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Implementing Bioinspiration – what matters in multinational corporations?

By Dr. Taryn Mead

This is the second of a two-part series to introduce Dr. Taryn Mead’s new book “Bioinspiration In Business And Management: Innovating For Sustainability”.  More complete and academic findings will also be publicly available in her PhD thesis/dissertation entitled: “Factors Influencing the Adoption of Nature Inspired Innovation in Multinational Corporations  recently completed at the University of Exeter, UK.

Innovation is difficult. And innovation for sustainability – which considers success to be much more than just financial – adds multiple levels of complexity. And biomimicry is no exception. Despite the strength of an organization’s sustainability agenda or the endless energy and good intentions of internal champions, most organizations find adopting biomimicry to be challenging. As discussed in my last post, companies vary significantly in their company-wide narratives related to sustainability-oriented innovation. In this post, I described the characteristics of three particular narratives – the Ambiguous, the Accountable, and the Aspirational organization. Each of these narratives creates a unique sustainability-oriented innovation culture that requires a slightly different approach. The goal of this post is to introduce general best practices and ways to approach biomimicry differently depending on the type of organization you find yourself in.

those organizations that were most effective embraced a culture of “nature as model”…

Recommendations for All Organizations

Across the cases that I studied, there were a few variables that consistently influenced the implementation of bioinspired innovation. Here are a few general pointers that can be applied to any bioinspired innovation effort, regardless of the culture and sustainability narratives, that can help to guide success.

  • Culture is more important than training – The level of internal staff training may or may not matter.  All of the cases that I looked at, except one, had at least one internal staff member who had gone through a minimum of one week of training when they tried to implement biomimicry. Some organizations had up to 50 associates trained in immersive workshops or several associates trained in longer term programs. This variable alone, however, was not a variable that defined effectiveness. The one case that had no internal biomimicry training was one of the most successful studied. On the other hand, those organizations that were most effective embraced a culture of “nature as model” and allowed the time, space, and resources to manifest this collective vision. Not that training does any harm, but its ultimately the stories that people tell themselves, which do more to advance or inhibit bioinspired innovation.

 

  • Interdisciplinary teams are a prerequisite – None of the cases I studied tried to do this work with only designers, only engineers, or only business people. Some of the interdisciplinarity came from outside consultants and some had the capacity in-house. But again, it’s not enough to only be interdisciplinary – the culture of that team matters.

 

  • Designers are a key element for a successful team – This last point is a bit difficult to admit. My first love is biology and, as a practicing biomimic, my role is frequently to bring biological knowledge to the design and innovation process.  It’s for this reason that its difficult to admit that the inclusion of a biologist on a biomimicry team may not be as critical as I’d like to believe. In my six case studies of bioinspiration in multinational corporations, designers were more common on successful implementation teams than were biologists. (*Note, I did not look at small design firms, singular inventors, or research labs – though others have – or other contexts). My research focused on the inclusion of biologists, designers, and other disciplines, not the reasons why they may have a disproportionate influence on the process.   However, my gut and experience tell me that designers are important because their training results in more systemic thinking and transdisciplinary considerations. They view the problem space from multiple perspectives simultaneously and are practiced in divergent and convergent thinking (or solving problems with multiple solutions or one overall solution). In comparison, biologists are typically trained to reduce complexity with the scientific method, isolating variables along the way. That’s not to suggest that biologists can’t or don’t use systemic approaches – many do – but they are also trained to exclude the noise in a data set and focus on the management of specific data points. In summary, when working in a corporate context, ensure there is a designer on the team who can help to bring the process together and guide it through the inner workings of the organization’s innovation infrastructure.

 

Recommendations for Specific Sustainability Narratives

As described in my previous post, there are at least three distinct narratives about sustainability and innovation that multinationals tell themselves, as they relate to biomimicry. I categorize these narratives and their organizations as Ambiguous, Accountable, or Aspirational with their sustainability-oriented innovation efforts. Some implementation strategies may be more effective than others, depending on the specific culture, so we’ll unpack that a bit now.

Ambiguous Organizations

These organizations are not your typical sustainability-minded types – maybe even to the opposite extreme. Their current sustainability efforts are mostly focused on eco-efficiency efforts such as a reduction of water and energy use, without careful consideration about their larger impacts in socio-ecological systems. It does little good to try to woo them with the elegance and enchantment of natural systems. They are too results-oriented to have much patience with inspiration. They also have difficulty implementing sustainability and innovation efforts that don’t quickly demonstrate some return on investment. The best way to engage with them is to emphasize the metrics for success with which they are most comfortable – financial return on investment.

For these cultures, resist the temptation to try to seduce them with a love of nature, even if you wish they could only see what you see. Just get to the nitty-gritty details of the science, the innovation process, the marketplace, and the potential market value of a biomimetic innovation. If they are open to it, a completely outsourced innovation process may help them to get out of their own way to produce something that is market-ready. They may have the resources to engage directly with other innovators and designers to co-develop or acquire intellectual property to take their bioinspired innovation efforts forward. At the end of the day, their focus is more on the marketplace than it is on social and ecological impact, so as an inspired changemaker, internal champion, or consultant, you have to carefully craft your messaging and approach to accomplish your goals and theirs simultaneously.

Accountable Organizations

These organizations live and breathe sustainability and innovation. It’s who they are and how they will always be. They have a sense of responsibility about the impacts of their business and aim to be responsible corporate citizens on several levels. They self-identify as market leaders in sustainability and have large departments and budgets dedicated to monitoring, measuring, and reporting on their impacts and progress.  Innovation for sustainability is deeply embedded in their culture. They also have substantial resources dedicated to new product development, with specific, rather linear project management processes. Some even have complex project management software that tell them exactly how much they are spending on innovation and what the return on that investment is down the road. However, the downside with this super sustainability performance is that it can make it difficult to imagine how it could be any different or more advanced.  From their perspective, they are already leading the way.

A few things may help Accountable organizations to make progress with bioinspired innovation and I recommend a multi-path approach with these organizations. Like Ambiguous organizations, they too are motivated by metrics. But the metrics they care about are triple bottom line – economic, social, and environmental – so help them to develop a biomimicry agenda that will advance all of their metrics. Find ways to incorporate biological principles into their sustainability metrics to be accountable with nature as the standard. Additionally, they may also have the interest and resources to outsource new product development altogether as well.  It may be worthwhile to seek or assemble a team who can manage the entire R&D process and deliver a finished product or intellectual property back to the organization.

Also, because they are so accustomed to clearly described and monitored outcomes, it’s important to focus on tangible wins that tell a clear story from biology to innovation.  While some personalities don’t need to clearly see the process spelled out from start to finish, others benefit a great deal from this level of clarity.

And finally, given that they have a tightly managed innovation process in place that is accepted and expected across the organization, don’t ask them to change their process to accommodate a biomimicry approach. Find ways to make biomimicry fit into their process so that it can influence their culture for slow, incremental shifts that will persist through time. They may be searching for a clear, tangible product win as one strategy, but finding ways to influence their culture and institutions will have longer lasting results.

There is a “freedom to fail” that encourages risk taking and individual ownership in the innovation culture.

Aspirational Organizations

These organizations are a biomimic’s dream to work with and they are few and far between. Part of their sustainability narrative is to “be like nature” and they openly embrace new and innovative bioinspired approaches. They dedicate few resources to managing an innovation pipeline, instead striving to create a culture where innovation for sustainability is welcome and accepted. There is a “freedom to fail” that encourages risk taking and individual ownership in the innovation culture. They also rely heavily on external consultants to guide their bioinspired innovation process and outsource projects altogether when necessary.  Like Accountable organizations, they track their sustainability efforts. However, contrary to Accountable organizations, where metrics define success and frequently guide the innovation process, metrics in Aspirational organizations are supportive of their innovation culture, rather than being a signpost for how innovation success should be measured. One Accountable organization, for instance, required that their designers use a checklist of sustainability criteria to guide their rather linear innovation process. To the contrary, one aspirational organization described how they create a culture that embraces failure and creates space for new innovations for sustainability to emerge. Aspirational organizations are very porous to customer feedback and also have a deep sense of responsibility in their engagement with society and socio-ecological systems. There are probably still a few skeptics in their midst who need a few sips of the biomimicry Kool-Aid to keep them motivated, but for the most part, they are already sold on the value of it.

While these organizations seem like a breeze to work with, they have a different set of challenges. They have likely addressed all of the low-hanging fruit and come up with many of their own solutions already. The key to bioinspired intervention with them will be to expand their ability to think systemically and view their role within ecological systems differently. While they will be patient with the very fuzzy front-end of innovation, they will also not be patient in perpetuity and will need to start seeing results within contractual arrangements.

Having already addressed most of the internal leverage points that they could, much of their biomimicry progress will be made by engaging with partners outside of the organization itself.  They are looking to create broad changes in their supply chains and influence in their industries by engaging policy discussions with a diversity of stakeholders. As a changemaker, a major part of your role will be to help them identify who those multi-sectoral partners are and assemble the right team with the right approach to do something that pushes the boundaries of corporate sustainability. They also tend to work with NGOs in new ways that are well-beyond the typical philanthropic relationships of corporate entities. This is no easy task and requires immense creativity, expansive thinking, and careful consideration of the necessary players to move things forward.

As you can tell, there are many layers to the question “what factors influence the adoption of nature-inspired innovation in multinational companies?” In these last two posts, I’ve attempted to give you a glimpse into what four years of research revealed. Again, my research was conducted in the context of large companies (more than 1000 employees) that work in several countries and my suggestions are best applied to similar contexts. They may work elsewhere as well, but I haven’t tested them in small and medium-sized companies. I welcome an ongoing dialogue about this topic and would love to hear your experiences, trials, tribulations, and successes.

Coming from a career as a field biologist and environmental activist, biomimicry was a breath of fresh air in a world of regulation and political campaigning. I think many of us feel this way – that biomimicry is a way to say “yes” to new possibilities, rather than saying no to the socio-political forces that leave us feeling vulnerable, frustrated, and uncertain about the future. Perhaps the best part of a career in biomimicry is the quality of people I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with over the years from around the globe. You, my biomimicry tribe, are the most thoughtful, creative, inspired people I’ve ever met and I’m grateful to know how you’re changing the world.


Taryn Mead is a sustainability, innovation, and management scholar whose research focuses on the interface between corporate strategies and conceptualizations of nature. This includes subjects such as sustainability-oriented innovation, biomimicry, circular economy, the integration of planetary boundaries into corporate strategy, and the role of corporations in sustainable development. She also has expertise in creativity for sustainability among design and engineering professionals in interdisciplinary settings. Before pursuing her PhD in Management at the University of Exeter, Taryn worked as biologist, sustainability strategist, and certified biomimicry professional consulting with over 30 corporate, municipal, and non-profit. As a practitioner of nature inspired innovation, she has consulted on domestic and international projects ranging from new product design to industrial ecosystems to new cities for two million inhabitants. She has also served as the lead facilitator for numerous workshops with corporate clients and blossoming biomimics, and lectured for large audiences.

 

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Where does Biomimicry fit?

“Nature as model, measure, and mentor” — a guiding theme of biomimicry — sounds pretty comprehensive.  But when you are in the thick of an actual design process, is biomimicry itself comprehensive?

The newest addition to BCI People, Stefanie Koehler, used biomimicry to design a more sustainable water purification system, called SolDrop.  She submitted her results to the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge and was a finalist at the Global Biomimicry Conference in Boston.  In addition to the design, she used her masters thesis (MCAD Sustainable Design program) to explore how biomimicry fit into the greater process and world of sustainable design.  What she found:

“The experience of applying the Biomimicry methodology resulted in an evolution in my sustainable design thinking; however, other tools and methodologies will be required to move the design from idea to reality as well as to make it contextually relevant and appropriate”.

To learn more about SolDrop and her findings, you can download her thesis from our Resources page, under How.

 

 

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Transform brick walls into new foundations

If you are reading this, you have more than likely hit the metaphorical brick wall erected by conventional business.  You’ve done a brilliant job making the business case for sustainability.  You’ve made compelling arguments for doing well by doing good.  You’ve designed a beautiful sustainable innovation inspired by nature that outperforms anything out there.  You drive ahead with enthusiasm and conviction, then…you hit the brick wall.

Why?  You are trying to forward something radical through a conventional business using conventional models and tools in a conventional culture – an almost impossible task.  If you are incredibly bright and business savvy, you may eventually find success (see Jay Harman’s new book The Shark’s Paintbrush for inspiring examples), but most of us are not that savvy or that patient.

Nature follows continuous cycles of growth, disturbance, release, reorganization, and regrowth (read about Panarchy). When mature ecosystems experience disturbance, they release locked up resources that are then re-organized as new growth in a healthy process of renewal.  Overly-managed ecosystems, like some forests of the American West, have been protected from disturbance and renewal, and have become brittle and highly sensitive to devastating forest fires.

Conventional business tries to protect itself against disturbance — including your radical ideas and innovations. Because of this approach, conventional businesses are becoming brittle and, like the overly-managed forests, can’t renew and face devastation in the face of disturbance.  Business inspired by nature embraces disturbance and thus is resilient.

What do you do if you are locked in a conventional business and are frustrated by hitting the brick wall?  One answer is to quit, let the company fail, and release yourself and your colleagues to reorganize and renew.  Use the rubble from the fallen brick wall to build the foundation for a new business that is inspired by Nature.  Another answer is to re-design for resilience. Use the concepts and tools of business inspired by Nature to create and leverage cracks in the wall, go around or over or under the wall, or become the lichen that breaks down the lifeless wall to create fertile soil and the foundation of an entirely new business ecosystem.

Do you have stories of transformation?  Please share!

 

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Bio-Inspired Buzzwords: Biomimicry and Biomimetics

It is finally here!  The first smells of wet soil and old leaves, the first sounds of lazily buzzing bees, the first tastes of … well, anything we can get fresh from a local garden!  As we shake off the dregs of a very long winter and (almost in disbelief) anticipate the emergence of spring, we can’t help but become re-inspired by Nature.  Perhaps with that, you may have a new or renewed interest in biomimicry, innovation inspired by Nature.

When exploring the topic of biomimicry, it is easy to become confused by the terminology you find, particularly when translated from English.  As former Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute, former Project Lead and current SME for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Co-Founder and Director of BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation, I am often asked if there is a difference between “biomimicry” and “biomimetics”.  Here I’ll discuss my personal understanding and view of these two terms.

The word biomimicry was coined by Janine Benyus many years ago (1997) when she came out with her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  Her book is a collection of stories describing the work of scientists, engineers, and inventors who were translating their fascinating observations of functional strategies found in biology into innovative technologies.  Before this book came out, this inspired-by-Nature approach to invention and innovation was referred to with terms like bionics, bio-engineering, or biomimetics.  Benyus recognized that these terms might feel too technical and off-putting for her readers (mostly people interested in Nature), so she came up with the term ‘biomimicry’, which she felt was more approachable.

Benyus wanted to share these new ways of viewing and valuing Nature and what she saw was the great potential for biomimicry to help us achieve sustainable innovation. This book was incredibly well received and Benyus went on to found The Biomimicry Guild, The Biomimicry Institute, and now B3.8. The work of B3.8 is focused on inspiring and teaching people how to look at Nature as “model, measure, and mentor”, including how Nature defines sustainability, and how to create more sustainable designs. If you took a course in biomimicry, you would spend time with and/or in Nature discovering how Nature uses combinations of forms, processes, and systems to accomplish desired functions, and then imaging how these strategies could be used to solve human challenges. You would leave the course with new and renewed connections with and respect for Nature, lots of fantastic ideas for bio-inspired designs, and tremendous inspiration for the potential of bio-inspired innovation to solve the world’s biggest challenges, which you will no doubt want to share with others.

Biomimetics (one of the approaches that Benyus wrote about) refers to the technical translation and realization of functional strategies used by biological organisms or systems in Nature. The goal for biomimetics is to create incredibly novel radical technologies that outperform or even displace existing technologies and, in doing so, result in financial reward.

The process of biomimetics starts with observations and research by scientists who work to figure out how specific functions or processes are performed by biological organisms or systems, typically through a unique combination of chemistry and morphology. The results of this research are abstracted and translated by a combination of scientists and engineers into an idea (which resides in their imagination) and then into a design (which is put on paper).  Working from this design, engineers, in consultation with scientists, work to create an innovation (a functioning technology) which represents the realization of the bio-inspired idea.  At this point, the engineer must work with the likes of designers, patent lawyers, marketing strategists, and business experts to turn the innovation into a viable commercializable product.  Anyone who has attempted it knows that commercializing any innovation is a daunting and often impossible task.  Biomimetic innovation, which usually falls under the heading of radical innovation, is even more challenging; however, the results can be revolutionary.

My personal understanding and experiences suggest that biomimicry is focused on re-connection with and new respect for Nature, inspiration, ideation, and education, with the greater goal of sustainability, and needs the skills of technical and business specialists to yield commercially viable innovations.  Biomimetics is focused on scientific translation, radical technological innovation, and commercialization, with the greater goal of better technologies as well as financial success,  and needs new and renewed connection with and new respect for Nature to yield sustainable designs.

BCI recognizes that both biomimicry and biomimetics face the same great challenge of forwarding radically different thinking, approaches, and innovations in an otherwise conventional world.  I believe that if we want to foster and forward radical sustainable bio-inspired innovation (and any truly sustainable innovation must be radical and probably bio-inspired), we also need to radically transform our organizations – our universities, governments, NGOs, and businesses – by applying the endless lessons we can learn from Nature and our own human nature.  This is what we are calling “ecological thinking for radical transformation”.

 

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