Someone smart once said that “80% of new ideas come from analogy thinking.” We can’t confirm that number, so let’s just agree that a lot of new innovations are in fact copied, borrowed, or stolen.
Product designers and entrepreneurs often use the same, very predictable inspiration resources when they’re looking to come up with the next Uber or Airbnb. They browse the internet, go window-shopping, and walk around conferences to see what others are up to.
But many forget they have an inspiration resource all around them – nature.
Indeed, ours is not the only species that can innovate. The planet is full of functioning, successful – not to mention sustainable and renewable – innovation strategy examples. In nature, as in business, only the strong survive.
So it’s time to start thinking about biomimicry (Bios = life; Mimicry = emulation) as a key approach for developing future-proof innovations.
What is biomimicry?
Why should you consider biomimicry?
It all starts with the realization that we, humans, are not the center of the universe. We aren’t the only species capable of innovation. And we should behave with more than just our own needs in mind.
Approximately 8.5 million species currently live on our planet, all of which have created solutions to enable them to thrive on earth. Interestingly, 99.9% of the organisms that have lived on our planet are now extinct. This mind-blowing fact reminds us how easy it is to fail at the unforgiving test of evolution – 99.9% of species were incapable of future-proof innovation.
The 0.1% of organisms that remain (especially the primitive ones that have been around for millions, sometimes billions of years) must have found successful ways to deal with disruption. As the saying goes, nature finds a way.
This context is all to say that if we only look to the civilized world for ideas, we’re missing out.
How can we use biomimicry to future-proof our innovations?
While nature has been a source of artistic inspiration throughout history, it was only popularized in 1997 with the release of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus. This title led to the development of a new framework called biomimicry thinking, which guides the process of nature-inspired innovation. Biomimicry thinking was built using the design-thinking framework and follows similar basic steps with the addition of a bio-discovery phase.
In essence, rather than use a ‘How Might We’ statement, you would frame a biomimicry-thinking design challenge as a ‘How Would Nature’ statement. For example, rather than thinking about ‘how might we’ successfully open a franchise in another continent, you could trigger teams to think about how to find and build an international partner with whom to open a franchise by reframing the challenge as, ‘How would nature cooperate…’
This very problem has already been tackled, in fact. AskNature.org provides an entire database of publicly available biological strategies. And if you’re trying to build cooperative relationships, there is a webinar that discusses lessons you could learn from nature.
While biomimicry is most often associated with mimicking forms or structures, like how shark denticles can be applied to tire grooves to reduce hydroplaning, nature’s intelligence can also inform novel manufacturing processes, leadership strategies, and organizational design.
Examples of biomimicry innovations
The Logoplaste Innovation Lab team mimicked the spiral-growth principles of the fibers of pine trees to design a new plastic water bottle. This innovation makes it more durable without adding extra weight and reduces the total raw materials used by 7%.
While this inspiring video by 99% Invisible explains why we should actually call the Shinkansen bullet train the kingfisher train.
Having trouble making group decisions? Well, honeybees are apparently extremely efficient and effective at it. Indeed, there’s a lot we can learn from swarm intelligence and its emerging properties – AI researchers are looking into it.
And it’s worth keeping in mind that while ‘circular economy’ and ‘cradle-to-cradle‘ are considered to be fairly innovative approaches to product design, ‘waste’ doesn’t exist in nature.
How to ensure your innovations are sustainable
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that if you simply mimic nature without considering the broader ecosystem, you could still end up with innovations that aren’t future-proof. One way to make your innovations sustainable is by considering Life’s Principles as design principles.
Life’s Principles are a set of strategies that are regularly used by the 0.1% of organisms who remain on earth today. These are:
Why aren’t we employing biomimicry thinking yet?
For now, human-centered design thinking is still prevalent – we borrow strategies from other industries rather than employ the countless examples of validated innovation strategies all around us. That’s why, with the realization of these missed innovation opportunities and the added bonus (read: necessity) of making innovations that are contributing to a better future, we believe in the potential benefits of nature-centered biomimicry thinking.
The reality is that using biomimicry as a creative problem-solving approach adds complexity, especially when the translation between the biology and the design area is not obvious. Indeed, biomimicry is not limited to simply copying forms and functions in order to inspire new products, such as a dragonfly-inspired helicopter or whale-fin wind blade. This translation becomes much less obvious when we’re looking at how principles learned from the natural world can transform the mechanized investment framework to enhance resilience or how we can mimic the ‘wood wide web’ to restructure entire organizations.
Where biomimicry thinking might be useful
In order to achieve a broader application of biomimicry, we need to adapt our innovation mindset and approach.
First of all, we need a deep understanding of the context of each design challenge. We also need to determine how it differs from that of the biological inspiration. It’s not enough to understand the real needs of the end-users and customers; we also need to understand the system in which they exist. For example, if we’re trying to solve the pain points of unengaged employees struggling to find a more collaborative way of working, we need to understand their entire work environment (i.e., incentives and shared goals, the interactions they have within the organization, and with the external world). This requires a systems-thinking approach both during problem exploration and solution development.
Secondly, it’s not enough to simply think about honeybees during ideation and hope to come up with biomimicry solutions. Translating biological inspiration into a solution is the most important, yet often most difficult part of biomimicry. Not only is it limited to scientific-research findings, but it also requires someone that can translate the science into applicable design principles.
Thirdly, we tend to overvalue efficiency and trust numbers more than anything else when it comes to evaluating innovation. But is it even possible to quantify systemic innovation? And because biomimicry is inherently more complex, it seems a less efficient problem-solving approach. As such, it’s hard to convince corporates to invest in biomimicry.
What does a biomimicry-inspired strategy look like?
A biomimicry-related experiment that we’re testing here at Board of Innovation is our bacteria-like internationalization approach. This might not sound very sexy, but bacteria are very efficient at exponential growth through cell division. Not that we want to be like bacteria, or take over the world like a super-virus consulting giant or anything. That’s just creepy. We want to keep our entrepreneurial spirit while differentiating our offering.
We’re also looking at nature to learn how to make our team antifragile. How can we help our team cope with stress in this unpredictable world, and create long-lasting collaborations to learn from the past? How can we become superorganisms that are capable of self-steering? Imagine if we could make decisions as fast and foolproof as honeybees.
We hope that by experimenting with biomimicry ourselves, we’ll be able to show its value and motivate corporate innovators to adopt it more broadly. Good experimentation goes hand-in-hand with feedback, so we’re curious to hear if you believe that nature-centered biomimicry thinking could be a key step towards future-proof innovation?
Thanks for reading! I’m Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens, Innovation Consultant at Board of Innovation. I’ll be giving a keynote during London’s Global Innovation Forum in November about how biomimicry can inspire future-proof innovation. Reach out to me on LinkedIn to share your thoughts on this article, find out more about my keynote, or to arrange a time to chat (maybe in person during the event).