life works in low temperatures, low pressure and with only life-friendly chemicals. That’s how to reduce energy in manufacturing.
Regarding minimizing material usage, life is constantly sensing how much material it needs as it’s growing. Our bones re-form all the time; that’s why they’re lattice-like. They take material from places it’s unnecessary and add it where it’s needed. Today, there is software called OptiStruct that does this. For buildings and vehicles, this lightweighting software can figure out how much stress an area is under and move material where it’s needed.
Q: What are a few of your pet peeves?
A: Bad sound and bad lighting. People are surrounded by really disturbing sound. Why can’t we capture that vibration and turn it into energy? In addition, we don’t need so much light. We are living in fluorescents. They are excess and inelegant. I also dislike packaging within packaging. I bought a cucumber grown right around here, and it’s covered in plastic. Why? It had a perfectly good package already on it.
Q: What is the most critical development you would like to see to help drive the greening of the built environment?
A: Eco-performance standards for the built world.
A site, a block, a district or a city is biomimetic when it functions like the forest next door. What does that really mean?
Ecologists know if a forest is healthy by measuring the benefits that it gives away; this is called its ecosystem services. So we go to a habitat near a city and look at how much water is cleaned per acre, how much cooling takes place, how much carbon is sequestered. Then we go to the city and see how to redesign it to meet or exceed the ecosystem services of the forest next door. It’s all based locally, and the building and site can do it together.
Interface, in its next iteration with us, is factory as forest-to produce ecosystem services on its sites. What if everyone did this?
I’m on the board of the USGBC, and I’m really excited about the Arc platform. It’s a performance-based platform. When you walk into a space utilizing the system, there will be a dynamic plaque with a digital dashboard that shows how the facility is performing with regard to energy and water usage, waste, transportation and human experience.
Q: What are some of the major challenges that people don’t focus on enough?
A: The amazing extinction that is going on. We talk about climate change and rising sea levels, but biodiversity laws aren’t talked about enough. Organisms are already on the move up to cooler climates. This means that they are migrating from places that they know well to places that they don’t. And we’re going to have a lot of strange bedfellows-organisms that haven’t been together before. In addition, not everyone moves together. Sometimes the plant moves, but the pollinators don’t. We call this eco-decoupling. Supporting the movers as they move with our built environment-providing wildlife corridors, for instance-is very important to me.
The wellness movement in buildings is so big right now, but what about the wellness of the outside world? When are we going to focus on wellness outside the walls?
Q: Please name a few flooring products that pass your sustainability criteria.
A: While I think that it is possible for flooring to create conditions conducive to life, nothing is there yet. You may have beautifully grazed sheep and be sequestering carbon in the field, but then the wool is put on a ship and transported over the ocean.
So you do it in steps. In a perfectly sustainable scenario, the materials would be like those in the natural world. They would enhance the environment while being made. And they would do us some amazing service while in use. What about carpet that absorbs CO2 or freshens the air through photocatalytics? It needs to do more than just be soft underfoot. It could absorb footprints or light and make energy. Flooring is a lot of surface area; what are we doing with all that?
I am impressed by Net-Works at Interface, which pulls nylon nets from the ocean and recycles them into carpet fiber. Life concentrates the miniscule, pulling together dispersed things, and, similarly, Net-Works pulls nylon 6 and disperses it in a new form. It’s a cool social program. It creates livelihood. I love the idea of Net-Works.
Ultimately, sustainable flooring must just borrow material until its next version of life. A circular economy is imperative in the flooring industry.
Q: How do you find balance between teaching, the institute and personal time?
A: I have amazing people who work with me, and I know my limitations. I don’t try to micromanage. I have an image: there are amazing people holding spinning plates on sticks. And they have it. If one wobbles, I just go and gently re-spin it to get it going. That’s the best I can do.
I also feel that it’s super important to live in my community-a real place. My partner and I take care of eight acres and two ponds. And I try to spend as much time in the wilderness as I can.
I love to research and write. There have been years that have been too crazy. I have a hard time saying yes to so many things that are important in this important time, but I do what nature does and grow through it. I create a network and let people do the work that they dream of within the context of our business and nonprofit.
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