SoundAffect: Janine Benyus on 3.8 billion-year-old solutions to today's design challenges

Author and Co-Founder of Biomimicry 3.8 Janine Benyus sits down with host Megan Hayes to explain the art and science of biomimicry and how nature may hold the key to the biggest scientific and social challenges of our time.


  • Janine Benyus: In sustainability, we’ve been like charging toward net-zero, which is not a very, you know, inspiring thing. You get to zero meaning zero harm. It’s hard!

    Megan Hayes: Especially on a college campus; nobody wants a zero!

    JB: It’s hard to do. I’m not ... we need to do no harm. Once we get to that level, where we are meeting our own needs. I think it’s time to go positive. We have to get to that point and that’s true Biomimicry — when we are functioning like that and when we are that kind of a good neighbor.

    Announcer: From Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, this is SoundAffect. Now, here is your host, Megan Hayes.

    MH: Janine Benyus is a biologist, author, innovation consultant and self-proclaimed “nature nerd” who popularized the term biomimicry with her 1997 book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.”

    Since the book’s 1997 release, she has evolved the practice of biomimicry, speaking around the world about what we can learn from what she refers to as "the genius that surrounds us."

    Janine Benyus is also co-founder of the world’s first bio-inspired consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8, with high-profile clients that include Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive, Nike, General Electric, Herman Miller, Procter and Gamble, Levi’s, Kohler and General Mills.

    In 2006, she co-founded the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to making biology a natural part of the design process. The institute hosts annual global biomimicry design challenges on massive sustainability problems, mobilizing tens of thousands of students and practitioners through the Global Biomimicry Network to solve those challenges, and providing those practitioners with the world’s most comprehensive biomimicry inspiration database, AskNature, to use as a starting place.

    She is a graduate of Rutgers University, with degrees in natural resource management and English literature/writing. Janine Benyus, welcome to SoundAffect!

    JB: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

    MH: Well, we are so glad to have you on our campus. I was wondering if you could start by explaining the concept of biomimicry and how far along this concept has come into becoming mainstream since you first published your book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” Because 97 was a long time ago.

    JB: Yeah. Biomimicry is an innovation practice where we look to the natural world for designs, processes, strategies that we then try to emulate in order to create a more sustainable world. The core idea is that life has been on Earth for 3.8 billion years and has learned during that time what works and what lasts and how to fit in here. So, some of the people who make our world — the chemists, the architects, the engineers and physicists — are turning to the natural world as a whole new library of innovations that are already sustainable.

    MH: So, can you talk a little bit about the difference in technology that is inspired by nature and bio-assisted technology, and maybe share some examples to show how they are different?

    JB: That’s a really good point because there are a lot of bios out there. So, I’ll start with bio-utilization. Some people say, “Hey I have wood floors. I’m doing biomimicry.” Well, no. That is bio-utilization. You are using something that has been harvested by a natural producer wood ... a tree. Bio-assisted is where you have nature actually help you do something. Cleaning our waste water with bacteria is a bio-assisted process or using yeast, which is a living organism, to make beer is a bio-assisted process, and we have been doing that for a long, long time. Biomimicry is where you are actually looking to the natural world for a blueprint. Right?

    So, I’ll give you an example. Sharks, especially this shark called the Galapagos shark, doesn’t get bacteria on its surface; therefore, it doesn’t have barnacles and it has a very smooth surface, and scientists realize that the reason is actually shape — it’s not chemistry. They are not killing the bacteria. The denticles on their skin have particular nanoridges that the bacteria don’t like to settle on; therefore, it actually repels bacteria. Therefore, it doesn’t breed for resistance because you are not killing bacteria, so you don’t have superbugs. So, there is a company called Sharklet that has taken that shape. They are putting on doorknobs and hospital railings, and Steelcase is using it in their handles of their arm rests of their chairs. It’s actually just a contact paper that has that shape on it. So, it's not that they bred sharks and then took the ... that would be a bio-utilization you know? Using their skin. And it’s not that they are having sharks help you, you know? You are mimicking something in the natural world. The organism stays in the wild. You borrow the idea, the blueprint, the recipe, the strategy. Therefore, it’s quite different than bio-assisted or bio-utilized.

    MH: Almost seems, in a way, the sort of simple genius, too, where you know it would be much more difficult to breed the sharks and use their skin, but it this case, the contact paper seems like a really simple solution.

    JB: Yeah. There is a lot of surface things. There is a paint, a facade paint for buildings that mimics the bumpy structure that’s on lotus leaves. A lot of leaves that you see that have, in the morning, you see balls of dew balled up on a leaf. That’s actually a self-cleaning mechanism for the leaf because if you look really closely at its surface, it’s got these little bumps on it that forces the water to ball up and then the dirt particles teeter on those bumps. Then, the ball of water kind of pearls them away, so this Lotusan paint basically, when it dries, it has that bumpy structure, and so yes, here was human ingenuity in trying to figure out how to have the paint dry so it would have that kind of bumpy structure and particular geometry, but then rainwater can clean the building. So, yeah, back to your question; it’s a good question to ask.

    MH: I’d like to ask you about your career path. So, how did you get to the point where you became the biologist at the design table for companies and governments and universities?

    JB: Yeah, total accidental tourist. I am a natural history writer by profession and “Biomimicry” was my sixth book. I had written five books about plant and animal adaptations. I was fascinated with natural technologies and what allows organisms to live at the top of a mountain or the bottom of the ocean, and the cool technologies that they have. I began to realize that they are also very sustainable. None of the chemistry is done with heat, beat and treat, which is how we make our things. We heat them up with high pressures and toxic chemicals. None of it is like that, because it has to be done in or near the organism's body. Look at spider silk; you know it can’t afford that.

    So, I thought, “This is interesting.” You know, there is this whole set of technologies honed over 3.8 billion years. Surely there must be a discipline or career path, or the people who make our world probably sit down with biologists. For instance, the people who make solar cells probably sat down with a botanist. I was shocked to find that wasn’t true. I started to look for it. This was back in 1990. I started to collect, and any time I found a scientific paper where there was a botanist talking to a solar cell manufacturer, I collected it. One day, I walked past four drawers of a HON filing cabinet filled with Xerox papers, and I said, this is crazy. This field has no name. Nature-inspired inspiration at that point had no name.

    So, I decided to write a book, and I had to name the first folder something actually. That is where “Biomimicry” came from. Bio means life, and mimesis means to imitate, and I wrote that on the tab. Then the book came out and I went to start writing my next book. The phone started ringing off the hook, and it was Nike and Interface and Herman Miller and Seventh Generation and Patagonia and GE and Boeing and all of these companies saying, “We invent every day. We need a biologist at our design table. Could you send one over?” They assumed I had a company.

    MH: A team. A giant team of people.

    JB: I was sitting there in my pajamas writing and I finally got the memo and said history is calling here, and we need to start a company. At that time, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, which is where I worked at the time, named Dayna Baumeister called me and said, “I read your book. I shook for three days. This is what I want to do for my career.” I said, “Do what?” She came down and we talked for about 14 hours in my house, and we basically said we need to start training biologists and we need to start going to these companies. This is our opportunity to help create more sustainable products. As biologists, there is nothing better we could do in the world.

    MH: What a cool interdisciplinary entrepreneurial story. I love that.

    JB: That was 20 years ago, and Dayna and I are still rocking in the free world and doing it. Yep.

    MH: So tell us what that process of consulting for a client looks like for you and really, when you are working as a consultant, how do you know when you have achieved success?

    JB: Oh! That’s a really good question! Wow, Megan! So, what we do is, say North Face comes to us and says, “We wanna do water repellency on our tents, but we don’t want to use Teflon anymore. It’s too toxic.” We say, “Well yeah. Life knows how to repel water. Water runs off a duck's back for a reason.”

    So, we do a project called an Amoeba through Zebra, and all we are doing is searching through the biological literature which is voluminous. We are reading all these papers, and a few of them are labeled “Water Repellency in the Natural World.” There is a paragraph or two that mentions water repellency, and if we get lucky, they tell us how it’s done. We call it Amoeba through Zebra because we look at all classes of organisms. We find a better sample size that way. We look at bacteria and fungi and plants and animals, and we just keep asking that functional question, which is not how biology is organized, but we do find a catalogue of mechanisms and none of them are Teflon. We then present that. We basically create a taxonomy, we call it; we gather them together and we present, say, 25 mechanisms to the client. They say, “Well, let's try that one.” Here’s a shape one. Here’s a chemical one. Then we work with the inventor, or the engineer, or the material scientist, or the product designer to try to put that into the tent. Now, you asked how do we know when we have succeeded.

    So, for us to do deep biomimicry, we not only want to borrow the form from the natural world, but we also want to influence the way it’s made. The chemistry and the process. So, we keep on trying to layer more and more biomimicry. So we say, “How are you gonna make it? What are you going to make it out of? How are you going to grow what you’re going to make it out of? How are you going to package it? How are you going to ship it? Can we ask nature every step of the way?” We use what’s called nature's principles as a checklist. It’s on our website, Life’s principles are a list of things that we have found as biologists that most organisms have in common. They turn out to be a very, very good eco checklist. There are things like life does chemistry, in water instead of toxic solvents, or life uses a small subset of the periodic table that are life friendly. Those sorts of … we think of them as operating instructions. We try to bring to the client as many as the client will adopt. It becomes more and more sustainable and for us, more biomimetic.

    MH: Wow. My husband and I were watching some of your TED Talks yesterday, and it inspired a long conversation, which is really cool. One of the things that we were wondering was ... you know we were talking about all of the new things that biomimicry can do to help us move forward. How can Biomimicry help us undo some of the harm that we have done to our environmental, but also maybe our social environments?

    JB: Hmm, interesting. A lot of, there are a lot of things that come to mind. The biggest issue facing us now, existentially, is of course climate change. Biomimicry can help in many ways. There are two things we need to do: stop emitting greenhouse gasses and then pulling down legacy carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Biomimicry helps on both of those sides of the ledger.

    I’ll just give you one cool example because it’s student-originated. At Caltech, at John Dabiri’s lab, when he was at Caltech, they were looking for a way to help wind farms be able to move into cities and not take up as much land. One of the things that wind farms do with the horizontal axis wind turbines is they have to put them far apart, because there is turbulence that happens from the wing, from the blade, and they were studying fish schooling and found that in a school of fish, the fish in the front basically, as they swim, they throw off a little vortis in the front, a little spiral. The fish behind will curl their bodies around like a sail and get flung upstream, so they said, “Why don’t we use vertical axis turbines, the kind that are like little cylinders, and we will put them in a tight school formation?” Sure enough, five times more wind power, which is good for the environment. The turbines in the front start to move, and those vortices start to turn the ones in the back before the wind even hits. That is a really good example of not emitting. Let’s move to wind and let’s do it in a way that doesn’t use as much land.

    On the other side, pulling down carbon ... that’s where you get into agriculture. I think one of the things we are going to have to figure out how to do is figure out how to biosequester — that is, pull carbon dioxide deep into the soil so it gets far enough down in the root column that it is trapped there for hundreds or thousands of years. Some of the best ways to do that are biomimetic agriculture. So, rotational grazing, for instance, which is based on, well, you basically take cows and you put them into groups that are similar to how buffalo would graze when they had predators. They would hang out and graze, and then move. So, they rotationally would graze the grass. Grass evolved this way, and so it gets more and more carbon. It just gets more and more of a flush of photosynthesis. So, rotational grazing is one way. Agroforestry — where you have trees in amongst the crops — allows a lot more carbon sequestration. I think we are going to get to the point where we are going to ask, “Do our farmlands sequester as much carbon as the forest next door, and how can we make that happen?” Because we are going to have to pull that carbon dioxide down and bring it home. A lot of those are biomimetic agriculture approaches. In my book … Wes Jackson in Kansas …  it still has that project of perennial polycultures, which are mixtures of crops grown in the same field, but overwintering, so they are covering the ground. They sink a lot of carbon. We are just at the beginning of looking to the natural world for climate change solutions.

    MH: You have talked in your “Biomimicry” book, you were saying that when you look at a natural space you just mentioned, does this space that we are working in now, is it was effective in whether it’s pulling in carbon or whatever your areas of measurement are as the space that we are working in? Can you dig into that measurement piece a little bit, so you can just explain a little bit about, again, how you can tell how effective you are or where the areas of success lie?

    JB: A lot of what we have talked about so far is nature as model, trying to emulate something in the product space. I think nature as measure is going to be very impactful going forward. I am here on campus to talk about an initiative called Campus as a Forest. We are actually encouraging campuses, and corporate campuses and all kinds of places — cities for that matter — to try to emulate the wildland next door, to be truly biomimetic. What does that mean? Well, what if we measure ourselves against a healthy ecosystem? What would be growing there, in our city or our campus, if we weren’t there? Here, it would be the beautiful forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We know that those systems provide us with free services. That’s how we know they are healthy. They clean air and they clean a certain amount of air every year. We can measure that. They clean a certain about of water each year per acre. You can measure that. They build a certain amount of soil; they cycle a certain amount of nutrients. They cool the air to a certain temperature. These are all things you can measure. So, we have been using something called ecological performance standards. We basically, say you are going to build some new buildings, like the Innovation Campus you are building, before you even build, you basically say, “Those are our metrics. We are going to go to a reference habitat here and find out all the ecosystem services and what the metrics are, and that becomes our ecological performance standard.” We go in before the building and we baseline it, and that’s your current performance, and if it’s a bulldozed parking lot, you know that it’s not cooling or storing water or … right? So, you start pretty low, but then you start to layer in design interventions. Maybe you put in a bioswale. Maybe you put in permeable pavement so you can sink water. Maybe you put in a green room so that you can start to store carbon. Maybe even your buildings get involved, because, say, you want to do carbon storage in your building. Maybe you build with timbers or you build with concrete that sequesters CO2.

    There is a company called Colaira and Blue Planet that sells CO2 sequestering concrete. It gives you this reason to try to have multifunctional surfaces. Say on your building, you actually encourage birds to nest in niches. You are supporting biodiversity. Up on the green roof, you have hives because you are supporting pollinators. It’s a really interesting way for our systems to become more and more generous over time. As generous as the ecosystem next door. The first corporation to do this is Interface carpet. We are doing with each of their headquarters … we call it Factory as a Forest. The factory and its site. Can it clean water? Can it cool? Can it support biodiversity? And it’s going to take years to have this happen. We are thinking what a cool way to have the campus at App State do the same thing. Set metrics for themselves, and then year after year, student design ideas get implemented and then you measure whether or not you are getting more like the forest next door. You know, hopefully. It’s a move in sustainability. We are, like, charging toward net zero, which is not a very inspiring thing. You get to zero.

    MH: Especially on a college campus; nobody wants a zero!

    JB: It’s hard to do, but I mean, we need to do no harm. Once we get to that level, where we are meeting our own needs, I think it’s time to go positive and it’s time to actually give back, because biologists know that forests don’t just go to zero and meet their own needs, and then never release clean water downstream or never release clean air to the next watershed. We have to get to that point, and that’s true biomimicry — when we are functioning like that, when we are that kind of a good neighbor. Design for ecosystem services is an exciting thing to contemplate. What would our buildings look like if we were inviting wildlife in? What would they look like if they were made out of substances ... concrete that gobbles up organic pollutants, photocatalytic concrete, and how many positive things can we have them do?

    MH: Well, and I love that measurement concept because, especially on a college campus, you have transient populations, so you get really excited students that design really amazing things and it’s always the legacy piece that is difficult because you want to show here is something to build on, and when you can continue to look at the data and say, “OK, this is where we are now, how do we get better?” It’s really exciting.

    JB: How do we get better? We are only sequestering this much carbon in our soils. Well, we gotta give up pesticides because it’s the microbes that really help sequester the carbon. So, we are going to have to do no pesticides. You may already do that here, because you are so sustainability savvy, but it really does change not just the form of the campus, but it actually changes policies. And then, of course, if you have students who live in that environment and who are always looking for, “Why is this parking lot just a parking lot?” they are always looking for the next thing, and I think that is a change that you don’t go back. That’s one of those ratchet changes you don’t go back from — that way of thinking. That abundance way of thinking.

    MH: Yeah, and it also, I think, allows you to celebrate those smaller steps because I get impatient with wanting things to be better more quickly. I have to talk to myself a lot about, just look where I was two years ago or three years ago with whatever it might be — whether personal or something going on. I live in a farmhouse that was built in the ’30s, and it’s a never-ending project, so, those little things I think that’s part of human nature is to want to see success but also maybe not want to change too quickly. So, this seems to me like it meets both of those needs, in terms of showing that there is progress being made but also not imposing some massive, immediate change that requires a lot of people to really have to adjust in a major way.

    JB: Don’t get me wrong, I would love that massive change.

    MH: Well, sure.

    JB: But I think you are right. A couple of things, just psychologically, we are overly aware of the damage we have done … especially if you are in school. You need trauma counseling just from taking an environmental studies class. To be able to participate in the positive side and in our species turning the corner, we are going to need a lot of energy in the next couple of decades to do this kind of work, and we need things that are energizing. So yes! Small wins. And the best way to have small wins mean something, is to have them accumulate toward a goal that makes sense and that is achievable. It makes sense to be able to clean a certain amount of water each year because you know it’s happening right next door. You can’t dispute that. Then it just becomes a design question, like, “How do we clean this much water off our site?” I think humans are pretty creative. We got these big brains, and if we put them to that and then we keep counting it up and celebrating ... I’m not a psychologist, but it just seems to me that that gets you refreshed for the next project.

    MH: Yeah, I think the other thing, too, that occurred to me while you were talking, is I think we also, in some cases, just as a society — and maybe this is just an American thing, I don’t know — but we have a tendency to say, “OK, that doesn’t work, so we can’t do any of it,” instead of finding that piece that may be working. And so, when you are measuring on many different levels, you can say that it might not be working well with level A, but on level L it is outperforming everything else out there. So, how can we hone in on that and instead of getting rid of the entire concept because it’s not working everywhere? Let's look at those different places.

    JB: Voltaire — “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s a stairstep, but a stairstep to where? I think it is really important to set a goal and to say, “How are we going to know when we are there?” For me, it needs to be locally informed, because Vermont is not Phoenix. The metrics have to be local. It really does help to be able to walk outside and get ideas from the locals and have that be a goal. As aspirational as it is, it’s a goal that makes sense and is not sort of up for debate. It’s happening over there, so the only question is how we start to get there.

    MH: So, what are some of the really big questions that we need to be considering now in academia, or business or government? What are those huge things that you see?

    JB: The same you probably see. Right now, the biggest thing in our face is climate change and democracy. How do we remain in the climate that we evolved in? The Holocene. How do we bring this planet back to a life-friendly zone, the zone we evolved in? That is enormously in front of me as a biologist. Democracy is a how, and good people who have a good way to organize themselves from the grassroots up can do good things. And so, we are going to need, in these next few years, a very strong way to hear from everyone and then to figure out how to make, maybe not consensus decisions, but at least hear from everyone and collaborate.

    You asked earlier about social innovation and is there anything we are learning from the natural world on that front. It’s really interesting. Every few years, especially in the last 20 years, a new group of people who are trying to redesign something come to us all of a sudden — all of the engineers came and then all of the architects came. Now, social innovation people are coming, and they are saying, “What can we learn about the natural world about how we organize ourselves?” And I do think this ties into democracy, and we have been doing a lot of study again with the same technique in the biological literature around mutualisms, which are mutually beneficial relationships that organisms get into that are in two different species, like a flower and a bee. One pollinates and one gets nectar. It’s mutually beneficial. Or a fungus gives a tree phosphorus and the tree can’t get it on its own, so it gives it carbon, and there is an exchange there and it’s mutualism. It turns out that mutualisms are extremely important in how this world is run. Complex ecosystems are full of deeply imbedded mutualistic networks and not just competition. We are in an economic system that is based basically on head-to-head competition, and yet, when you look to the natural world, head-to-head competition is what organisms want to get out of. They would rather just coexist.

    Two different species of shore birds, say, go up to an island they’ve never lived before. They both happen to be clam eaters. In not too long, they are going to learn to, “Well you take the daylight, I’ll take the night.” They don’t want to do head-to-head competition. Organisms want to work, to be either coexisting and not bothering each other, taking different time shifts, or they evolve to be mutualists and to help each other in the hunt. So, we have been looking a lot at that and as esoteric as it sounds, I don’t think it is to say that one of the big things we need to do is to believe that mutualistic, cooperative, collaborative relationships is our true nature and to get ourselves through this evolutionary knothole that we are racing toward. I think we are going to have to ... back to democracy ... we are going to have to do the kind of democracy that involves a lot of working things out, so that it’s mutually beneficial. It’s win, win, win, win, win, win, win, and we have to figure out how to do that.

    So, we literally have been talking to companies that are merging, for instance, and we are saying, “What are best practices in the natural world about signaling that you want a partnership? How do organisms start a partnership? How do they maintain a partnership over long periods of time without cheating? How do they maintain it?” There are best practices. Just like everything else over 3.8 billion years, in the same way as fish have a great drag reduction strategy, partners have a great partnership with fidelity and reciprocity rules — just all kinds of things. I think as much as we have enormous technical challenges, we also have these social innovation challenges.

    MH: For sure. When you say that “over 3.8 billion years,” you start thinking, “Yeah, well, there is a lot of knowledge there that we can draw from!”

    JB: Yeah. The failures are fossils.

    MH: This is a similar question, but for young people today, what do you think their biggest challenge is?

    JB: I would say one of them might be navigating despair. That again, they are going to find solace in each other. I look and see how incredibly tribal and tight folks are, and I mean tribe ... not tribes against one another, but there just seems to be lots of ways to connect, and they are keeping their spirits up.

    The antidote to despair is remembering that we live on a competent planet and we are surrounded by elders that have figured out how to live here elegantly and gracefully in a way that enhances this place. So, it’s possible. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. Navigating that despair and continuing to move towards the light.

    Don’t spend too much time in the shadows of the problem space. We need every young person that we have to jump into the solution space and start messing around in the sandbox with us and figuring it out. Remember to look over your shoulder at the forest that surrounds you for the answers. That’s another antidote for despair. That’s what I would say. Just get busy on the solution space.

    MH: Looking at your talks on TED and reading some of your works and talking to you today, you make me really hopeful for our future. Are you hopeful?

    JB: Optimism is a choice. Dee Hock, who started VISA the Chaordic guy, that was his process; he called it Chaordic. He said, “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism.”

    That’s literally how I feel. I feel that once you have done your work of understanding the issues that face us, those are what James Hillman would call the shadows ... there is gold in the shadows. Yes. Go and learn those and then choose to be optimistic that we are going to get through this. Focus on the brilliance around us. The brilliance within us. The brilliance within you and within your mutualism cohort.

    It's not that I don't think it’s going to get crazy in the next couple of decades. It is. There is a lot of grief for me as a biologist. We live with that grief. But I do think that we are going to get through the knothole, and I think we are going to bloom on the other side. We are going to be living here in a way that fits where we are. It’s going to emulate the best of the best, because I think that's going to help us get through. The best of the best organisms that are here on this planet are going to be our teachers guiding us through that evolutionary knothole, and yeah, I do think we are going to get through. I have to. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’m going to be doing it for another 20. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

    MH: Well, Janine Benyus it has been such a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time and joining us in the studio today. Your passion — and I love that it’s mixed with pragmatism, because that is really what speaks to me, personally — I think it speaks to a lot of people who do work in academia and beyond.

    I’m so glad you stopped by to record this conversation with us, and I’m glad that you are here on our campus sharing and engaging in really important conversations, because I think we have a lot of growing to do and we will be doing a lot of growing as a campus in the next five to 10 years, and how we do that, we are sitting at a really important precipice now, and to have you here, facilitating conversations at that precipice is a treat and it’s an honor for us to have you. So, thank you very much.

    JB: Well, thank you Megan. I love to be here. I’ll come back

    MH: Great! We’ll take ya! (laughter) Thanks.