From a meme to a movement: reflections on 20 years of biomimicry

This anniversary celebration is a collaboration between the Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry 3.8

In the mid-1990s, science writer Janine Benyus couldn’t help but be inspired by the continual chirp of what she called “faint signals” of nature-inspired design coming from formal scientific literature. Intrigued by the idea that nature may hold clues for how to design our human world more efficiently, safely, and equitably, she collected these disparate tales to produce a book. It wasn’t long before her phone began ringing off the hook.

With that, a new discipline — and a movement — was born.

Published in the fall of 1997, Janine’s Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature is credited with naming the methodology that inspires designers of any kind to mimic nature’s best ideas to solve the world’s toughest 21st-century challenges. Initially released by William Morrow & Company, Biomimicry quickly became a global beacon for sustainable innovation and has since solidified Janine’s legacy as the most recognized thought leader in the field. The book’s message inspired Dr. Dayna Baumeister to contact Janine in 1997, and an impromptu meeting quickly led to the establishment of Biomimicry 3.8, the world’s first nature-inspired consultancy, and in 2006, the Biomimicry Institute, which empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet.

Twenty years later, Janine’s powerful message continues to resonate. Along with B3.8 and the Institute, it has inspired millions — spurring thousands of entities to invite Janine to speak, sparking the creation of 36 global biomimicry networks, galvanizing dozens of documentaries, prompting more than 150 Fortune 500 companies to invite a biologist to their design table, and much more.

To celebrate this milestone, we asked biomimics from around the world to share their reflections on how biomimicry has inspired their journeys during the past 20 years, and how they see innovation inspired by nature influencing the world in the next 20 years.

Chris Garvin, AIA, LEED BD+C, B-Spec

“Like many, my biomimicry journey began by finding Janine’s book. Reading it brought together previously disparate threads in my life — my love of the outdoors, my career as an architect, and my interest in sustainability. Utilizing a small grant from my fellowship at the Environmental Leadership Program, I was able to engage with Dayna Baumeister and several colleagues to develop an exhibition concept examining the potential of biomimicry and architecture. During the fundraising effort for the exhibit, I was asked to develop a biomimicry-focused R&D program for the state of New York. That five year program, in collaboration with B3.8, has led to new opportunities to design buildings that function like forests. I believe, in the future, building codes will be aligned with ecosystem functions and processes so that our communities will function like forests within local ecological boundaries.”

Paul Hawken, author, activist, entrepreneur, Project Drawdown

“I have walked in forests with Janine and I am spellbound to this day by what she knows, sees, understands. When you’re with her, once she begins to unravel the delights and the mysteries of a species or a plant, you realize how much you don’t know. She has spent a lifetime discovering where we live. It’s one miracle after another, one astonishing creature after another, one amazing intended adaptation after another.

Walk with her, talk with her, spend the day with her, and you will be enveloped in awe, wonder, delight, and rapt amazement. Her joy is literally perennial. I have never seen it change. It’s always there, present, freshly minted every time you see her. She’s, I think, one of the happiest women on earth because her life is about exploring miracles and she shares it with unconditional love. In an election cycle where the shadow masculine struts around and reduces the sacred feminine to body parts, we have before us in Janine the extraordinary gift of the feminine, the woman, the lover, the biologist, the wisdom holder, the healer of the narrative who stitches up the broken pieces left by this maddened culture into a narrative that is refined and entire.”

Camila Hernandez, Team BioNurse, winner of the 2016 Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ray of Hope Prize®

“Knowing biomimicry changed my way of seeing the world. It was what I needed to see in design, both formally and ideologically. The didactic tools that the Biomimicry Institute offers plus Janine’s passion through her stories, convinced me that this is not just an idea and that the world is taking the natural direction of our beginnings 3.8 billion years ago. The recognition given through the Ray of Hope Prize® allowed me to pursue the purpose of generating an impact at a social and ecological level. Thanks, Janine, for starting this beautiful design revolution.”

Toby Herzlich, Founder, Biomimicry for Social Innovation

“I’ve always loved nature, but I also knew that my life’s purpose has to do with people — calling forward the collective intelligence and passion of social change-makers to help make our world a better place. Training leaders and developing networks of social benefit organizations became my day job, while I spent weekends in the mountains and with my hands in the dirt.

Janine’s book brought the two together for me. A decade ago, her “Ten Commandments of the Redwood Clan” (which has since evolved into “Life’s Principles”) became leadership practices that I share with executives, nonprofit leaders, and folks working to change society in ways that reflect thriving healthy ecosystems. Seeds planted then have grown into Biomimicry for Social Innovation.

Now we see conservation activists practicing relationship strategies learned from the partnerships between ravens and wolves; community organizers developing decentralized campaigns based on slime mold social behavior; and organizational founders creating a succession plan with guidance from an aspen forest.”

Claire Janisch, Co-founder, Biomimicry South Africa

“My biomimicry journey began in my 30s, but all my life led me there. I studied chemical engineering in the early 1990s, finding out first-hand how we make things so disconnected from and devastating to life. In 1998, I began a master’s degree within an industrial ecology research group, to find how to make things without making such a mess. Janine’s book had been published the year before, laying out how to do just that. But I didn’t discover that book until a decade later after I’d been through the belly of how not to do it — trying to clean up the most polluting industries, mines, cities, and agriculture in Africa. In 2007, I read Janine’s book and it was like tracing my working life in reverse. Where I had not found the answers in the engineering world, Janine had found them within nature. I read her book with such relief and was signed up immediately for a biomimicry immersion course in the Amazon rainforest. I’ve now been learning, teaching, and practicing as a biomimicry professional for a decade, inspired by the possibilities for our future.”

John Lanier, Executive Director, Ray C. Anderson Foundation

“Ray C. Anderson was fond of the saying “so right, so smart.” He was always drawn to ideas, and when he met ones that were simple, elegant, logical, and brilliant, he would refer to them this way and incorporate them into his view of the world. Biomimicry was one such idea.

For decades, Ray and his company, Interface, had assembled raw materials into the best carpet tiles in the world. Ray was proud of this fact. That said, after reading Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Ray came to realize that his manufacturing track record paled in comparison to the millions of years that nature had been assembling raw materials into a vast array of complex forms. In the years to follow, Interface would benefit immensely from humbling itself enough to learn from nature.

As Ray’s grandson, I have inherited his love of Earth and her natural systems. In working to carry his legacy forward at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, I am grateful to Janine for her guidance and friendship. Not only are we proud supporters of the Biomimicry Institute, but we are also humble students of nature ourselves. Biomimicry truly is so right, so smart.”

Saskia van den Muijsenberg, Co-founder, Biomimicry Netherlands

“I was working as a GameChanger with Shell, helping teams to find innovative solutions to challenges related to the energy industry when I learned about biomimicry. A colleague pointed me to Janine’s TED talk and shortly after we organized a three-day workshop with Dayna Baumeister, Tim McGee and Sherry Ritter in Texas. It was there that everything clicked for me. My entry point was ethos and emulate. And during that first workshop it really hit me that we are nature too. I knew it rationally but never felt that connection that consciously before. Six months later I left Shell and co-founded biomimicryNL. I became a BPro and MSc in biomimicry and only wish I had discovered biomimicry earlier in my life.”

David Oakey, Principal, David Oakey Designs, Inc.

“In 1997, Ray Anderson declared his vision to climb Mount Sustainability, to make Interface a sustainable business. I was genuinely perplexed at how Interface could accomplish such a feat, given that carpet tile was made from fossil fuels, and the nylon could not be recycled at that time. While looking for answers, Paul Hawken recommended Janine’s book, Biomimicry. After reading the chapter, “How We Will Make Things”, my life was changed; waste is food, no waste on the factory floor, make the shape you need, etc.

From the first biomimicry workshop, Dayna Baumeister asked our designers, “how would nature design a floor?” The result was historic! Entropy was created. It utilized nature’s principles of “random diversity,” by creating less waste throughout the processes, from raw materials to installation.”

Gloria Rivera IHM, Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit

“My biomimicry journey began when I heard Janine Benyus speak at a National Bioneers conference. Her clarity, knowledge and passion re-connected me to one of my majors in college and my love for biology. In April 2015, I attended a 10-day biomimicry experience with Dayna Baumeister and Toby Herzlich, which gave me confidence and tools to continue exploring, learning and applying.

My focus has been biomimicry for social innovation, particularly for systems/structures currently use by not-for-profits. Last year I helped facilitate an 18-month process with my own community (IHM sisters) exploring three topics: food, poverty and the universe story. The intention was to help participants think like nature and learn how it would approach these topics. The results? Amazing and firm changes in the way the 26+ people involved think now as a result of their collaborative work and the opportunity to use biomimicry as an approach to social innovation.”

David de Rothschild, storyteller/designer, The Lost Explorer

“The environmental movement can be so serious: “The world is ending. Come join us.” Instead biomimicry, as a philosophy tries to inspire curiosity and a sense of adventure, and real solutions. Janine’s book made me realize that the world has four-and-a-half billion years of R&D that we can look to.

The brief for the Plastiki Expedition was to design a boat made out of plastic bottles that could be sailed across the Pacific Ocean that would draw attention to the problems facing the oceans as well as the kind of solutions that we need to implement. To build Plastiki’s hull, we examined the pomegranate, a tough and buoyant fruit. Like pomegranate seeds, plastic bottles are weak on their own, but when we packed them together, they were rigid and strong.

I believe that it is only through nature’s wisdom that we will be able to find the magic we need to survive as a species. All design is a collaboration between humans and nature, but ultimately the part where we hold the greatest responsibility, is how nature’s concerns and contributions will be considered or dismissed. Biomimicry offers a hopeful vision in which nature is considered at every design table.”

Theresa Scott, Executive Assistant and Project Cultivator, Biomimicry 3.8

“I still remember sitting in a session at the State of Montana’s IT Conference in the late fall of 2005 wondering what biomimicry was, and hoping it might be a nice break from some otherwise fairly dry IT topics I had been listening to. Sure enough, and after the presentation by Dayna I was indeed infected. I hovered after the presentation for an opportunity to interact with Dayna, and I left with her business card thinking I had just scored big. Afterwards I acquired Janine’s book and started talking about biomimicry with friends and family. One friend even commented that she had not seen the amount of passion I was displaying as long as she had known me.

Unfortunately life took over, and the combination of not seeing a path forward to engage and time passing slowly eroded my enthusiasm and the time I spent thinking about the possibilities. I did, however, carry Dayna’s card with me for several years after the event, looking at it wistfully every so often, but allowing reality to pull me back into my current world.

Then it happened, totally out of the blue. I had left my previous employer in a career change move, and I was once again in the job market after taking a year off, when I saw a job announcement for Biomimicry 3.8. The renewed passion and excitement was immediate and I applied. I felt like a little kid again going through the interview process, so nervous about the possibilities and not wanting to mess anything up, but I made it through and ended up getting the job. And, wouldn’t you know how things work out, I am currently Dayna’s executive assistant. You have to love how serendipity can play out!”

Nina Simons, Co-founder, Bioneers

“My journey with biomimicry may have begun even before learning about Janine and her book, though the concept didn’t have a name back then. In 1990, when Bioneers began, it was founded based upon finding and featuring people who had looked deeply into the natural world to understand what we might learn from nature, and included — in the early years — the work of John Todd, Paul Stamets and others who had adopted (without ever naming it as such) a biomimetic framework to explore how to apply nature’s principles to bioremediation, in particular.

When we learned about Janine and her forthcoming book, in 1997, it was like discovering a kindred spirit, but one who saw and named and described an entire multi-dimensional architecture in naming biomimicry. Janine’s genius has been in her capacity to see so many applications and ramifications of our adopting a civilization-wide biomimetic worldview, without ever losing sight of the mystery, sacredness and poetry of nature’s magnificence.

Janine’s brilliance is in articulating a science and worldview that translates our human tendency to love, respect and turn to nature for solace, guidance and repair into a universe of practicable applications, one that opens up options for business, design, technology, education, entrepreneurship and endless career opportunities, while providing a vision that’s truly capable of transforming the future of life on Earth.”

Ethan Smith, AskNature Director, Biomimicry Institute

“During my second year as an undergrad, my father gave me two books that he’d recently found quite compelling: McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and Benyus’ Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. At the time I was attempting to reconcile my need to declare a singular major with a longstanding passion for architecture and creative design, burgeoning interests in comparative sociology and medicine, a natural but dispassionate aptitude for math and the sciences, and a lifelong orientation as an environmentalist.

In the post-bubble and post-9/11 world of 2002, I was fortunate enough to have what seemed to be a plethora of options before me, and was having trouble pinpointing what the “right” path forward might be. After reading these two books back-to-back, I walked away with a clear personal vision that has underpinned the remainder of my undergraduate education and career to date. They helped open my eyes to holistic and circular ways of thinking about products, services, economies, and innovation, and I felt a deep urge to apply my energy toward making the vision of a circular economy a reality.

Benyus’ book in particular brought about a newfound fascination with biology and helped me envision how an education and career in product design — a field I’d previously passed off as part of the “problem” — might provide me with valuable tools and opportunities to be a grassroots “change-maker” while concurrently tapping into many of my wide-ranging interests and talents. The next year I transferred to a university that offered a distinguished and sustainability-minded industrial design program, and set off on a path that eventually brought me back full circle to the Biomimicry Institute, where I now focus my energy on improving as a resource to enable innovators everywhere to gain valuable insights from biological phenomena as we endeavor toward a circular economy.”

Jessica Smith, Graphic Designer, Biomimicry 3.8

“Mine was a serendipitous meeting with biomimicry — I was researching animal architecture for a college project and the local book store recommended that I reference Janine’s book. Not even a week later, Janine gave a lecture at the University of Montana, and I was hooked. She said everyone needed to form a flying v and work together to put biomimicry into action and create a more sustainable world. I’ve been flying in the “biomimicry v” for 10 years now, starting as an intern for the Biomimicry Institute and now as a graphic designer for Biomimicry 3.8. It’s been an exciting journey, and I’m grateful to be surrounded by other like-minded individuals, and nature (via the plethora of beautiful nature photos I get to ooh and ah at every day). Because biomimicry is a mindset, nature — as model, measure, and mentor — will always be part of my life’s journey.”

Twenty years ago, the thought of a company working to build a factory that provides the same ecosystem services as the surrounding wildlands, the concept of thousands of students and young entrepreneurs developing nature-inspired innovations, and the idea that hundreds of people would be trained to ask nature for design solutions seemed like a dream. The movement has come so far, but there is still much work to be done. We asked the biomimicry community to predict where biomimicry will propel us in the next 20 years and beyond.

Erin Connelly, Communications Director, Biomimicry Institute

“For the past two years, I’ve teared up watching the Ray of Hope Prize® being presented to the winning teams in the Biomimicry Accelerator. More than a dozen young entrepreneurs stand there, squinting in the bright stage lights, in front of 3,000 audience members at Bioneers. All the late nights, sacrifices, and hard work lead to this one moment, when they find out the winner of the $100,000 prize. It’s so much easier to do things the way they’ve always been done and these innovators are consciously choosing a different path, knowing that this is what we must do if we want to create a world where all living beings can thrive. To me, this is the embodiment of the future of biomimicry — a group of idealistic world-changers who are optimistic about the chance for a better future and are willing to do the hard work to make it happen.”

Adiel Gavish, Social Media + Communications, Biomimicry Institute, Co-founder, Biomimicry NYC

“During a trip to Washington DC to visit my sister, I toured the Capitol building and many of the city’s monuments where the age-old wisdom of our Founding Fathers was literally etched in stone. I was struck by their timeless eloquence. When these great thinkers penned our nation’s guiding documents, they laid out a set of principles that formed the bedrock of our society, in prose. Our Founding Fathers were not only social and political masterminds, but in fact, poets and philosophers.

I also remember feeling this way upon reading Janine’s book, and hearing her speak for the very first time. It was 2007, just before heading out to my first biomimicry excursion in Costa Rica. Listening to Janine’s TED Talk, I thought, ‘She isn’t just a scientist — she’s a poet.” Janine Benyus is a philosopher scientist, and it is this gifted symbiosis that makes her writings and talks not only spellbinding, but accessible and aspirational. You don’t just learn about nature — you learn from nature.

If our Founding Fathers formed our nation’s past and present, then nature’s self-evident truths will form our future. And with Janine as one of our greatest translators, nature’s strategies can point us to a regenerative path for all life on this planet — human and non-human alike. The future is bright. The next Mount Rushmore won’t be carved in stone, but rather, seamlessly embedded in our man-made creations.”

Toby Herzlich, Founder, Biomimicry for Social Innovation

“Policies and practices aimed toward living sustainably on Earth best thrive with guidance from Earth herself, and this wisdom is beginning to naturalize in boardrooms, online activist dialogues, and government halls of decision-making. It won’t be long before nature’s inspiration is central to changing the way we do “change.”

Claire Janisch, Co-founder, Biomimicry South Africa

“The next decade will be critical in two major ways: At the systems level, we will continue to wake up to nature’s genius wisdom in sustaining all life and how much we need to evolve to do the same. Re-designing cities/farms/industries to provide ecosystem services is the beginning of that quantum leap. Secondly, at the form/process level: we must ensure that life itself is at the center of our biomimicry technologies. Artificial trees can provide energy, shade, and other clever things, but what about oxygen, contributing to the water cycle, building soil, collaborating with all species? And artificial intelligence — that’s biomimicry with what consequences? We can all eventually be integrated into computers -so who needs nature, air, water, and soil right? Do we wish to replace the natural world, including ourselves, with all we mimic? If we really get it, we will choose to rapidly restore most of nature’s advanced “technologies” as we realize how much more we have to learn before our biomimicry comes close to that genius wisdom.”

Jeanette Lim, Biomimicry Institute Ask Nature Content Manager

“On the horizon, I see so much potential for growth and maturation of the field through collaboration. More people from diverse disciplines are exploring and thinking deeply about biomimicry as a practice and philosophy, including its past successes, as well as where more progress can be made. It seems like more of these diverse thinkers will be sharing and acting on ideas that expand the field.

I also see growing enthusiasm for biomimicry in education, for all ages. There are myriad opportunities to combine science, engineering, and design with concepts about environmental stewardship and social responsibility, all in an engaging context that encourages curiosity of the natural world.”

Saskia van den Muijsenberg, Biomimicry Netherlands

“I’m positive biomimicry will be much more mainstream 20 years from now. We are busy embedding biomimicry in education — from K-12 to university level, in business and in (European) policy. In 20 years we’ll have many more biomimics bringing their knowledge to work. Personally, I hope to work with many organizations implementing solutions inspired by nature; that ecological performance standards become part of business KPIs and organizations and are rewarded for regenerative value creation.”

David Oakey, Principal, David Oakey Designs, Inc.

“In the next twenty years, I’m optimistic that humankind will improve how it adapts to our planet by looking to nature’s principles. I see the manufacturing processes operating more like a forest by building from the ground up, creating no waste, utilizing 3D manufacturing/printing by using a single polymer from waste, or by sequestering carbon, to make only the shapes that we need.”

Gloria Rivera IHM, Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit

“I speak about biomimicry any chance I get. I am 74 and I continue as a student and practitioner of biomimicry determined to share it to my community in Detroit, MI. My focus will be not-for-profit systems as change agents converting to biomimicry thinking. And I will continue to delight in what nature has yet to teach me.”

Share your reflections! How has biomimicry changed your path in life? What was your first experience using biomimicry to solve a problem and how did it change the way you work? What is on the horizon for the field as a whole? Why does it remain a hopeful meme and movement 20 years later? Send us your thoughts via the form below and we will add them to this post.