Biomimicry: The Secret Ingredient for Innovation in the Ecological Age

By Denny Royal

June 16, 2016

Adding biomimicry to the design thinking process improves ideation and leads to sustainable solutions.

Last year was a landmark year for the environment.

It was the hottest year on record, with more extreme weather than ever recorded in history, and it was the first time all of the world’s leaders agreed to try to do something about it.

It was a year that saw coal and oil slump world wide, while wind and solar power made enormous gains.

Laggard companies scrambled to catch up by marketing products and services that were a shade greener. While leading companies worked towards making ecologically sound practices standard—a move that will eventually make “green” marketing irrelevant.

What we’re seeing is the beginning of the shift from the industrial age to the ecological age.

It’s a shift that’s affecting every sector of business, from products and services, to the built environment.

A New Source of Innovation Is Required

So how do organizations change and prepare for the ecological age?

In recent decades, many teams have used human-centered design methodology and some flavor of design thinking to successfully drive innovation. (That’s been the case here at Azul Seven.)

These design methods are great for discovering unmet needs and rapidly iterating towards solutions. But some areas in the methodology are lacking as we look to design a more ecologically sound future.

For instance, the ideation of solutions is dependent on the individuals in the ideation sessions and their life experiences. Most of these folks have a perspective on innovation that’s limited to the industrial revolution and all that’s happened since.

As a result, we’re only innovating on ideas that have emerged in the last 200 years or so—ideas that have been destructive to the planet and are unsustainable for the long term.

In this methodology, considerations for the environment have largely been an afterthought, aimed at doing less harm, rather than more good. Human-centered design alone will not produce the business solutions of the ecological age.

So How Do We Design Better Solutions for Business and the Planet?

The answer is a combination of human-centered design and biomimicry.

Biomimicry is a rapidly growing discipline that looks to nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary trial-and-error for sustainable design solutions.

Biomimicry is different from bio-utilization, which is using natural materials like wood or hemp. And it’s not the same as bio-assisted, which is using the capabilities of a species, such as a cow that produces milk.

Rather, biomimicry is the emulation of nature’s time-tested design principles. It’s a transdisciplinary methodology formalized and taught by Biomimicry 3.8 in conjunction with Arizona State University. (I’m happy to say I just completed the two-year Master’s program and professional certification.)

As biomimics, we look to nature for proven ideas around which design teams can innovate solutions. We draw design principles from how organisms perform particular functions.

The beauty is that these principles can be used literally or figuratively to inspire the design of a form, process or system. For example, the nose of the Shinkansen Bullet Train in Japan was designed to match the form of a Kingfisher’s beak. It has an aerodynamic shape that was refined by evolution across millions of generations.

Figurative examples includes the Able Project in the UK. It’s a work rehabilitation program with a business model designed to mimic natural systems.

Workers take used cardboard boxes from restaurants in Yorkshire. They shred the cardboard and sell it for horse bedding. When it needs replacing, they collect it and compost it in worm farms. The compost is used to grow vegetables for sale, and extra worms are fed to sturgeon that produce caviar. The caviar is sold back to the restaurants.

Humans Don’t Have to Create All the Answers

Nature has already tested and solved numerous sustainable solutions to every functional challenge of life on Earth. All we have to do is take the time to look for them.

By combining the disciplines of biomimicry and human-centered design (like we now do at Azul Seven), we arrive at a more powerful innovation framework. We can account for the needs of users and improve our relationship with the planet, while drawing on a limitless ideation resource.

If you want to talk about how Azul Seven’s practice is evolving, connect with us. We want others to join us on this journey. Let’s see what we can make, change and do to create value while making our world better and more sustainable for all.

Click here to read Denny’s biomimicry ethos

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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