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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Innovations Inspired by Nature

Janine Benyus

So let me begin by saying that I think we are nature. I don’t think that any of our technologies are unnatural, I think that the tram I came on today, B52 bombers, the chairs you are sitting on, this technology, I think it is all nature, because we are biological beings and we created it. As a biologist, the question for me is not whether our technology is natural, but how well adapted it is to life on earth over the long term. And as designers, I think we are realising that perhaps our designs are not that well adapted yet. We're a young species at this point in our evolution; other species have been here before. It is the point at which you try to match yourself to the context, to the conditions that are out there. And you put out an artefact, just like a robin’s nest is an artefact, and the context decides yes or no, well adapted or not well adapted. And in the same way I think that our artefacts will be judged by natural selection. The question for the robin’s nest and the question for our buildings and our artefacts is the same, the question is, "How will the chicks fare here? "

For us to become better adapted, quickly, will I think take help. What the world needs now, in addition to love, is some great ideas, and luckily we are surrounded by genius. When I walked over here today, I was surrounded by the flow of this city, and I was surrounded by another city, another flow: a vital city in which this one is embedded. I thought about miles up in an air column, above us, I thought about the organisms like these IMAGE aerial plankton. These organisms, insects, mites, ballooning spiders, fungal spores, bacteria: millions of organisms, hundreds of thousands of these species in this air column, in this aerial plankton, some of them never come down. And I thought about the column of the soil beneath us, in which there are bacteria making soil, making fertility, crumb by crumb.

There is more biomass beneath us, we think now, than there is on the surface. That world, that flow, is full of organisms doing the same things we are doing, all facing the same design challenges. These systems IMAGE , these IMAGE , or these IMAGE. Put yourself inside one of those systems and pretend that you're walking or swimming through it. Thousands of chemicals are being made, and none of them are interfering with the ozone, water is being pumped, water is being purified, miracle materials are being made, lightweight materials, using local, abundant raw materials. Homes are being produced, and young are being cared for. The same design challenges that we have are happening there; these are industrial zones to me. What is different is that there is not a part of that place that is unsightly, there is not a bad part of town here. And when you walk through these places, you don’t need to wear a hardhat, ear protection, or eye protection. To me, this is proof that a carbon-based life form can live on this earth for a very long time and get its needs met, and get the needs of its offspring met, and take care of the place that takes care of its offspring. Without destroying it, actually enhancing that place. And that is a great relief to me.
And it is also a relief to know that it's not just a few species, there are thirty million survivors, one percent of all the species that have even been on earth, are here today. And they are the survivors. And we are learning a lot about them.

Their adaptations are like a pattern language for survival. I'll just go quickly through some of the things we are learning.
The Namibian beatle has bumps on it. It lives in a place that has absolutely no open water, no ground water. It lifts its wings, and on those bumps there are water-loving tips that comb moisture out of the fog; the moisture rolls down and into the beatle’s mouth. We are now making tents for refugee situations that comb moisture out of the fog in the same way. Below that is the ormio fly. This is a creature that lays its eggs in crickets, so it has to be able to locate where those crickets are in a room. We, for instance, can't do that. And our hearing aids can't locate the direction of sound either. So scientists are looking at the ormio fly to find a new way to create hearing aids in which you can locate the direction of sound. And again, they are not going to be using the eardrums of these creatures, they are going to be using the design blueprint.
Below that is a kelp. It is an example of mimicking natures' processes. Inside all of the sanitary systems of this building there is bacteria build up, which is a problem. And what we usually do we flush it, with something like chlorine or bromine. So a scientist said to himself, and this is one of the key questions for biomimicry, "What in nature is depending for its survival on staying clear of bacteria?" And he found that, in the ocean where it is surrounded by bacteria, kelp are very smooth and clean. He went and he looked, and found that the kelp are keeping bacteria out of their surfaces with bromine, same thing we're using. But they found a way to stabilize the bromine so that it is non-reactive. We are now borrowing that recipe for a stabilized bromine product called "Stabrax".

This is a termite mount. These termites in Australia and Africa are keeping their mounts at 87 degrees farenheit at all times, night and day, because they're farming funguses inside. An architect named Mac Pierce build a mid-rise building in Zimbabwe. He had a termite specialist at the design table. And instead of asking how do we get rid of termites, he asked, how do termites live? And he built a building that has natural cooling, in the same way that the inside of this termite mount uses natural cooling, and uses the chimney effect to keep itself at a certain temperature.

Geckoes adhere to walls and ceilings and floors without glue, using a non-wet adhesive. They use very small doses of static electricity to cling to walls. It is a new way that fabric manufacturers, for instance, are thinking of for fraying fabric to the point that you'd be able to put in on the chair that you are sitting on, and then peel it off and send it back to manufacturer to get a new fabric with a new colour when you want a change. You'd be able to recycle the chair without trashing it, they way we do now because we have adhesives.

Peacocks, humming birds, bluebirds, and tropical butterflies are all brown. The blue colour that you see is created by the structure of the last few layers of the feathers (or scales), and the way they reflect the light. Computer display engineers are starting to use that same sort of interference technology, as it's called, to structure a computer display in such a way that light comes in and comes back out to your eyes creating the colour without an energy impulse.
And below that is the a sea-star that lives deep in the ocean, and sees its predators, even though there is very little light down there. The reason is that its entire body is covered with calcite spheres, lenses, that focus light in such a way that we've not been able to do. Lucent scientists are looking at this as a design for new fibre optic technologies. There are a lot of fibre optics in the natural world. Life plays with light. Light is a free energy source, so light is always playing with it and moving it around. With these spheres, what is interesting to me is not just their design, not just their form, but the way they're made. The way they're made is on the body, in or near the body. Whenever you have manufacturing on a body like that, it has to be body-friendly, no toxic chemicals, no high heats, no pressures. Literally those calcite spheres self-assemble out of the sea-water, they are templated by the organism, and they self-assemble out of the sea-water. It is a new paradigm for manufacture.
What all of these words say together is what it is interesting. Because what they all do together is they filter water, filter air, build soil, pollinate, they're sweetening the earth. There is the design challenge. Life creates conditions conducive to life in everything that it does, besides just meeting its own needs. It sustains not just itself, but us.

So, for you I am excited to be here to explore this with you because I think what we need is a new way of seeing these organisms. These solutions are hiding in plain sight! I think the reason that we haven't seen them, besides the fact that we don’t think of them as teachers, as mentors, is that we've given all that information to biologists and it is sitting in biological journals, collecting dust. How do we get designers and engineers, to see that information?

I went to the Galapagos Islands with a group of waste-water treatment engineers . And at first they were pretty resistant. Then we went snorkelling. They had told me about some of their sustainability challenges and one of the big ones was, in order to purify anything, we need better filters. And they didn't quite see how snorkelling around was going to help them find better filters, until they started to see organisms like this IMAGE . The entire world we were swimming in was filled with filters, better filters. So they began to get convinced that perhaps there was something here. Better filters. Then they said, alright, here's another one: we need to stop scaling. Scaling is a build-up of minerals inside pipes. We looked at the shells on the beach that were basically just a build-up of minerals, mineralisation, self-assembly. The fact that shells are not huge tells that these organisms have a way of stopping scaling, they release stop-proteins that stop the mineralisation. They were very interested in that.

Then: we need stronger pipes. We talked about the self-assembly of shells of nacre, the mother-of-pearl that is twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics. IMAGE This is the inside of an abalone shell forming. We need to keep the inside of the pipes clean. We then talked about the lotus leaf, and how rough it is, the bumpiness of a lotus leaf allows the dirt particles to be taken off by a drop of rainwater. There is now a building façade paint that enables rainwater to clean the building. Finally they asked me, "How will we conduct business?" We then talked about the coral reef which is a type three system, cyclical, densely interacted, cooperative, self sustaining, with local expertise; we talked about that differs from our linear system that we have today. Finally we talked about the three levels of biomimicry. Which is form, which is what Al (IMAGE) here is doing right now, she is mimicking form. But I'd like you to think about how to represent information to designers and engineers. The three levels in the natural world that are of interest to us are: form, process, and ecosystem.

Form is just looking at the hooks and barbules of that feather: what is the design? But those hooks and barbules, say you make a backpack that can open anywhere, one that needs no zipper. But if you make that backpack out of nylon with heat-treatment processes, put it on a diesel truck , wasting diesel fumes across the country, make it in a sweatshop: you've lost it. The process is just as important. That feather is part of an owl, and in that owl that feather self-assembles and that owl is part of a forest, and is part of an economy that works like a living system instead of a machine.
My invitation to you is think about how we might display this information for designers and engineers so that we begin to see nature as a mentor, as a source of ideas and wisdom, rather than a warehouse.

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