Learning from nature's design

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Admit it, it's been quite a summer. Epic rains flooding swaths of Pakistan and China, fires ravaging Russia, while on this continent the plague of viscous black death has seeped into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's barely capped Deepwater Horizon, its true toll unlikely ever to be fully tallied.

Tragedy poses the basic questions: What is life really all about? Is nature trying to tell us something?

Funny you should ask.

The young discipline of biomimicry is coming into being based on a deep biological read of exactly these two questions. The good news is that this approach opens the door to radically hopeful new solutions to profound human problems.

I'm talking cool, sometimes simple but often stranger-than-science-fiction fixes that share one major fundamental tenet: they respect the life experience of the planet itself. In this philosophy, nature is the mentor and model, we are the students.

Naming rights for this perspective go to biologist and author Janine Benyus, who's fond of pointing out that life has been figuring out what works here on the planet for the last 3.8 billion years.

I catch her earlier this summer just hours before she's going to have the now familiar experience of stepping up to a Toronto podium.

It was actually Toronto's very own Jane Jacobs who first forced the Montana-based Benyus onto the speaking circuit. "She busted me out of my little mountain hermitage," says the New Jersey-born Benyus, who has the outdoorsy demeanour of one wiry, weather-kissed cowgirl.

The biomimic asks nature how it accomplishes the different functions we humans need to carry out, like making fibres stronger than steel at low temperatures the way spiders do, out of carbohydrates with no toxins, or making solar cells that imitate the way leaves turn sunshine into energy.

Years ago Benyus started to collect little pieces like this that she noticed in the scientific literature across multiple disciplines. They became the inspiration for her game-changing book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature.

I converse with her the very week the scientific creation of a self-replicating life form is announced -- and she heads straight to the boundaries of biomimicry. "There are some things I don't think we should mimic. Replication is one of them," she says.

"When an organism has a membrane around it, it has an 'I.' There's a libido," she says, drawing on her deep observation of plant and animal adaptation.

Biological pollution, she tells me, is going to make chemical pollution "look like a walk in the park. Seriously, we are a young species. We are toddlers with matches with this stuff."

You guessed it, she's also no fan of transgenic engineering. "Nature is model, measure and mentor," she says. "Nature doesn't put genes from one class into another class. There's a signal there."

Beyond Jacobs, our city has a very present reason to be proud of its place on the biomimicry honour roll, because OCAD is one of only three post-secondary institutions on the continent offering a minor in this emerging field.

"We are actually designing for the next generation of people who are going to inhabit this place," says Bruce Hinds, environmental design chair and biomimicry curriculum innovater. "They will have to be pretty damn good thinkers to solve the huge problems hovering over us."

Everything, he says, is up for grabs. "It's not just the built environment. It's the way we learn, the way we socially interact, the way we treat ourselves, the way we medicate ourselves."

So no surprise that biomimicry, like life itself, continues to adapt and evolve. That's actually one of the key "life principles" that the Biomimicry Institute (Benyus is the prez) has culled from identifying the behaviours cellular organisms have in common. Life does have its rules, it turns out, but they're mostly different from the ones we've been taught and see used around us.

"Organisms do chemistry in water, not toxic solvents. They build from the bottom up and self-assemble instead of heating things up. They procure locally and they're intensely collaborative," says Benyus. Biomimicry has codified 24 of these common ways that nature does things.

"There are these universal strategies that I think we ignore at our peril. They are sort of the operating manual on how to be a good earthling," she says.

The most fundamental of these is that "life creates conditions conducive to life." Ouch. You can see right away how following that simple, sensible rule sends most of our human project back to the design table.

So once her book came out, Benyus says, the phone started to ring with calls from "companies, inventors, communities, governments." But they all had something in common, she explains. "All of them were in the process of designing something new, designing our world."

That's where the project grew from just modestly trying to get more money and interest focused on research. A plan for a new career crystallized: a biologist who'd sit at the design table. But soon that ambition just underscored a more basic need. "We have to be able to access the biological literature through function, because that is how designers work," says Benyus.

"They say, 'I need the function of filtration,' and then we feed back to the designer all the ways that nature has done this, and they go, 'I could have sat here for a hundred years and never thought of something so simple, so elegant.' That's what we hear over and over again."

In November, the very google-esque project AskNature (asknature.org) was launched with the aim of organizing all available biological information by function, using a moderated wiki-based approach.

Choosing the successful life-based strategy of collaboration, the AskNature people teamed up with E.O Wilson's web-based Encyclopedia Of Life, which aims to comprehensively list every terrestrial life form, to add the question "What is this organism good at?" And, voilà, Benyus says, the data is just pouring in.

But the biomimicry education process needed to go deeper, too. Her colleagues began to envision biology taught to engineering students, for example, so first-year students in mechanical engineering would learn things like how nature pumps fluids, sticks things together or creates colour.

So in addition to working with companies, the Institute has developed curricula that start in kindergarten and go to Grade 12. There are now 75 professors who teach biomimicry courses as well as the three universities that offer biomimicry minors, like OCAD.

But one more giant challenge is embedded in the biomimicry framework. Benyus calls it "nature as measure" -- holding the human world to the standards of the ecological world.

Toronto's natural setting, for example, provides a very defined series of eco-services. It stores water after storms, and scientists know exactly how many tons of carbon are stored per acre, how much water is filtered, air cleansed. For Benyus, these are the building standards of tomorrow. They change everything about how new developments are designed.

For today, perhaps a new conversation is all we can ask for. The technology gap still looms. "Can architecture have not just a net zero effect but actually contribute by doing the things a natural system does?" asks OCAD's Hinds. It's up to his students to look for the answer to that one, because industry has barely glanced at these ideas.

But does that mean that all biomimicry initiatives can only work over a long, slow trajectory while our big problems blow up all around us. Benyus says no. She advocates for some kind of global open innovation prize focused on what we need to turn our troubles around.

"We should have a short list of key sustainability challenges that are very, very practical and very technical. When you look at a set of problem statements like climate change, they are very large. We need some granularity to it. Why are fuel cells so expensive, for example? Then you talk to an engineer and find out that it has do with the platinum on a particular membrane." You see where she's going.

"There is a short list of technical challenges that we should get the smartest people in the world working on, and the biomimics," of course. Benyus's can-do perspective is infectious. I start to realize that focusing on the endless genius of nature does transform the mental landscape. Hey, if we humans make it through our toddler stage, in another couple of hundred thousand years, we'll be natural geniuses, too.

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