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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part two)


architect: Janine Benyus (HOK Architecture)

interview title: Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part two) (click HERE for Part one)

interviews compilation no: T-15, A-02
interview format: text, audio
date: 01.02.09
appeared in: TreeHugger Radio
interviewer: Jacob Gordon, Nashville, TN
photo by:
Audio: for audio version click HERE. courtesy: iTune


interview details:

How does an electric eel generate electricity without frying itself? How does a tree move water hundreds of feet up without pumps? If we quiet human cleverness and follow nature’s lead, says Janine Benyus, we see that most of our challenges have already been solved. Ask Benyus how to be a better biomimic. Two words: get outside!

TreeHugger: Let's talk about the core principles of biomimicry. What underpins this approach to design?

Benyus: Well, it's really looking to nature for advice. It's learning from, not just about the natural world. It's literally when you have a design problem saying OK, what in the natural world has already solved what I'm trying to solve? The questions are: what would nature do here?

And the locality is important; life adjusts its technologies for a place. What would nature do here is the question you ask. We're working with HOK Architecture, a big architecture and engineering firm, and what we do with them we take the architects out to the site where they're going to build. We find a native ecosystem and say, what would the native ecosystem be doing there?

We look at the organisms and we say, "Look, you're in Phoenix and here's a barrel cactus. Look at that pleating, that's allowing the cactus to shade itself. And to play with wind in certain ways so it creates micro-habitat and it doesn't lose a lot of moisture."

Then, the architect might say, "OK, well what if we were to pleat the skin of our building to be self shading in the same way?" So it's a question of what would nature do here in a very particular way. We say let's go out and see what nature's already doing here and have that inform our design.

The second question is what wouldn't nature do here? Maybe dancing fountains in Las Vegas might be what nature wouldn't do here. Nature-as-measure is pretty important in helping us judge the rightness of our innovation. If you don't see a lot of transgenic engineering—the moving of genes from one class of animals, like fish, into another class of animals, like plants or strawberries—if you don't see that in the natural world, that's probably a sign.

Nature as mentor is the third one. You ask: “what would nature do here, what wouldn't nature do here, why and why not? That's the level at which you start to understand life's principles in general. And you figure out how to live here as a carbon-based life form on this Earth. You learn the ropes. So that's the basis of it. It's learning from rather than just about these organisms.

TreeHugger: How does this differentiate biomimicry from the other bios?

Benyus: It's emulating life's ideas rather than extracting, harvesting, or domesticating an organism. And there's a really big difference here. If you look at the other bios, you can break it up into other ways we've related to the natural world.

You can look at bio-utilization. People say to me, "I have a cork floor, I'm doing biomimicry." Well, no. A cork floor is not biomimicry, that's bio-utilization. It's harvesting of a natural product. That's not biomimicry. There's a sustainable way you can harvest it and an unsustainable way you can harvest it. It's not that it's good or bad. You can do that in a great sustainable way.

The second bio is bio-assisted, and this is the domestication. This is where we have asked organisms to help us do whatever we do. We have a cow in the field to help us get milk. Or we use bacteria to help us clean waste water. Or we use yeast to make bread. That's bio-assisted.

That technology, that domestication technology, has been going on for 10,000 years as well. Some of it's real sustainable, natural breeding, and some of it I would argue is unsustainable, like transgenic engineering.

The third is biomimicry, which is when you are actually borrowing an idea, a blueprint or a recipe. In bio-utilization you go out and you acquire the product. In bio-assisted you domesticate the producer. But in biomimicry, you actually emulate the producer. You become the producer.

For instance, the mother of pearl on the inside of an abalone. It is incredibly tough, twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics. Yet it is made in room temperature, in sea water, basically. It is in sea water temperature.

People study that and say how can we make a strong ceramic like that, a tough ceramic without an oven? If you were doing bio-utilization you would just harvest the abalone. Crack its shell and use it. If you were doing bio-assisted you would farm the abalone. But if you are doing biomimicry you would actually try to create a ceramic using the recipe of the abalone and using the design blueprints of the abalone.
The abalone stays in the ocean. You can see, it’s really different. Interestingly, I have been working with IUCM. Those are the people who do the red list, every year, of endangered species at the United Nations' environment program. What they are talking about now is rewriting the asset and benefit sharing, or bio-piracy, protocols.
For COP 10, in December 2010, they will come up with a new list of these protocols. Interestingly, because biomimicry is not extractive—it’s not going and getting a plant from the jungle—there is a whole new set of legal precedent that has to be set.

How do we avoid bio-piracy when you are talking about going into an area and learning something from the organisms that live there? How do you give back? It is something new for us.

TreeHugger: Are there design flaws in nature?

Benyus: Absolutely. I mean, to the extent that what you are seeing is not a finished story. You are seeing a story in progress. The organisms that you see that you are pretty wowed by, it is because they represent one percent of all species that have ever been on Earth. So 99 percent are extinct. The one percent that you see here have gotten through some amazing bottlenecks because they are good. But that evolution process is still in play. And species are still getting tested, including us, by the way.

So I laughed when you said, “Are there design flaws?" because I think the big brain has great things going for it. But, I think it has some serious design flaws as well. Some things that are maladaptive. There are maladaptive traits that are constantly being edited out of the population through natural selection. And really, that is how I look at us. I see all of our technologies as natural. I look at a building and I say, "Oh my gosh. That is totally natural." Because it is like a nest. That is a product of a biological organism: us.

But, when I go into a building and I start getting a headache, because there is some off-gassing or whatever, I think, this is something that natural selection will eventually edit out.

If a hive of bees built something that had a toxic gas leaking out of whatever material they were using, the propensity to use that material would be edited out. Because reproduction would not be that great in that hive. So there is immediate feedback.

Thankfully, we have what Paul Hawken calls an immune system. We have all kinds of nonprofit organizations, NGOs and civil societies saying, protesting, about the fact that they are getting headaches in buildings.

That is our immune system. That is our feedback system. I think the substitutions for those kinds of flawed designs are going to be increasingly inspired by the ones that have evolved a little bit longer in life's R&D lab.

TreeHugger: It would appear that you have somehow appropriated the biological ability not to sleep. The amount of things that you have got yourself involved in these days is astounding. One of them is an education program that goes from kindergarten all the way up through university, trying to get bio-mimicry into classrooms. How is this happening?

Benyus: The Biomimicry Institute started a couple of years ago. We had a tremendous team. On the Guild side we work with practitioners. We work with people who are proactive system designers, engineers, architects and chemists. What about the next generation of biomimics? You can't keep doing this remedial approach of saying, “oh by the way, look to the natural world.” You see all these architects who we deal with going, "Oh my God, if anybody had told me to just do that, that would have been my design methodology. It would have been part of my design methodology." That is what we are trying to do.

We are introducing this idea of look to the natural world all the way. And K through 12 kids love it, of course. They are really good designers too, by the way, because they are not hampered by convention.

At the university level, it is really kind of neat. What we realized—and this is kind of shocking, actually—is that the people who make our world, most of them, do not have to take a biology class. They really never touch biology, expect once in high school.

So, we said, "Wow. Let's remedy that first." What if engineers, architects and designers were to take one biology class? And it was taught not the way that you remember biology being taught: here are all the fungi—all of the rote memorization— but rather biology taught functionally.

One week would be ‘how does nature communicate?’ ‘How does nature play with light?’ ‘What are optics like in the natural world?’ You would learn about cuttlefish and how they make these amazing displays on their bodies. Week after week after week you would be looking at design through the lens of the natural world.

The biggest thing to understand is that these things are possible. Once you know that the electric eel, for instance, can create 600 volts of electricity, and there is no lead or mercury or things that are in our batteries. You know?

Once you realize that it doesn't fry itself with that electricity. And then somebody tells you, "Well, you need PVC for insulators on wires. It is the only thing that will insulate." You might say, "Well, you know, there is an electric fish in the Amazon. The electric eel doesn't need PVC to insulate itself. Let's check." So, it is a matter of knowing that it exists.

We are working with 20 universities right now, with biology taught functionally as a class. In some of the universities, that class has both biology students in it and, say, architecture students. And then they go onto another class. At the University of Minnesota they spend a whole year in a biomimic studio, and you've got an architect and a biology student side by side. And they try to create a biomimic building project.
We're doing that, and now we're working on three universities that will have actual minors in biomimicry. That's exciting. That's the next generation of biomimics.

TreeHugger: I see parallels between biomimicry and nanotechnology. Biomimicry on one hand suggests that we can build things and process things and organize things the way that nature does, and nanotechnology promises that we can manufacture things from the molecular level on up. What's the relationship between nanotechnology and biomimicry, and does this introduce a whole new set of risks as well?

Benyus: Nature is nano. It's one of life's principles, really, that life builds from the bottom up. What that means is that nanotechnology basically has to do with the scale. It's a term that refers to scale—how small something is. Your body builds out of a complete nano construction.

You look at your muscle, and your muscle is this twisted bundle of cables. Each cable is a twisted bundle of fibrils, and each fibril is a twisted bundle of micro fibrils. And each micro fibril is a twisted bundle of proteins, and a chain of proteins is made up of amino acids, and that chain of proteins is created in such a way that it self-assembles from a chain into a three-dimensional molecule. And then it self-assembles all the way up to the level of your muscle.

Life begins at the nano. That's why I think it can be an amazing nature-as-model-and-mentor for nanotechnology, because the dangers that we now see in nanotechnology is the fact that we're taking materials and we're bringing them down to nano particle size. And they have very, very different properties at that nano size. We really don't understand the dangers of them.

Having those particles free and loose, I honestly believe that is something that we need to look at, because when I look in the natural world, I find that those particles are not free. They're actually embedded in a material in a very particular way during processing. That's the kind of guidance, I think, that biology can give to the nanotechnology field.

It's literally asking, what's the recipe? What's the blueprint that says this is how you work with nano in a safe way?

It's interesting because we just worked on a project called "Nature's 100 Best" in which we trolled for years through the biological literature looking for answers, looking for really cool technologies that have not yet been mimicked.

On the left hand we had a list of sustainability challenges, like the nano-particle problem, and in our right hand we had biological literature. We found some interesting things. We found this sulfur reducing bacteria that, lo and behold, as a result of doing bioremediation, actually creates nano-particles. They are actually created as part of the natural process. But if you look closer, those bacteria release the protein into the fluid stream. What that protein does is it pulls those nano particles out of the fluid stream and crystallizes them into a material.

I do believe there are all kinds of things that we need to look to the natural world for, like how to do nanotechnology safely.

TreeHugger: If I want to look at the world today, just observe my surroundings like a biomimic, how can I do that?

Benyus: Get outside! We just finished a children's CD and there's this great chant: "Get out, get out, get outside, get outside." And that's the first thing because we rarely do go outside. is a great way to ask the world for help, but it's the next best thing from being outside.

So go outside and literally sit under a tree. Look up and say, what is this tree doing that we need to do in our industrial world to meet our needs? What you do is you change the lens with which you see that tree. Suddenly you go, Oh, my god! There are solar arrays. And they're not flat on top of a roof, they're in vertical arrays. They are tilting as the sun moves across the sky. They are defending themselves against pest. This tree is pumping water hundreds of feet up, but how is it doing it? It's not really using a pump, it's actually pulling the water. The roots are exchanging nutrients with the roots of the tree next door.

You just begin to see what has been there all along, but because you've seen it as scenery instead of genius you miss it. So it's literally being that kid again and saying to the tree, "How are you doing what it is that I need to do?" And at that point you need to find biologists that you can work with and have that biologist tell you what he or she knows.

And then the next step is to ask, “how can I get closer to that? How can I be more like that technology in all ways.” Not just in the mechanistic way it works, but the way it works as part of the system. The way the solar cell falls to the ground and builds soil, for goodness sake. That's the real magic trick. That these technologies individually work so well, but collectively they create condition conducive to life in the habitat.

So it's both a technical inspiration and an aspirational goal for us and it comes from just recognizing that we're not the first species to have tried to meet our needs elegantly in a place. Literally, let the entrancement of the last 350 years of western science, where somehow we convinced ourselves that we're the only one with the answers, let that fall away. And go outside and realize that we're surrounded by genius. It's just a recognition of that.

Audio version:
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