A Missoula organization that looks back on billions of years of natural history to make the modern world a better place has done some significant evolution of its own.
When Biomimicry 3.8 founder Janine Benyus received the Design Mind honor from the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York earlier this month, it capped a transformation of the project she started by authoring a book – “Biomimicry” – back in 1997.
What began as a call to pay more attention to how plants and animals solve problems that bedevil human society, has grown into a 30-person operation with global ambitions.
“We’d been watching the field grow, and soon we had companies that wanted to do this in real time,” Benyus said in a phone interview from her Stevensville home. “We’ve created an ecosystem of services to support that emerging discipline. We’re pulling together a network of people interested in this all around the world. We’re connecting them and equipping them with tools.”
But as the business-focused Biomimicry Guild and the education-focused Biomimicry Institute worked to grow audiences in each field, the backstage effort in Missoula grew too complicated. It was hard to disentangle the nonprofit and for-profit finances, staff needs, computer systems and related details. Transforming to Biomimicry 3.8 put all of those activities under one legal and social umbrella.
“Our scale of activity has increased dramatically,” said Bryony Schwan, who directs the nonprofit portion of the organization at its Missoula headquarters. “We’re all over the world in ways we couldn’t have managed before.”
The education wing offers classes ranging from several hours to two years, training people to think about looking to nature for solutions to human needs. The business wing works with companies including Boeing, Natura and Nike to develop new concepts.
“We’re not interested in designing a widget to be sold in Walmart,” Schwan said. “We ask what are the world’s big challenges? It’s a different way of thinking.”
Benyus offered the example of a company like Proctor and Gamble asking how to make a better detergent. Her reply was: “What do you really want to do?” And the answer was: “Clean surfaces.”
“So if you move away from detergent, it becomes a different question,” she said. Plant leaves have to stay clean to absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide, but they don’t use detergent. Instead, they’ve developed a bumpy surface that makes water ball up into droplets, which in turn lift up and remove dirt particles.
So she advised looking at a spray that creates a self-cleaning surface on fabrics or glass. Then looking further into how that spray gets manufactured, transported and how it can be recycled.
“You mimic the ecosystem,” she said. “What’s the life cycle of the product? There’s a large palate of areas we work in.”
The Cooper-Hewitt Design Mind award honored Biomimicry 3.8 and Benyus for creating a paradigm shift in the way designers look at their work. Benyus said it combined her book with all the advancements the company had brought about, including education outreach, training programs, product development and web pages.
“It really marks our coming of age, where biologists and educators are asked by the design community how to make better designs,” Benyus said. “We’re trying to serve that demand as best we can.”