Biomimicry and Innovation: A Conversation with Zeynep Arhon

Biomimicry and Innovation: A Conversation with Zeynep Arhon

Posted 20 July 2011, by Gaurav Bhalla, Gaurav Bhalla, gauravbhalla.com

Zeynep Arhon

Analogies are a powerful way of stimulating creativity.  What better reservoir to draw it from than nature? I met Zeynep Arhon in October last year at the Future Trends 2010 conference in Miami.  Zeynep is a biomimicry specialist from Turkey.  It was our mutual interest in innovation and collaboration that helped us connect.  Since sustainability is such a hot topic, and since biomimicry’s key goal is to promote sustainability, I thought a conversation with Zeynep would benefit our readers.  So here we are.


Zeynep, can you give us a brief introduction to Biomimicry?
Sure.  The term “Biomimicry” is a combination of two words. “Bios” means life and “mimicry” means to imitate. Biomimicry is therefore the conscious emulation of life’s genius.

And your belief is that innovation can benefit from this conscious emulation of life’s genius?

Absolutely. Understanding how nature and its many organisms solve their specific challenges can greatly help us solve life’s challenges in our own world.  What we don’t realize on a day-to-day basis is that we live in an R&D lab 3.8 billion years young! In this marvellous lab millions of species have already solved and continue to solve many of the problems that we grapple with – energy, food production, temperature control, transportation, packaging, business management and more. So, it makes much sense to look at nature for innovation. Mimicking these time-tested solutions can help us leapfrog to more effective futures, with significantly less failure.

Let’s dig a little deeper.  When I hear “innovation inspired by nature” Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind. Several hundred years ago he studied nature to come up with breakthrough designs.  Is Biomimicry really new?

You are spot on.  Leonardo was a genius, and yes his observation of birds in flight led him to think of planes. It is well known that polar bear digging and hibernating habits significantly influenced igloo designs. More recently, Swiss engineer George de Maestral studied burr seeds to invent Velcro. Learning from nature is not new.  What is new is the going beyond a few brilliant minds, what is new is the birth of a systematic discipline of learning and application that involves hundreds of designers, engineers, educators, biologists, entrepreneurs, chemists and architects from around the world. One indicator will help set the global interest and relevance of biomimicry in perspective.  The number of global patents containing the term “biomimetic” or “bio-inspired” in their title has increased by a factor of 93, from 1985 to 2005, compared to a factor 2.7 increase for non-biomimetic patents.

Let’s get specific – please share a few examples of innovative solutions inspired by nature? 

Since you are from India, you may like this.  HOK Architects and Biomimicry Guild, the consulting firm that incorporates nature’s designs into a variety of applications, are building a new city in India, 8,000 acres large.  The source of inspiration for this revolutionary city is moist, deciduous forests.

BioPower Systems, an Australian company, creates technologies to convert ocean power into a renewable source of energy.  BioPower’s wave power system, bioWAVE™, is based on the swaying motion of kelp in the presence of ocean waves. Another new development is The VIVACE hydro energy device that mimics the swimming strategies of schools of fish. VIVACE can harness power from slow moving ocean and river currents to provide new, reliable, and affordable alternative energy sources

Another application that comes to mind which is sure to appeal to urban commuters is Volvo’s accident avoidance project; a goal they hope to achieve by the year 2020.  Volvo’s “Locust Collision Avoidance Detector” project led to the development of a sophisticated, yet affordable, collision avoidance sensor based on the study of locust behavior.

There is an interesting saying this side of the Atlantic – there is no such thing as a free lunch.  What are some key roadblocks in developing and implementing biomimicry inspired innovations?

All the big roadblocks have to do with us – human beings; how we think and what we value.  As I see it, the biggest challenge is our ability to be humble and learn from even the smallest organisms on this planet.  We human beings live with a built-in mindset that we are superior to all other life forms.  With that kind of attitude there is slim or little chance for us to learn from other organisms, especially those that we label “insignificant.”

Another has to do with our willingness to true risk takers.  Most business leaders hanker after breakthrough ideas, but without breakthrough risks.  Biomimicry can’t guarantee success, what it does have to offer is an abundance of opportunities, waiting to reward those that are willing to be frontier thinkers and doers.

Now you personally operate at the intersection of biomimicry and business innovation.  Share a little of your passion and working philosophy with us?  

Happy to, but you have to forgive me if I come across as evangelical.  I am a biased protagonist!  You are very right.  I do operate at the intersection of bomimicry and business innovation.

  • First, I do believe that business has the power to shape the future.
  • Second, I also believe that biomimicry has the power to change business into a more human, and graceful activity, which it is not at the moment.
  • Third, I believe in collaboration and co-creation, which is how I got interested in your work.  In my opinion, we overvalue competition, but undervalue collaboration.

It is these ingredients that I combine to help my clients develop effective survival and growth strategies.

One for the road – what if someone is looking for good reference sources, what would you recommend?   

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” by Janine Benyus is the iconic book, for those interested in reading more on the subject. The Biomimicry Group provides consulting and educational services. Its sister organizations, Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry Guild bring together scientists, engineers, architects and innovators for creating sustainable technologies. Finally, the website www.asknature.org is an excellent and free resource developed by The Biomimicry Institute in collaboration with the well-known biologist E.O. Wilson.

Thanks Zeynep, for sharing your ideas and passion; enjoyed the conversation.    

Thank you!  Enjoyed it.  Look forward to continuing our conversation.

http://www.gauravbhalla.com/2011/07/biomimicry-and-innovation-a-conversation-with-zeynep-arhon.htm

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