Defining Biomimicry

Delving into literature for design inspired by nature, one encounters many different words describing different processes. When I had begun writing this, I expected to be able to easily determine the differences between the words in the literature so that I could provide clear definitions in this post. However, complicated systems cannot be accurately boiled down into one facet to provide a clear and simple definition. This is true in both defining and practicing biomimicry. If anything, this is the most important lesson I learned in trying to define the terms below. The striking issue I came across, is that the word biomimicry seemed to be used in two different ways, which is a little confusing. In this post I hope to provide a possible resolution to eliminate the confusion surrounding the word biomimicry. I also tried to produce adequate definitions below to the many other terms associated with the field, so if you are not familiar with the terms, perhaps you can learn something. After I define the terms, I will discuss in more detail the overall picture that I see.

Biomimicry – Biomimicry really has two definitions: general and specific. The general is the umbrella term for using natural inspiration to innovate new designs, whether tangible (such as spider silk inspired materials) or intangible (such as swarm intelligence inspired business structures). The specific term describes the practice of utilizing the “Life’s Principles” as defined by the organization Biomimicry 3.8, most notably sustainability.1-2 An example of the more specific type of biomimicry is the Land Institute, as highlighted in Janine Benyus’s book. The Land Institute considers the plant growth of grasslands (the local system) to create sustainable agriculture.

Biomimetics – This term stems from the same root words as biomimicry, but is used more in the engineering and technology spheres. For instance, the Aizenberg group at Harvard refers to themselves as the Biomineralization and Biomimetics lab.4 Biomimetics does not depend on the life’s principles as set forth by Biomimicry 3.8, but studies natural systems with varying degrees of systems thinking. Natural processes and functions are examined to understand the underlying aspects. Using this knowledge, synthetic systems are produced which hopefully have similar functions.

Bio-inspired design – The inspiration from nature with respect to a particular function or form. An understanding of the entire system is not necessarily required as long as the technology developed from the idea is improved in some fashion. An example of this is Velcro. To me, bio-inspired design is usually a part of biomimetics, but also falls under the general definition of biomimicry. What makes bio-inspired design its own from the other fields is its particular emphasis on simplifying the natural system into one particular function, such as the kingfisher bird inspired bullet train. The aerodynamics of the beak were really the only important factor necessary from the natural system.

Bioutilization – Integrating natural materials which provide some desired function into design. The easiest example of this is using wool for clothing. The wool provides protection from the elements for the sheep, and provides that same function in clothing. Bioutilization, in a sense, still creates functions in technologies from nature’s designs. A similar term, but subset of bioutilization is bio-assistance. In this case, the organism is domesticated in order to harvest a desired material.5

Biotechnology – ”[Harnessing] cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”6

Each of the terms I defined above has the same overall goal (inspiration from nature), so it would be wise to create a unified word, which may facilitate discussion about the topic of inspiration from nature. This is one place we could apply the general definition of biomimicry. The worry I have in the multiple definitions of biomimicry is that the connotations of sustainability may fall upon designed systems which do not contain sustainability as an aspect. I think connecting all of the fields with a different general word other than biomimicry would provide an overall term which can be used to cover all of the different methods. Perhaps, I think using the term bioinspiration, as used by Dr. Whitesides in his recent review7, will help to provide an overall term. The use of a general term will help clear up the definition of the word biomimicry to eliminate this general/specific focus, and give people a word to describe the entire field of inspiration from nature. That way, when discussing biomimicry, we can keep sustainability embedded within it, and eliminate misunderstandings.

[1] http://biomimicry.net/about/biomimicry/

[2] http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/blog/2015/01/biomimicry-bioutilization-biomorphism/

[3] http://www.landinstitute.org/

[4] http://aizenberglab.seas.harvard.edu/index.php?&wh=1366x667x1366x768

[5] http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003625.html

[6] https://www.bio.org/articles/what-biotechnology

[7] Whitesides GM. 2015 Bioinspiration: something for everyone. Interface Focus 5: 20150031. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2015.0031

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2 comments

  1. Bioman

    I have a blog http://www.bruces23.com devoted to BIOMIMMETICS and in fact burdock (A.minus), George de Mestral’s inspiration apparently although he did it in the 30’s, long before the name was coined in 1957. Please look at my blog and tell me it’s bio-insporation not biomimetics and I will debate it with you. In fact I considered utilising artificial cellulose and used a copnfocal microscope to capture morphology pretty much exactly. So what have I done according to YOUR definitions above? They are ALL the same in my opinion – the only limitation being current technology and the only joy being current technology which can enhance ecological systems and you should mention that. e.g. GM rice for higher yield.

  2. Andrew Ciszczon

    Hmm…I think this is part of the problem biomimicry or whatever you want to call it is having when it comes to awareness and adoption. I was hoping to come out of your post with a clearer understanding than coming in, but unfortunately that’s not the case and that depends on who you were writing for when you wrote this post. I may not be the intended audience and it would be interesting to see who was.

    I am new to the field and my passion in it grows every day. Bioman poses an interesting question/comment.

    I don’t think you need to create a new term. From what I’ve read and experienced biomimicry is all about sustainability because that is what nature does. Perhaps, the sustainability undercurrent gets lost with the other terms, but I see it more as a hierarchy or system with biomimicry at the top or in the middle.

    The term innovation has a similar problem. There is a need to speak a common language, but I find the debate over terminology isn’t productive.

    Cheers

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