Design Secrets From Nature: A Biomimicry Conversation with Jamie Miller

Anna Peng
Anna Peng
Jan 8 · 20 min read

One of the terms I use is, we’ve got to think naturally before we build naturally. And to think naturally, we may have to shake up some of our early assumptions about how we think the world works, because they might not necessarily be up to date.

Below you’ll find a transcription of our 40 minute interview about biomimicry, design, and how we can create better, more dynamic, smarter cities through nature.

If you prefer an audio version of this interview, click here.

Jamie Miller is an award-winning designer and founder of Biomimicry Frontiers. He has been trained by Janine Benyus (the author of “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”) and has been building biomimicry in Ontario through his consulting, lectures, and workshops since 2007. Jamie taught Canada’s only biomimicry program at OCAD University, during which he earned a PhD degree in engineering that focused on applying systems-level biomimicry to urban infrastructure resilience. His mission is to draw on biomimicry, biophilia, and ecological engineering to “make it better, naturally.”

Jamie, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what biomimicry is?

Biomimicry by definition is innovation that’s inspired by nature. It’s a term that was coined in 1997 by a woman named Janine Benyus who’s the woman who trained me and taught me about biomimicry at a deeper level. Fundamentally it’s about recognizing that nature does design really well. It’s been doing it for billions of years, and to me it’s that lens you look to the world, and when you look through a biomimetic lens you can see these forms and processes in nature and learn to abstract them onto our own design or challenges. That’s what biomimicry is.

A little bit about me is that I fell in love with this concept in my undergrad at Queen’s University where I took an elective called Math and Poetry. It was an hour and a half of math, and an hour and a half of poetry. In the math section we explored what’s called the Fibonacci sequence, which is a sequence of numbers that when played around with and explore deeper, creates this thing called the Golden Ratio or the Fibonacci spiral. In the class we unpacked this sequence and saw that the spiral is ubiquitous in nature so it’s the same spiral that you see in the packaging of sunflower seeds or in a pine cone. Even your skin pores follow the Fibonacci spiral. The entire galaxy and how we’re exploding from The Big Bang is following the Fibonacci spiral. It’s really everywhere. It’s this model of how nature seems to behave in patterns that you can see frequently in nature, and for whatever reason that set me off on this journey that I’ve been on for over 15 years of just being absolutely obsessed with finding design secrets from the natural world.

I come from a small town. My dad’s a farmer, my mom came from North Toronto. I’ve always been obsessed with nature and always been canoeing and camping in the backcountry. That upbringing along with this really intense desire to learn more by nature has fuelled my whole career and my passion.

I never intended to do graduate work, I didn’t see myself as a university student but I’m glad I did. I did a PhD just because I wanted to learn more about biomimicry, and that’s the only reason. After that I started my consulting company just continuing with that trend.

Considering your passion and expertise with nature, how has that affected your design philosophy (or because you’re also an engineer, how has that affected your engineering philosophy)?

It has fundamentally transformed my philosophy. What was interesting about the Fibonacci spiral is that I was there at Queen’s learning about how to engineer the environment. We learn how to use math to manipulate our spaces and to manipulate nature. The whole time I thought there had to be a different way of doing this.

I realized I was opening up a book to a whole new world of design secrets. It’s a perspective. All I see is how nature does it better. And, all I’m trying to do is to abstract those better ideas into a built environment. That gap between nature and us seems really wide even though we are natural species (we come from nature), but in terms of how we do things, it’s very different and I’m so intrigued by that difference. I see it being applied to everything and I and I mean it almost literally. I think everything we do in terms of how we build communities, how we build economies, how we build political systems, all of that can be informed by biomimicry.

Can you give some specific examples of how nature gives great design advice?

One of my favourites is spider silk. Spider silk has a strength-to-weight ratio greater than anything we’ve ever made as human beings. We think we build strong, robust materials like steel, concrete, or even carbon fibre, but spider silk could stop a jet mid-air. That’s how strong it is, and yet it’s so light. The genius of spider silk is that it’s made at body temperature and body pressure, with a subset of the periodic table of elements (nature is pretty much carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen) and that makes it very easily broken down into basic parts.

That means spiders can make this incredible material at its body temperature and body pressure, whereas we use a lot of pressure and a lot of temperature to build things.

Another thing is that it’s fully recyclable. A spider can actually eat its own silk, and it’s made only with the energy of the sun. It just shows you that we design materials with an abundance of energy (we use a lot of energy), and a lot of different elements in nature can do it more effectively and with better basic principles.

Are there examples of this type of nature-inspired design in Toronto?

Nothing comes to mind specifically…I’ll explain what’s going through my head. In biomimicry, you can break it down into three different parts: forms, processes, and systems.

So in my head I’m just thinking, are there any form based models in Toronto that emulate nature?

There’s one company called Whale Power which is based out of Toronto, and they copied the humpback whale fins (and I talked about this a lot in my videos). But humpback whales have bumps on the front edge of the fin called tubercules. They seem counterintuitive because they’re on the front of the fin, but they applied that technology to a wind turbine blade and it became 20% more efficient than a traditional blade. So, that’s an example in Toronto of form-based biomimicry, copying the forms and recognizing that nature’s forms can produce more efficient designs.

There’s a company I’m working with right now called Annex Market, and what they’re trying to do is decentralize grocery stores. Nature is very decentralized. That’s one of the basic principles of nature, and that’s what makes it redundant. This company is decentralizing grocery stores and they’re essentially bringing the milkman back or the milk person back (that’s their slogan). They deliver high-quality foods that are produced potentially locally and they’re delivered to your door. That distribution-like nodal network is more biomimetic than if you have a centralized system.

One cool way of thinking about nature and distributed models is mycelium, which is like an underground fungal network.

Mycelium is amazing because we’re just starting to uncover it as a species. We’re starting to recognize how important it is in forest ecosystems. A lot of research out of UBC has shown us the brilliance of mycelium. In it, it talks about the interconnectedness of trees, and trees will actually distribute resources to other trees in a decentralized nodal kind of way — that’s what makes it so resilient. I remember Janine Benyus telling me once, there’s one study that she found where they introduced a pest at one end of a forest, and the forest was around a kilometre by a kilometre. They said within 3 to 5 days, the other end of the forest had already started to make antibodies or some sort of reactive materials or forms to that pest being introduced, and that’s because the mycelium was helping to communicate to all the trees that there’s been some sort of infestation coming.

That’s what I see Annex Market being. It’s this decentralized, nodal way of doing things, and creating more niche communities so that you’re closer your community and know where your food is coming from.

Biomimicry can get a bit abstract, and you can see it’s not as easily translated as a humpback-whale-fin-inspired turbine blade (it’s quite easy to see that). And that’s actually what makes biomimicry a bit difficult for people to understand. Once I started looking through this biomimetic lens I see everything through biomimicry. It can be more abstract and more real, tangible, and practical, but it all relates to the same thing — I’m using nature to inform whether it’s a good idea or not.

Because it is a little bit abstract, and a hard to grasp at times, what is something that biomimicry can teach us, that you think young designers should know?

I think the biggest thing is just recognizing that there might be a different way of doing things.

That’s all that biomimicry really is. It’s just recognizing that what we do may not be sustainable, and there’s a whole textbook of ideas that have been evolving for billions of years.

I’ll give you a practical example of how I apply biomimicry: I’m working with B+H Architects, and we’re designing a home in India. Part of my process was to find out what the problems were. What were the design problems?

When I was teaching at OCAD, one of the things I really focused my students on was not jumping to the solution set. If you jump too quickly you’re probably going to pull from old philosophies or old ideas that might not be appropriate, so instead we needed to stay and identify the problem.

In this case it was a problem with heating (or cooling) in India. They wanted to figure out how we could cool the building more efficiently with the high temperatures and the massive monsoons, since they have very dynamic weather. I literally went to nature and I asked, how does nature cool in this context?

I used local organisms and local solutions, and one that I found was elephant skin!

Everyone knows that elephants cool themselves by their ears that act like fans, but what’s not super well known is that their skin has deep cracks, and the deep tracks hold moisture in.

When they roll in the mud and blow themselves with water, they can walk to the desert in the hot sun, and those cracks don’t dry out quickly. They’re shaded and protected, which allows the elephant to cool over longer periods of time. The evaporative cooling last longer.

I used that idea to design a wall that copied that mechanism. It’s a rock wall feature that when connected to the rain harvesting system, trickles water in and passively cools the building over longer periods of time. That’s one practical example of how designers could apply biomimicry. It’s just looking to nature for design advice and finding different solutions.

What are some wicked problems do you think biomimicry can address?

The one that I most focus on is climate change. It seems to be the most wicked, and one that everyone should be focusing on, and one that everybody is starting to become more aware of.

I’m using biomimicry as a tool in that sense, because I recognize that one of the best contributions to mitigating climate change is to create more natural spaces. In my research, I realized humans have been building ourselves out of nature for a long time. The majority of our populations are now in urban centres, and in urban centres we don’t have natural spaces. I wouldn’t call parks natural spaces, I find them quite engineered and manicured.

Without natural spaces, nature can’t dissipate the sun’s energy, and without that we get these dynamic climate events. My whole goal is to bring nature back into the city. We spend a lot of energy resisting nature.

I said this in my in my TED talk as well, that we know we spend a lot of energy resisting nature, because if we left the city right now, nature would take over. There’s a natural gradient, and we try really hard to keep that gradient strong. We’re building a stronger gradient by resisting nature as much as we do.

My mission is to harmonize with nature and bring nature back to the cities with biomimicry, let’s create more natural spaces. I use biomimicry as a tool, in that I want people to see that being close to nature and being immersed in nature has way more benefits than drawbacks.

Nature has so much to offer, not only in terms of the lumber and the resources we extract from it, but the information. Nature is doing design way better than us, so let’s keep it around so we can study it. From that, hopefully we can create more natural environments that help mitigate climate change. Once you start to dig down, ecological degradation is one of the major contributors to climate change (or at least it could be a major buffer to climate change). Nature’s really good at equalizing its environment and dissipating gradients.

So when you say natural spaces, is it possible to build a city while at the same time building natural spaces?

I think so, I think it’s just going to be a shift in our paradigm. The way that we engineer seems to be that we like things to stay the same. For instance, this room is not moving, it’s not doing anything. It’s trying to resist environmental pressures like how our walls on the outside of the building are trying to resist the cold, resist the heat, resist the wind. It takes a lot of energy to resist things. Nature is a bit different because if you think of your skin as a wall, your skin is breathing, it’s shedding, it’s expanding, it’s sweating, it’s very dynamic. Yet it’s a wall between the two environments.

What I mean by changing our paradigm is, yes we bring nature in and build a city, but I think our walls will have to behave more like skin, or our transportation systems are going to have to work more like ants or mold. It’s got to be much more dynamic and fluid in that it’s using information from the environment and making quick changes immediately instead of trying to resist that information. That’s where I think the cities of the future are going. Also, it’s going to be not resisting putting trees on your building, or having moss grow up the side of the wall or whatever nature wants to do. Biomimicry will inform the built part, and I think it will also push to harmonize the natural and built too, bringing nature back in.

In your TED talk you mentioned something about being more like weeds. Could you elaborate on this and how it could help young designers work better together?

Whenever an ecosystem shifts, the first species that come up are weeds. And weeds is a human term — they’re just things we don’t like. The technical term is R-species, and R-species are pioneers, they’re entrepreneurs.

In our classes at OCAD, we used to talk about this being a new volcanic island. Being the R-species of this island, how do we exploit resources to create a new ecosystem? So you have a volcano take over a landscape, moss will start to form, or algae, or lichen. The lichen will create new foundations for trees and ecosystems to emerge.

How could we use that metaphor to take what we have and evolve it to a new ecosystem?

So when I say act like weeds, it’s more of an entrepreneurial spirit to look for wasted opportunities.

We talked a lot about that in our class and actually in the project we’re working on at Guelph. Nature is really good at harnessing resources, so if there’s a lot of sunlight over here, a plant that loves sun is going to find a way to exploit that — big broad leaves or rapid growth.

I challenged students and individuals to think like a weed, and ask, where are the wasted opportunities?

One of my students looked at the side of buildings, and he thought, that’s a huge wasted opportunity. What if we collect some of the rain water on those buildings and slow rain down? So he made a modular kind of leaf-rain-harvesting system and you could put it in places where the rain was more likely to hit. You could slow down, you could collect it.

Another example is that there’s a biomimetic technology called Solar Ivy where they have made solar panels that are shaped like leaves, and they can fit on any form (so not just on rectangular buildings). They would collect energy from the sun, but also energy from the wind because they were inspired by the way ivy would rustle when the wind blows by it. Buildings have huge wind loads running up them. You can sometimes feel it like wind loads coming down major streets. This company said, let’s exploit the sun, but also let’s exploit the wind.

That’s an example of thinking like a weed. It’s looking at those resources that are not being used and to exploit them with some sort of product or idea.

As an off-question, when you get dandelions on your front lawn, do you let it exploit its resources or do you cut them off?

I usually just let it go. What dandelions are telling you is that what you’re doing is not super natural, and if you let it go (if you let it be more natural), it will eventually be snuffed out by bigger trees. You don’t see dandelions in the heart of a forest unless there’s a break in the forest. The dandelion is telling you, I’m sticking around so long as there’s a platter of lovely sun and no competition.

The cool thing is that there’s design philosophies like permaculture where you can actually work with that, and make something that works for both you and the ecosystem.

How do we build these harmonizing designs?

People don’t just want tall grasses in their backyard, they may want something more beautiful and more practical.

It’s about planting strategies. You can plant these weedy species that support the growth of other species or whatever you want.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about biomimicry or the industry you work in?

The most surprising thing about biomimicry is that not everyone knows about it, and I find that fascinating. To me it’s such a logical idea that makes so much sense that we just look to nature for design advice. Leonardo da Vinci was a huge biomimetic, Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, his church is based on biomimicry. Even indigenous people copied arctic hare feet to make snowshoes. We’ve been doing “biomimicry” for a long time. I’m shocked that not everyone does it or not everyone knows about it. Fundamentally I think it’s a lack of education and a lack of application.

I’ve done workshops with kindergartens, and I love working with them because they don’t lack imagination. They don’t have boundaries like we do, and the ideas they come up with are fantastic, they’re out of this world and I love that kind of thinking!

I applied it with some of my clients, it’s called design fiction: I want you to come up with ideas that might not be possible, but provoke conversation on what could be or what should be possible.

Once you’re in that space, then you can look at the technology around you and figure out how do you make that crazy idea real? How do you make a wall that breathes like skin? There’s technologies and ideas out there than can make that happen. You just have to be creative.

I’ve looked a lot into the psychology of design, as I was really interested in why are humans so different from nature. A big part of why we avoid these crazy ideas when we get older is because we become more rooted in our paradigms.

Those paradigms are effective at keeping us safe. We’re taught how to survive — our parents teach us, our communities teach us, our cultures teach us how to survive. When we learn those basic traits, we hold onto them pretty tightly because we’re trying to survive.

The problem is that those ideas need to evolve. It’s very hard to let go of things that you rely on, especially your thinking.

One of the terms I use is, we’ve got to think naturally before we build naturally. And to think naturally, we may have to shake up some of our early assumptions about how we think the world works, because they might not necessarily be up to date.

It seems a big lesson from our conversation so far is that there is no real right way of doing things in how we operate today, that we can look in different places to form solutions for the future.

The big thing I want to point out is that I don’t think what we’re doing is wrong. I don’t think there’s like a really a right and wrong, but I do think things need to evolve. Your environment usually tells you when things need to evolve, and how the world is showing up right now, it’s kind of a reflection for our thinking.

We see a lot of scarcity, a lot of selfishness, a lot of people doing things that are not coming from a place of community or abundance or interconnectedness, and that causes some problems.

We see a lot of environmental degradation.

There are people doing things that aren’t super helpful for the greater good. To give you an example of what I’m talking about, survival of the fittest was like the early paradigm of nature. That’s what we thought nature to be. But, with this new uncovering of mycelium networks in how much nature works together, we’re starting to see it’s not just survival of the fittest — it’s actually way more cooperation than we ever knew.

There’s a thing called mother trees in a forest. Mother trees are the ones that seem to have gained the greatest success in terms of capturing resources. They’ll start to distribute a lot of their excess nutrients to other trees, even competing species.

They’ll distribute it because there’s an inherent “knowledge” in a forest that, if everyone in the highest diversity is working well, that whole system is more resilient.

As an example, you don’t see a tree that’s six hundred feet above the rest of them, you don’t see an Amazon-like tree up there — a company — that dominates the market has a huge market share and market value. It’s much more equal. You have an intact canopy in the forest, and that intact canopy helps make it more resilient.

You can see there’s some social and political philosophies you can draw from a strong and resilient ecosystem. I like the idea that cooperation is much more prevalent in nature than what we think. If you leave an ecosystem to its own devices, it would naturally go to highest diversity. That’s what it wants. It wants the most diverse species, but as humans our brains can’t handle that much complexity and diversity so we like to simplify things.

With the time we have left, I want to ask some common questions people have surrounding things like climate change and sustainability in general.

Consumer vs. Corporation: Do you think that consumers have more power to create change, or do corporations have more power to create change?

I’m going to cop out and say we both have big impact. We have things like Buy-Nothing Days, one of my employees lives a waste-free lifestyle. I think she has one small bag of garbage every month.

People do it, but people are also really inherently lazy. So as a consumer, we love to get stuff. It’s ingrained in us to be liked by our peers, and that’s just because we’re social beings and we need community to help sustain ourselves.

We have a lot of power in terms of what we buy but we’re also lazy and we are materialistic. Corporations have a ton of influence as well, but they’re just kind of feeding the market: if it dictates, we’ll buy.

This is all to say, what I’m most excited about are companies who are creating products that are producing sustainable results.

Interface carpets is an example. They’re the carpets in this building, and their former CEO who passed away 4 years ago, Ray Anderson, made it his mission to get to zero waste. His company is almost there which is amazing, and that’s 20 years ago when he started. In his first year of declaring that they wanted to be zero waste, his profits increased by $20 million dollars. I want to find those companies and produce more of those companies that do good while also showing that you can make a lot of money.

At some point, you’ve got to figure out when you know it’s truly sustainable, because we’re still making products. For example, Patagonia. Patagonia’s mission statement is to save our home planet. That’s it. And yet they’re still making products that everyone buys, consumes, and eventually throws away even though they’re trying to curb that linear waste cycle. They’re heading in the right direction.

Long story short, we both have power. As a business owner, my goal is to make a business that’s profitable and sustainable, and as a consumer I’m very hyper aware of what I buy. I always think, what’s the external impacts of this, how much water does that take, and it’s a conscious choice.

How do you see the near future of sustainability and the state of the global environment from your perspective?

The near future I think is amazing. I’m so excited. People are becoming much more bold. I work with a lot of successful business people who are jaded, and so we’re starting to shift our mindset that money isn’t the bringer of happiness.

I see a lot of people nearing the end of their careers wanting to do something good, and wanting to donate a lot of their money. I mean they’re in a position of power and privilege to do that, so it’s easy for them to do, but I think we’re seeing a big shift and I think it’s going to be huge in terms of what can be accomplished in the environment.

On the global scale, a little bit of mixed feelings. We have some countries, like our own, that are I’d say a bit backwards in terms of the environment. But we have a lot of countries that are really pushing the envelope and doing some pretty powerful things so it’ll be a balance (I think everything’s a balance), but we’re going to see more push from the environmental side.

Climate change is becoming more and more of a hot topic in everyday conversation, in school and in work. What are some simple things people can do to better the situation at hand?

This may be a weird answer, but one thing that I do is that I’m very conscious of nature and I work with a lot of indigenous communities and they have a very biomimetic perspective.

I learn a lot from them, and I have an elder on my board specifically who teaches me a lot.

The one thing we discuss a lot is gratitude.

When was the last time we actually stopped to think about what a tree is providing for us and have given thanks? We call it reciprocity.

It’s like the Giving Tree, that old children’s book. The tree is giving us the oxygen we need, is giving us the soil we need to produce food, it’s giving homes for more organisms.

The first thing I’d do, and that I would suggest other people to do, is have a little bit of gratitude. Recognize how much nature is doing for us, and specifically how much nature is doing for us when it is in the ground, and not pulled out and cut into lumber.

That’s the simplest thing you could do, and I think once you start to look through a lens of reciprocity, you start to make decisions differently. At least for me.

When I have a shower I literally am giving thanks. I love hot showers — don’t get me wrong, that’s one of my guilty pleasures — but I’m also super present to how grateful I am for that water. Indigenous communities that I work with, they really bring that to the next level which is really powerful.

Where can people find you if they want to know more?

First thing is to check out our website www.biomimicryfrontiers.com. Starting January 2020, we will be launching an online education platform so you can learn everything that I’ve learned, and even develop your own biomimicry product or solution. This is for anyone who’s interested in changing their little system that they are a part of. Find that and more on our website, or you can follow us on Instagram @biomimicryfrontiers

This interview was conducted by Anna Peng, a current thesis student at OCAD University studying Industrial Design. Follow her other interviews on The People City Podcast, where she talks with other leaders, creators, and innovators of Toronto who are helping make the city a cleaner, healthier place.

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