As we plunge into the 21st century, we face daunting challenges such as a changing climate and stagnant economies that demand novel solutions to how we create, build, and conduct business. We require a new approach to innovation that yields sustainable, resilient products, and processes. Fortunately, Earth has been supporting a research and development program for nearly 4 billion years–life, and it continues to produce sustainable, effective, and efficient designs and processes.
Why might we turn to life for solutions? Consider how nearly all living things rely on diffuse and transient flows of energy and materials. And yet, life thrives. Organisms are able to procure materials and assemble themselves—essentially constructing “technologies”—using only the resources that are locally available. Imagine if human designs worked the same way.
Increasingly, innovative companies are looking to the living world for inspiration and direction. Nature provides a rich yet largely unexplored library of technologies that process and manage information, materials, and energy.1 Abstracting ideas from this catalogue opens the way to technological breakthroughs and profitable innovation that are often unattainable using conventional approaches to product design and development. We call this approach “bioinspired innovation.”
“Bioinspired innovation” encompasses two distinct categories. One of them, bioutilization, is the use of organisms or biological materials to fulfill a human need. The other, biomimicry, is the abstraction and translation of biological principles into human-made technology; it is also a method of assessing whether a design concept is likely to, as Janine Benyus puts it, “create conditions conducive to life.”2 The terms are related yet distinct. Either approach can be implemented in a way that benefits society and the environment.
Blueprints for Innovation
Regardless of what you call it, looking to nature for inspiration has already yielded a wealth of cutting-edge technologies and promises many more innovations that would be the envy of scientists, engineers, and designers. Long before human beings began tinkering in labs, organisms developed carbon capture and sequestration systems, water harvesting techniques, water transport systems, adhesives, colorfast materials, electronic circuits, distributed energy conversion systems, color displays, light absorbers, insulation, thermal dissipators, and information storage, along with countless other designs. All of these are blueprints for technologies that are not only useful to society but are also integral to the global economy. Companies that learn from nature are increasing revenues, mitigating risk, reducing costs, and supporting the development of a sustainable society.
To understand how the biological world works—how it builds material, creates form, and constructs intricate systems—is to understand the inherent physical constraints of our planet. Organisms have operated within these rules for nearly 4 billion years, and human technology operates using the same rulebook.3 Through bioinspired innovation, companies can not only discover design ideas in nature but also emulate nature by embedding sustainability into the development of new products and processes. By doing so, businesses can begin to see environmental challenges such as climate change as opportunities rather than economic risks.
A flurry of innovation occurred in the twentieth century that had a positive, transformative effect on economies and societies.4 Today, however, many companies and private investors develop and invest in “widgets [and] irrelevances” that neither produce healthy returns nor address pressing societal needs.5 To develop the world-changing and profitable innovations of tomorrow, companies and investors need new sources of ideas.
Harvard Business School’s Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter recently said that before innovation proves successful, it is merely “somebody’s wild idea that competes with every other wild idea.”6 Indeed, technological innovation is an exercise in risk. Many businesses attempt to innovate by reformulating their existing products or emulating a competitor’s product. However, these avenues often only provide incremental value to both businesses and society, not transformative breakthroughs.
Creating an entirely new product category that alters or creates markets (so-called “disruptive innovation”) requires insightful strategy, serendipity, or both. Bioinspired innovation offers a real opportunity for companies to create products and processes inspired by proven designs: the attributes of organisms that perpetuate in nature because they solve particular challenges.
Companies that leverage bioinspired innovation can increase revenues, reduce costs, and meet global needs. They can also increase their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) rating, attracting investments from the $45 trillion managed by firms supporting this trend in financial markets.7,8 By looking outside the bounds of their traditional disciplines, companies are able to transform markets and increase returns.
Bioinspired Innovation: An Economic Engine
Due to its transformative potential, bioinspired innovation is projected to have a substantial impact on economic growth. The Fermanian Business & Economic Institute estimates that bioinspired innovation could account for approximately $425 billion of U.S. GDP and could generate approximately 2 million jobs by 2030.9 More and more companies, universities, and investors are discovering the economic opportunities that this unique field affords.
Global crises such as climate change remind humanity of its interdependence on natural systems, but this symbiosis also presents an opportunity to work with nature instead of against it. Adapting human technologies and systems to function similarly to natural designs achieves this and consequently ensures greater economic returns, a healthier environment, and a prosperous future. Consciously looking to nature for innovative, sustainable solutions could soon be the rule, not the exception.
My firm, Terrapin Bright Green, recently published the paper Tapping into Nature: The Future of Energy, Innovation, and Business, which explores profitable examples of bioinspired innovation and its market potential. You can read the paper on our website, http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/tapping-nature/. The paper is a product of Terrapin’s experience developing bioinspired technologies and a testament to the potential we see in a bioinspired approach to research and development. We work with companies, academic researchers, and governmental organizations to transition biologically-inspired technology into the market.
- J. Calvert et al. Synthetic aesthetics: investigating synthetic biology’s designs on nature. MIT Press, 2014.
- J. Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
- E. G. Nisbet and N. H. Sleep, “The habitat and nature of early life,” Nature, vol. 409, Feb 2001. doi:10.1038/35059210
- B. Wallace-Wells, “The Blip,” The New York Magazine, Jul. 2013, http://nymag.com/, Accessed Sept. 2014.
- B. Kenny, “3 Ways to Innovate in a Stagnant Environment,” The Business, Mar. 2014, Harvard Business School, http://www.hbs.edu/, Accessed Sept. 2014.
- B. Gibney, “What happened to the future?” Founders Fund, 2011, http://www.foundersfund.com/, Accessed Sept. 2014.
- “PRI Fact Sheet,” Principles for Responsible Investment, http://www.unpri.org/news/, Accessed Mar. 2015.
- S. Baker, “PRI exec harnessing the power of $45 trillion,” Pensions & Investments, Oct. 2014, http://www.unpri.org/, Accessed Mar. 2015.
- The Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, “Bioinspired innovation: An economic engine.” Tapping into nature: The future of energy, innovation, and business. Terrapin Bright Green, 2015. http//:www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/tapping-nature/.