It’s Not Good Enough Just To Be “Not Bad”
Contributed by: Beebe Nelson
On Wednesday, November 18 Peter Lawrence spoke at the NSTC’s breakfast meeting on the topic of biomimicry.
Peter is President and Co-founder of Biomimicry New England, a non-profit organization which he co-founded with Timothy R. McGee, chief biologist and designer at LikoLab, and Anamarija Frankic, research faculty at UMass-Boston and the University of Zadar, Croatia. The mission of this newly founded organization is, “To establish nature and natural systems as an important resource for education and innovation in New England.”
I invited several of my colleagues and friends to attend what I was sure would be an inspiring and informative session. To my surprise many of them asked, “What is biomimicry?” I thought, “Seriously?” So the purpose of this note on Peter’s presentation is to inform a wider audience about this very important new field. I would welcome any comments you have, especially those of you for whom this is a whole new idea.
Peter introduced his topic as a field committed to “sustainable innovation inspired by nature.” What we are seeking, Peter told the audience, is innovation that is “inherently sustainable,” innovation that is “regenerative.” It’s not enough, according to Peter, to just be “not bad.” What we need is innovation that will support the next thousand generations.
Peter then described a number of examples of how inventors, innovators and product designers had learned from nature how to solve difficult problems. For example, the Japanese bullet train, a mode of transportation that enabled ground travel at very high speeds, had the unfortunate “unintended consequence” of creating a sonic boom each time it entered a tunnel. Designers put their time and talents to try to figure out what to do. Often when designers are saddled with fixing a problem they add other problems. I suppose it would have been easy, for example, to make the bullet trains go slower, but that would pretty much have wiped out the point. Luckily, there was an engineer on the team who was a birder. “Wait a minute,” he thought to himself. “What about those kingfishers that dive from hundreds of feet in the air and enter the water making no splash or sound whatsoever. How do they do that?” Now the bullet train has a long sharp nose. It does not make sound as it enters the tunnel, and the “unintended consequences” include lower gas mileage.
Peter talked of several other cases of “innovation inspired by nature.” One that always fascinates me is what he called “swarm intelligence.” How the heck do birds and bees and fish move together in swarms and as far as I know never hit each other? I believe that if humans didn’t have some degree of swarm intelligence our highway fatalities would be much higher than they are. Peter told me after the meeting that in fact Volvo has developed an anti-collision system based on how locusts don’t run into each other when they swarm.
The last example that Peter presented captured my imagination even more than the early ones. He discussed the Redwood tree, one of the oldest living things in the world. The Redwood secretes up to 10 percent of the moisture that falls on its vast and complicated root system, and in times of drought it releases this moisture to nourish not only itself but the flora and fauna in its surrounding environment. For several days I found myself wondering why the tree would take care of its surroundings, and then the likely answer hit me. If the Redwood was living all by itself in what amounted to a desert it would not be able to reseed itself. Evolution is not only about the survival of the organism or species; it is at its core about the ability of a species to propagate itself. The species would not have survived if its habitat had not been able to nurture its young; the evolutionary success of the Redwood has a lot to do with its ability – what seems to us like generosity – to nurture the environment that surrounds it.
What if we constructed our buildings to supply to the environment what was needed for the success of the area on which it was built? What if my house, instead of taking away from the acre on which it is built, was designed in such a way that it was a neutral or even contributing influence? Peter showed us a drawing of Manhattan in the early days, before the Dutch came and began to turn it into a labyrinth of stone and concrete. What if we could understand what was needed to support that environment and then designed our buildings so that they provided the ecosystem services that the local natural environment had been providing? Peter told us of an architect who is in fact taking on the challenge of designing buildings that contribute to their environment much as a Redwood does.
It is, I believe, insights like this that we need in order to face the enormous challenge of sustainability. Early in his talk Peter used the word “regenerative.” It is not enough to be “sustainable.” As the Redwood shows us, our earth regenerates itself. It’s good not to use too much water, to recycle your cans and bottles, to use lean practices in order to reduce waste. But we have to look as well at how we will create a partnership with the earth in which what we and the earth relies on can be regenerated – for us, for our children and grandchildren, and as Peter said when he started his presentation, for the next thousand generations.
You can find more about Biomimicry New England at www.biomimicryne.org.
Beebe Nelson (firstname.lastname@example.org) consults and coaches innovators in a wide variety of industries; she is co-author of New Product Development for Dummies (Wiley, 2007) and Innovation Governance (Wiley, 2014).