Crafting the Ultimate Post-Industrial Design Brief Using Biomimicry

Janine Benyus Paul Hawken at VERGE 2014

By Adiel Gavish

“What the industrial age has done is take life away from the planet and turn it into goods and services,” Paul Hawken stated at the 2014 VERGE Conference in San Francisco this past December. The annual event put on by Joel Makower, a former Biomimicry 3.8 Board Member and brings corporations and entrepreneurs together around the convergence of energy, buildings and transportation technologies which will “…enable radical efficiencies and huge opportunities.”

Mr. Makower interviewed both Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken around the idea of “running the industrial age backwards” and how nature can teach us how to undo the damage caused by unraveling the fabric of Earth’s balanced resources.

According to Paul Hawken the Industrial Age essentially takes “…concentrated materials, primarily from the lithosphere and from the biosphere and disperses them everywhere on the planet: in the oceans, in our atmosphere, in our air, lungs and everywhere else.”

He continued, “What we know from biomimicry, and looking at how life works is that, what nature does is, concentrate … What we’re talking about is technologies that imitate nature in the sense that they re-concentrate what the industrial age dispersed into our water, our soil, etc.,” and in a way that is beneficial to the planet, as opposed to degrading.

Janine explained, “In the natural world, what’s abundant is golden … life is really good at concentrating photons, grabbing fog and humidity out of the air, or collecting phosphor,” for example. Benyus then outlined the ultimate nature-inspired design brief for essentially any product in a post industrial era, in order to undo the damage already caused.

“It has to be made out of local, abundant, non-toxic, raw material,” she said, “cheap, and available everywhere. You’ve got to be able to recruit those materials at the end of their life. It has to be able to be repaired or self-healing, or so ubiquitous that it can be replaced easily … I think it’s very important that it’s built to shape – it can be made on a printing press. And that’s another reason why I’m excited about additive manufacturing and 3-D printing. If we get it right and use truly local, raw materials, we build them to shape. We add structure that we find from the natural world – because that’s what life does with fairly simple, raw materials.

… At some point, maybe in 10 years from now, we may not be using a recycled plastic, we may be using chitin – seafood waste as a product. The idea is, can you functionalize a local plastic to do the same thing as polymer plastics? So this idea of additive manufacturing – it could be the next biomimetic manufacturing revolution, if the raw materials are local and safe, if the print chemistry is biomimetic – meaning low temp, self assembles and aqueous, if the build file comes from the architectures in the natural world, which is done with very simple materials like chalk, chitin and cellulose, but put into very strong, robust designs, and then a return chemistry, which is the de-assembly chemistry that life has, so that you’re taking the product and putting it right back in the printer.

…And that’s why I’m so excited about thin film. When you do things layer by layer, and you have more control over those processes, that’s very much how nature builds things – by building them to shape, rather than cutting out waste.”

Mr. Makower then posed the question most likely on everyone’s minds, “There’s a lot of hunger for wanting to do this … Are there a number of core, fundamental solutions that are just game-changers?  How do you as a company think about where these come from or how to get into this?”

As a business re-thinker, Paul Hawken explained that it’s vital to work with chemists and biologists in order to bring nature to the design table.  Janine and Paul have partnered with John Warner of Warner Babcock, a green chemistry pioneer who, “…says he’s a molecular psychologist. He puts a molecule on the couch and asks, who do you want to be?” rather than forcing molecules to be what we want them to be.

And what is the future of regenerative design? How can we collectively upcycle the resources mankind has downcycled and thrown into the garbage pile? “Stabilization is not a worthy goal,” Paul made clear, “…the only goal that makes sense is drawdown.”

From a biological perspective, Janine explained, “Carbon is our ally. All the plants you see use CO2 as a feedstock. I don’t pretend it will get us out of our climate,” but it’s a place to explore.

Towards the end of their time on stage, Mr. Makower made a point of mentioning as a valuable resource for companies to look up biological strategies by design and engineering function in order to solve their design challenges. As a hub of biological intel, is steadily evolving into a repository of patterns and design instructions for architects, engineers and designers.

“I think eventually what we’ll be selling is the generative digital design file that will go into somebody’s 3-D printer,” Ms. Benyus shared, “and that digital file will allow you to skin a product with the exact architecture of for example, fog gathering bumps (of a Namibian Beetle) … Those shapes that can be put into algorithms, for people like Autodesk that can be put into CAD programs. That’s how biological intelligence will reside in the tools people use every day. And they’re going to be making things that work like the natural world works, because we’ve put the biological intelligence in there – whether it’s the chemical recipe or physical.”

And at the end of the day, Ms. Benyus concluded, “That’s the only thing I’ll dissipate, is biological intelligence.”


Video credit: VERGE San Franciso