September 2017

Biomimicry: The Practice of Emulating Nature’s Genius


Toby Herzlich


Life creates conditions conducive to life. From the first single cell that split into two, life has been expressing itself as a creative force—constantly wriggling, pulsing, joining, dividing, breathing, dying, decaying and morphing into new and ongoing expressions of matter and energy. This vitality happens in a context and through co-evolving relationships in the practice of taking care of the place that will take care of the next generation. Nature builds soil, opens new niches, coaxes mutually beneficial relationships, adapts toward emergent new possibilities. Success for an organism is not so much about how large it grows or how much power it has in its ecosystem, but how long it can last, measured in generations over time. 


Imagine if we too were guided by the commitment to create conditions conducive to life —emulating this first principle of the natural world in every product we invent, every policy we negotiate, all of our city planning, every solution we craft to address the call of climate change. What if every act of our leadership were guided by this practice? How might it shift the way we live together?


Biomimicry—the practice of emulating nature’s genius—is based on the simple recognition that life has been adapting, evolving, resiliently regenerating and flourishing as a complex interconnected web of relationships for 3.8 billion years. Since the publication of Janine Benyus’ 1997 seminal book, Biomimicry – Innovation Inspired by Nature, designers, architects, engineers and leaders of all kinds have been turning to nature as mentor for our own sustainability challenges.


Much has been sorted out in life’s eons of trial and error, including things we are desperately trying to understand now. As a young species, only 300,000 years old, we humans can learn from nature about getting through our climate crisis and applying creative solutions based on time-tested intelligence. It starts by asking, “How does nature do it?”


How does nature create clean energy? By studying the way trees capture sunlight and create sugars that feed the whole forest, might we find inspiration to design collective solar energy systems that can support our city or region?


How does nature conserve water? By looking at how high-desert dwellers like our piñón tree and prickly pear cactus make the most of a scarce resource, might we come up with new conservation practices that store water and then use it well?


How does nature bounce back after disturbance? By examining what happens in a fire-dependent ecosystem, we can learn from our local aspen stands about the creative process of regeneration and succession.


How does nature build equitable economies? By investigating creatures that have co-evolved in mutually beneficial relationships, we can learn from partners like the raven and the wolf, which assist each other’s hunt and share the spoils.


In her new book, Teeming: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World, Tamsin Wooley-Barker says “Nature’s four-billion-year-old R&D lab inspires us with a bottomless treasure-trove of energy-efficient, low-toxic, and time-tested innovations. All around us, the Age of Information gives way to the Age of Biology, as radically disruptive ideas emerge from simple observation of the living world— transformative, surprising, yet somehow obvious.”


Biomimicry has been informing inventors, architects and engineers for many years now as an emerging design discipline that is both streamlining and accelerating innovation. It’s time to bring nature’s intelligence into our social systems. As we are trying to figure out how to live sustainably together on this planet, why not turn to the planet itself for guidance?  Why not study healthy, thriving ecosystems as model, measure and mentor for how we live together in regenerative ways?


Biomimicry for Social Innovation was birthed with that aim. Partnering with Biomimicry 3.8, the global thought leaders advancing the field of Biomimicry, we are translating nature’s principles into guidelines for leaders to apply in their creative efforts. Life’s operating principles such as using feedback loops, cultivating cooperative relationships, self-organizing, incorporating diversity, and integrating the unexpected become leadership practices employed as we evolve our society. 


We are currently working with Canopy, an international rainforest protection NGO, helping them adopt life’s lessons for fostering creative partnerships—patterns gleaned from examining 180 different examples of mutually beneficial relationships in the natural world. They will use these insights as creative seeds in their game-changing work with paper and textile corporations, shifting them from forest-consuming destroyers into champions for conservation.


In the Southwest, there are many opportunities to learn from nature’s strategies about how to live in a water-scarce, sunlight-rich, species-diverse environment. How might our cities work more like the healthy ecosystem of which we are a part—conserving water, capturing sunlight, sequestering carbon, cooling and warming the environment as needed through the days and seasons? Imagine what might happen if we made the collective commitment that our cities became places where our buildings, infrastructure and policy choices actually regenerate and improve our environment, like the richly productive ecosystems that we find all around us in nature. The aspirational goal to meet or exceed the ecological performance of the wild lands next door would guide our decision-making. What if each new development project was designed to sip water, create a surplus of energy, absorb CO2 and cool the air—replicating the strategies of our neighboring organisms as a pathway for addressing climate change and co-evolving with our own landscape.


David Orr, author, professor and environmental visionary talks about the reality that we have the necessary technologies to overcome climate change and ensure healthy planetary systems. The question he poses is around human will—how we create a culture that yearns for sustainability. With a charge to us as leaders that “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” Orr says that to foster real intelligence in society, “We can attempt to teach the things that we imagine the earth would teach us: silence, humility, holiness, connectedness, courtesy, beauty, celebration, giving, restoration, obligation and wildness.”


In this time when the health of the planet itself is our most important mission, let’s look for all the ways that our leadership can create conditions conducive to life.



Toby Herzlich, an internationally recognized facilitator, trainer, and organizational consultant, is the founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation, through which she provides training for leaders to use nature’s intelligence as guidance and inspiration.,





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