Why Companies Are Looking to the Natural World for Their Next Big Design Concept

Jed Oelbaum

Biomimicry 3.8 studied bombardier beetles, which defend themselves with a chemical spray, for new packaging design concepts. Image by Katja Schulz via Flickr

Humans have always looked to the natural world for inspiration, capturing its beauty in art and design, or scouring its highest mountains and densest jungles for new resources and medicines. Biomimicry, also called biomimetics, is a field that turns that inspiration into a framework for making new products, processes, and technologies based on what we see in nature. This concept is all around us: in robotics, where the latest designs might take inspiration from the movements of an ape, or famously, in Velcro, which was inspired by spiky plant burrs caught in dog fur.

Nicole Hagerman Miller is the managing director of Missoula, Montana-based firm Biomimicry 3.8, which has worked with clients like GE, Nike, and Kraft, to create scientific and design concepts from living organisms and natural environments. Seventh Generation, for example, hired Biomimicry 3.8 to develop new packaging ideas inspired by the ways organisms, like beetles and sea cucumbers, contain or dispense liquids. A project for a large food company had Biomimicry 3.8 generating concepts for moisture absorption from creatures like paper wasps. Along with its sister nonprofit, the Biomimicry Institute, the firm also partners with Arizona State University to offer a professional biomimicry certification program and a master’s degree in biomimicry.

Working in social and environmental compliance at online retailer Overstock.com, Hagerman Miller became much more aware of the negative environmental and economic effects caused by traditional manufacturing practices. In biomimicry, Hagerman Miller, who grew up in a Montana ranching family, found a framework for sustainable thinking that connected her with nature, and tied her business background with biology and forward-thinking design.

Make Change caught up with Hagerman Miller to better understand the business of biomimicry, and why some of the world’s biggest companies come to her firm for both practical and philosophical direction.

Nicole Hagerman Miller. Image courtesy of Biomimicry 3.8

To start with, can we just go over the basics of what Biomimicry 3.8 does?

Sure. As an organization, we help companies look at a potential 3.8 billion years of R&D in nature, and use that biological intelligence to help them develop products, designs, and systems. Biomimicry can really be applied to anything from product design—which is what we’re traditionally known for—to built environments, and even organizational design.

With biomimicry, you can potentially mimic three things: you can mimic form, so like, the shape of the object itself. You can also mimic a process happening with a given organism, so you could look at ants, and how they communicate, and that communications process could be used in let’s say, a traffic light system. And then the third way is mimicking systems. An ecosystem is a classic example of industrial symbiosis that we could try to emulate. A solution can arise from either a single organism, or an abstract design concept that comes from a group of organisms.

The Biomimicry 3.8 site says you use “biological strategies”—what is a biological strategy? What differentiates it from any other strategy?

It’s a strategy that could come from an organism, like looking at how a polar bear thermoregulates. And you can then apply that thermoregulation process in some material way. A biological strategy could also come from an abstract design principle, like looking at multiple organisms—keeping with the example of thermoregulation—to understand not only how bears do that but how birds and seals regulate temperature. And we look for mechanisms, if there are any, that exist across all those organisms to manage cooling, for example.

What’s the process for applying these kinds of biological strategies to a tech or design problem?

I think the brilliance of our team and our biologists and chemists is that they’re able to take a challenge and break it down it down to the functional level, and that’s how you’re able to go to the biology. For example, Apple, if we’re working on a project with them, we wouldn’t say ‘well, how does nature build an iPhone?’ We’d say ‘how does nature geolocate?’ Geolocation is a function, and understanding that is what allows us to go to the biological literature, to figure out the strategies that exist, convert that into biological intelligence, and translate that into a language that’s applicable for the stakeholder. And that’s where the research is integrated in their processes.

I found your work through this year’s Sustainable Brands conference—does using biological strategies or biomimicry result in particularly sustainable outcomes?

In nature, everything has to be pretty much sustainable. There’s just no waste as we know it, there’s no need to figure out what to do with byproducts. Everything is a nutrient, everything is a feedstock. That is success in nature. … when we use that as our reference point for a new innovation, that’s where we’re starting from. But then we’re also taking something biomimetic and plugging it into a system that isn’t [biomimetic or sustainable].

So we do have to make sure that as we develop an idea, that the biological intelligence and sustainability doesn’t get engineered out, so to speak. Because you can very much have a process that’s a biological process, but then end up applying it in way that say, uses toxic materials. If we’re looking at a product, then the supply chain itself could involve really toxic materials or water- or carbon-intensive processes. … We never really look at anything in isolation.

Biomimicry 3.8 worked with carpet manufacturer Interface on design and sustainability metrics for their factories, like this one in Australia. Image courtesy of Biomimicry 3.8

Can you give me an example of a recent project where your company was able to help a client reduce their waste, or reduce emissions, through the biomimicry process?

We’ve been shifting the way we approach this. And we’re [now] trying to help companies move beyond the concept of doing less bad, move out of the space of reduction, and start thinking about ‘how do you act in a way that’s positive or generous?’ So how can a product be manufactured in a way that’s generous along the supply chain? Or how can a building operate in a way that is generous to the ecosystem around it?

We worked with [worldwide modular carpet business] Interface on their 2020 sustainability goals of reducing carbon, water, and waste. [And a subsequent carbon takeback program had] the company asking, ‘how can we actually capture carbon, how can we actually clean water, or build soil, or create biodiversity in our manufacturing centers?’ Biomimicry 3.8’s work there was looking at a high-performing natural ecosystem—in this case, the forest next to one of their factories—and measuring how much carbon was sequestered, how much water was being filtered, and that became the performance metric for their manufacturing site. That helped them meet their goal of carbon takeback.

Can you tell me a little bit about the product side of things, how you work with companies to integrate biomimicry into their designs?

When we first started, we thought producing the research and a concept was enough—that a client could then take that idea and move forward with it. But what we found was that companies are able to advance concepts faster and actually dedicate resources once they have a prototype. So, we started partnering with a couple different labs that actually are able to take the concepts and create prototypes, working models that can start conversations. And that’s something we’ve had to learn along the way, how far we have to take the concept for companies to actually adopt it.

Biomimicry 3.8 is involved with many different kinds of projects, but in the past it’s been described as a consulting firm. Would you say that’s still the core of what you do?

There are two big pieces of it. One is training and one is consulting. So the training that we do, there’s a full spectrum: You can get a master’s degree in biomimicry, which is offered in partnership with Arizona State University. You can build on that and get what we call a biomimicry professional certificate … and we also have one-week immersion programs, which give participants a deep understanding of what biomimicry is, and how they can apply it, it’s application to challenges that they’re working on.

So, a situation where a client asks us to train a group of engineers or a team of scientists on using biological intelligence, biomimicry, in the problem-solving process, will often evolve into us consulting with them to help solve a very specific challenge.

You actually had a hand in creating the biomimicry master’s degree program, is that right?

Well, I had a hand in really mapping out the partnership and how we would work together. But we’d had a long history with [Arizona State University] through our sister nonprofit, the Biomimicry Institute, and our biologist, [Biomimicry 3.8 cofounder] Janine Benyus, who went down there … and helped them put together the Biomimicry Center. [When] ASU wanted to create a program to teach students and academic institutions about biomimetics, they essentially looked at all the teaching and training program’s we’d built, and integrated those into the ASU program. So, I helped frame what that partnership looked like, and build out how they would use our content, our teachers, our experts, and integrate them into the ASU system.

Students in the Biomimicry Professional Certification program, a partnership between Biomimicry 3.8 and Arizona State University. Image courtesy of Biomimicry 3.8

How do you teach clients about biomimicry and how can they then actually use it in their work?

One thing I discovered working at [Biomimicry 3.8] is that getting people outside, and getting people reconnected to nature in any way, is important. In the sustainability space, there’s so much burnout, and so much kind of doom and gloom. And there’s so much research available now that says if we’re outside for 15 minutes, it improves our ability to be creative and look at things through a different lens. And if we’re outside for 45 minutes, our performance actually starts changing and improving.

So one thing we do is take clients on a hike through their local environments to show them what’s happening with the mycorrhizal fungi working below them, the trees around them, the ants. Once you begin to give them a little information about the biology, the functionality that’s happening around them, it takes the idea of trying to use those ideas in their own work to the next level.

When you get into conversations about the beauty and grace of natural systems, and especially when you’re talking about nature walks and things like that, is it sometimes hard to keep out of a poetic, or squishy, place?

We’re very mindful of the type of client we’re working with. If we’re working with a group of engineers—like recently we worked with a group of AI engineers—we don’t connect with them in those softer spaces. Sometimes we work purely in a pragmatic, scientific space, and work in a way that’s oriented around a formula or product.

But there are also companies who really want the soft space, they have a deeper connection to the environment, they want to get their teams out in nature. So we take people out in the woods to help them see. And it can be really powerful, because it can help people get really excited about their work, and from an employee engagement perspective, that’s a really big deal right now for companies.

People have always looked to nature for lessons and designs. But over the last 30 years or so, biomimicry has sort of solidified into a more defined discipline that’s different from how it may have been done historically. What are some of the interesting shifts and changes you’ve seen in the field along with its broader development?

One of the things that I love about biomimicry is that it can be a tool that fits in to established protocols, like six sigma, or design thinking, or circular economy thinking. For example, biomimicry is one of the core principles of a circular economy. So you see it that way, in that it has a place within practices and philosophies that are already driving our thinking around what sustainability means.

And as a cultural force, we’re definitely seeing biomimicry in the zeitgeist, everywhere from academia to art. And that allows people to understand what it is. And what I love about it is that once you know what it is, it’s kind of like, ‘oh duh,’ like of course we should look to nature. [It’s] becoming familiar to people, and designers, and businesses to ask, ‘what would nature do?’ For us, that’s the question we’ve always strived after, but these days … [even to the wider public, that question is] not really esoteric or crazy anymore. It’s very much rooted in science, and we have the framework and the tools now to start using biomimicry in more serious and exciting ways.