Biomimicry and Life-Centered Design

I really liked watching Janine Benyus’s video on Biomimicry. All the imagery along with her explanations was really fascinating. I appreciate how we can take the points mentioned in the video along with the readings to think about how biomimicry can be incorporated in design on all scales micro- to macro- and in so many respects for our lives. In thinking about bee-centered design as mentioned in Jesse Weaver’s piece, as well as the three levels of biomimicry in Benyus’s primer, it is interesting to consider how we can design communities and larger societies in addition to products and structures with all these principles in mind. Can we look to other species and how they interact and live, and learn from their successes and failures as well as our own? Similar to the asknature.org modules, it is interesting to think about how we can reflect on what humans do not do well when it comes to sustainability and taking care of our own species and our earth, and ask how we can do better --mimicking our lifestyles, governance, interactions, consumption, relation to our environments-- based on what nature has been doing successfully for so long.

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While watching the video and reading the articles for this week, a few questions came to mind. I couldn’t help but wonder if biomimicry is an exploitative process. Kimmerer’s work from last week has made me reassess the way I think about relationships and exchanges. They should be reciprocal rather than transactional. While reading about some of the ideas used for biomimicry, I began to feel like humans are taking an idea from nature and using it for our own benefit in an exploitative manner. Where is the reciprocal relationship? Is it even possible to have a reciprocal relationship? I wonder if there are ways of being intentional about the knowledge we glean. Can we find some way to give back to the animal, plant, fungi, etc. for sharing their knowledge?

Another thought that stuck me was about the personification of natural processes as described in the asknature.org snippets. For example, the description of naked mole rats hiring babysitters and the voting system of African wild dogs used language we would only ever utilize to talk about humans. It left me wondering whether we are personifying animals or animal-fying ourselves. Perhaps this argument is pointless considering the fact that humans are animals. I think what I’m trying to get at is that we keep seeing more and more evidence throughout this class that there is no divide between humans and nature. Even process that we consider deeply human (complex social structures, relationships, emotions) exist in nature as well.

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@ally I had very similar thoughts. While the practical applications of biomimicry that are shown in the video certainly seem very useful, I did find myself wondering about more theoretical issues, including anthropomorphism and the possible exploitation of nature (although, in the end, I think that mimicking and exploiting are different–the idea is not to use natural processes, but to reproduce them in ‘artificial’ settings).

Biomimicry doesn’t seem to move beyond anthropocentrism towards something like ‘design for all life’ or ‘bee-centric design’ (i.e., basing risk tolerance on the weakest link in the global ecological system, engaging in ‘universal’ rather than anthropocentric design). Instead, it merely proposes mimicking nature for human ends like energy production and construction. Fortunately and probably most importantly, it turns out that biomimicry technologies are more sustainable than the ‘unnatural ones’. Overall, from a theoretical standpoint I’m worried about the dichotomy between humans and nature that seems to inform the biomimicry approach. That being said, the video certainly suggests that, as a practical tool, there are very useful benefits.

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Like Ally, I was reminded of Kimmerer’s work and wondered if the concept of biomimicry could be more collaborative/reciprocal. I’m not sure how I feel about all these technological innovations (nature-inspired or not) - I recognize the value in utilizing natural processes but I’m also wary of technological silver bullet solutions to complex issues (which themselves are often unforeseen side effects of technology). Sometimes the best solutions are also not really “natural,” but more of a collaboration between humans and the natural world. For example, rotational/management-intensive grazing helps support healthy soils and produces more food per acre than pasture left untouched, but, although it’s inspired by natural systems, it’s anything but natural and involves a lot of human interference.

I was also thrown off a little by the anthropomorphic nature of the asknature.org pieces. Both biomimicry and the asknature.org pieces take the most appealing aspects of nature and cast them in a very positive and almost romanticized light. It’s nice to talk about wild dogs “voting” and naked mole rats “babysitting,” but let’s not forget about the less savory aspects of nature. In nature, is forced copulation “rape”? Is eating one’s young “murder”? These are both widespread practices among certain animals (and often evolutionarily/biologically favorable too). Nature has a lot of great systems that humans can learn from, but nature is also brutal and competitive.

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@douwe Before reading this week’s material, I had the same reservation about biomimicry. I wasn’t opposed to it as a practice given it’s fundamentally more sustainable than exploitative measures, but the theoretical underpinnings left me wondering whether it’s still rooted in anthropocentrism.

I think the primer by Benyus takes a stab at addressing this concern:

The real legacy of biomimicry will be more than products and processes that help us fit in here. It will be gratitude, and from this, an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us.

For Benyus, biomimicry isn’t just about improving humanity’s material condition by ensuring the sustained survival of our species; it’s also about appreciating the non-human world for what it is and what it affords us. She develops this, I think, by discussing the three levels of biomimicry: form, processes, and systems. Mimicking form and processes seems to coincide more with meeting the “human ends” like energy production and construction you mention, whereas mimicking systems seems to hint at deeper questions that could very well challenge our anthropocentric tendencies.

The question of mimicking systems in the Benyus excerpt links well to Weaver’s article. Benyus is calling for a renewed/remembered appreciation of nature – a new way of thinking about our preconceived notions of success and well-being – while Weaver points a finger at what we largely do at present instead:

We’ve told ourselves so many stories about the way things are supposed to be; those stories play on autopilot every time we create something. We’re trained to ask questions — but why don’t we question the validity and value of our obsession with solving problems that affect only us? … Does every product deserve to exist? Does every problem need to be solved?

I think your concern is valid; I share it (and it seems Audrey does as well per the reticence about innovations). It’s hard to not have that impression when any visual media you see about biomimicry is always about the shark-skin material or the bullet train. I do think, though, that our authors suggest that mimicking nature does not need to (should not?) be confined to improving our technology or meeting goals born of our anthropocentric paradigm.

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I would love to tag on to this great discussion about an amazing piece and video by Janine Benyus. First off, I would like to add that I will be applying to work as an intern at all the companies she mentioned and probably watching the Netflix show Planet Earth for the rest of the weekend.

After reading this piece and watching the video, I almost felt a little dumb. This idea seems so simple and smart. If any organism has been doing this type of structural work for hundreds of generations, why would you look somewhere else for success? I always thought something like a spider’s web was so cool and elegant, but had no clue how it could be applied to a larger scale. However, with the ability to pump harmful fossil fuels out of the ground and blast CO2 into the air, I think we can figure out how to recreate a larger, useful spider web fiber.

To continue Audrey’s point, yes, we should not just stop everything and build all our dams like beavers and totally abandon our methods. Audrey is correct. A collaboration between humans and nature seems to be the best solution. Our best plan of action is one where we use the teaching of nature with our own knowledge to make a solution that works on our level AND is sustainable.

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I understand the anxiety about potentially exploitative aspects of biomimicry. Most of this worry certainly stems from knowledge of our own species’ history. Over and over, we have approached the natural world with an extractive, selfish mindset, bringing about disastrous results. I also wonder if part of this apprehension is rooted in the pervasive idea of humans as being separate and distinct from the rest of the biosphere. It is useful to be cautious given our species’ notorious destructive potential, but biomimicry gives us concrete universal rules of life established by successful species (Life’s Principles https://biomimicry.net/the-buzz/resources/designlens-lifes-principles/). Shallow biomimicry and mal-adapted bio-utilization can feed our current unsustainable model of existence, but deep biomimicry by nature requires a commitment to respecting these universal standards and recognizing our precarious place as a young, untested species on Earth. In terms of a critique of biomimicry’s conceptual framework, I don’t think that it inherently invites exploitation. As always, the complications arise during execution, when people are actually confronted with questions of whether an attractive product fits within the greater ecosystem and/or deserves to exist. That uniquely human anxiety about exploitation should be channeled into commitment to Life’s Principles.

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I found reading about biomimicry to be particularly interesting since a lot of the principles Benyus’ article touches on are shared by researchers in my field. In fact, a lot of work is being conducted grounded in the idea that that natural mechanisms can be implemented to design new functional materials. For example, understanding the collective process by which cells migrate can help us understand how wounds heal and to design better treatments/drugs/etc. Researchers are even focusing on biomimetic systems to design body armor. It’s great that this idea has permeated into design, since there is nothing more sustainable than creating spaces based on natural processes whose form and function create an inherent lasting technology that we can make use of, rather than synthesizing artificial solutions that have an incredibly finite lifetime.

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I also understand the worries about biomimicry being exploitative, although I agree with Crystal, Vince, and Emmett. I believe that this is something that Benyus addresses in her article:

"One of the most important ways to understand this meme is to understand what it is not. Sometimes people say to me, “Oh, I’m doing biomimicry! I just put cork floors in my house.” Or, “I clean my wastewater with bacteria.” Well, to clear up the confusion, we introduced the concepts of bio-utilized and bio-assisted, which are quite different from bio-mimicked.

Bio-utilization entails harvesting a product or producer, e.g., cutting wood for floors or wildcrafting medicinal plants. It is also distinctly different than bio-assisted technologies, which involve domesticating an organism to accomplish a function, e.g., bacterial purification of water or cows bred to produce milk. Instead of harvesting or domesticating, biomimics consult organisms; they are inspired by an idea, be it a physical blueprint, a process step in a chemical reaction, or an ecosystem principle such as nutrient cycling. Borrowing an idea is like copying a picture—the original image can remain to inspire others" (A biomimicry Primer, Page 5)

In this quote, she appears to be well aware of the potential for exploitation of environmental systems and resources for human benefit, and that biomimicry explicitly requires processes that incorperate into the pre-existing environmental systems instead of simply appropriating the design structures for human-centric design.

While I see the argument that the language being used around biomimicry is often in terms of human-centered design, I do not see this as a fault or flaw of biomimicry–more that it exists in a space between ecological design and technological design, so communicators are using human centered language to disseminate these ideas to designers in the current paradigm. I personally do not agree with the use of this human centered language when talking about biomimicry as I think that it leads to misunderstanding of what the concept is about, although I do not see that as a flaw of biomimicry itself.

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