May 8, 2009

The Genius of Biomimicry

[This post appears on Harvardbusiness.org in my new weekly column/blog...]

I recently went to the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in California — a who's who of green business leaders, thinkers, and practitioners. One of my favorite sessions included the dream team of Ray Anderson (Interface Inc.), Paul Hawken (author of the seminal Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism), and Janine Benyus, the real focus of the session. Benyus is famous for coining the term "biomimicry," which I'll let her describe: "Biomimicry is a practical methodology to solve problems by looking to nature." But what does this really mean?

Here's one quick example that I use in my talks: the Speedo swimsuit that Michael Phelps and other Olympians won medals with in Beijing is called the "shark suit," and for good reason. It was designed to mimic the way sharks move through the water. At the panel, Benyus mentioned that Airbus planes also mimic sharkskin to cut through the air more efficiently. She has many more examples of products we use in our lives every day that are borrowed from the 3.8 billion-year-old laboratory of nature.

I believe that biomimicry is one of a small handful of very important ideas that will change the way business is done. And it seems to be catching on. Benyus pointed out that any investment in this kind of research was mainly from the military or aerospace sectors until recent years. But, she said, in one study of worldwide patent databases, between 1985 and 2005, inventions inspired by "biomimetics" increased by a factor of 93.

So how do companies apply this thinking?

See the rest of this blog here...

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