Biomimicry Principles to help Businesses Thrive in Tough Times

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Setting off over the Greensand Hills

Steps Towards Sustainability Walk – ‘Bluebells & Biomimicry’: April 13th

A fantastic mix of people turned up for the first 6heads Steps Towards Sustainability walk last weekend, from social entrepreneurs setting up businesses of their own to sustainability practitioners from huge global businesses.  We set out from Oxted with a short climb over the Greensand Hills, followed by some fine bluebell woods that, unfortunately, were carpeted in bluebells that were still a week or two away from blooming due to this year’s unseasonably cold spring.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly our well-deserved lunch at The Royal Oak Inn, where Geraldine Brennan, shared some of the key insights from her research about what businesses can learn from nature.

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THREE LEVELS OF BIOMIMICRY

Geraldine began by outlining the rationale for why businesses would look to nature for inspiration and how they can profit from imitating natural form/function, natural processes and natural systems.

1. Many people will be familiar with examples of businesses successfully copying forms from nature, from George deMestral’s 1941 invention of velcro, based on his experience of removing burrs from his dog’s coat to competitive swimmers wearing suits that replicate the overlapping dermal dentricals of sharkskin to reduce turbulence and thus increase their speed.  A better understanding of why humpback whales have a series of irregular bumps along the leading edge of their flippers is being applied by a company, Whalepower, to improve the efficiency of wind turbines.

2. But more than merely directly copying forms from nature, many designers are now focusing on understanding the natural processes that explain why these natural forms evolved as they did.  The process of using a hydrophobic material with microbumps to create self-cleaning surfaces was originally inspired by the lotus flower’s ability to remain clean, but this anti-fouling process is evident in many species such as butterflies and whales.  Gaining a more holistic understanding of how this process works across multiple examples can help create an optimal design solution.

3. Increasingly the study of biomimicry has focused on the fundamental principles that underlie natural systems.  This more abstract understanding can have a much broader application than replicating a natural form or process.  Perhaps one of the best known applications of this is the industrial ecosystem created in Kalundborg in Denmark where an industrial cluster has been designed so that the outputs from one industry are used as the inputs for another.  With 3 million tonnes of material and energy exchanged annually the cost-savings have been estimated at $10m. a year.

THRIVING IN EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS

With so many examples in nature of life not just surviving, but thriving in extreme environments and under extremely harsh conditions, what are the lessons for businesses in the face of our current, turbulent economy?  Geraldine shared some principles suggested by Erin Leitch:

Create an affinity with the resources you need to attract: The Namib Desert beetle lives in one of the driest environments on earth, but uses a series of bumps on it’s shell with hydrophilic tips that condenses the scarce morning dew, which then flows down its back into its mouth.  How can your business do more to attract the resources that are currently limiting you?

Take advantage of your competitors’ down-times: Peatland perennials have evolved to flower at different times, so as to maximise the opportunity for each species to pollinate, given the scarcity of pollinating insects in peatland ecosystems.  Can your offering be differentiated by being available when your competitor’s isn’t?

Build resilience by collaborating to manage resource flows: In douglas-fir forests a below-ground, fungal, mycorhizzal network exchanges carbon between deciduous paper birch trees to regenerating douglas fir seedlings nearby.  When the birch trees are without leaves, the douglas-fir trees reciprocate by transferring carbon back again.  Is there an opportunity to manage stocks and flows of resources through the professional network of your business?

Leverage free energy on your doorstep: Dandelions raise a globe of seeds high above their roots with a disc of radiating threads which capture the wind, meaning it does not have to expend any energy to physically disperse its seeds over large distances.  Being locally attuned and responsive to the world adjacent to your organization can reveal new sources of abundance. Is there an initiative or momentum already underway in the market that you can leverage?

As well as these specific examples, consider the main principles that underpin thriving natural systems and consider how each of these could be applied to benefit your activities.  Geraldine also shared some really practical tools from the Biomicry Institute for using principles from biomicry to drive business innovation.

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After lunch, the second half of the walk was a test of our resilience as the dry morning had changed into a decidedly wet and windy afternoon – even the spring lambs were sheltering from the weather!  Well done to everyone who braved the rain and the mud of the end of the walk!  The next Steps Towards Sustainability walk is planned for the height of Summer – fingers crossed for some better weather then!

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