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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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By John Anderson Lanier
Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, and one of Ray’s five grandchildren.

I was 18 years old, and I was feeling the butterflies. I didn’t know where I was going, and Atlanta isn’t the easiest town to navigate. In fact, that particular morning was the first time I’d driven alone in Midtown, and I’m pretty sure I took about six extra turns with all the confusing one-way streets. Thankfully, I had planned to arrive an hour early, so I still had plenty of time when I found the right office building.

Unfortunately, the butterflies in my stomach didn’t stop their frantic wing-flapping when I turned off the car. I was about to walk into a room of 10 strangers whose sole intent that day was to judge me. Even seeing their warm smiles as I entered the conference room did nothing to calm my nerves. The butterflies turned it up a notch.

I suppose that I was on-edge because of what was at stake. I had received an immense honor when my high school nominated me for the University of Virginia Jefferson Scholarship, a full academic scholarship to the university I had dreamed of attending for years. Those ten judges were Virginia alumni, and they were interviewing all the scholarship nominees from our region. They would decide who would advance to the next round.

The experience was a blur, and I was saying “thank you” and “goodbye” after what seemed like only a few minutes. Everyone was exceedingly kind and encouraging toward me, but I walked out with the sense that I wouldn’t be moving on. Sure enough, I learned soon after that the judges decided that others were more deserving.

Candidly, they probably were! I was extremely fortunate to attend the University of Virginia even without the scholarship, and when I met a few Jefferson Scholars my first year, I realized how remarkable those students were. In the end, I simply remained grateful that I’d been nominated in the first place.

Team members working on their innovations during our 2017 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge Bootcamp.

I found myself reflecting on that experience a month and a half ago when I participated as a judge for the Design Phase of the most recent Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. Here I was, more than a decade later, with my role completely reversed. No butterflies this time, but that didn’t mean my job was easy!

As a judge, I spent hours reviewing the teams’ slide presentations and videos. I considered how well they utilized biomimicry, addressed the challenge of climate change, communicated their design, scoped a market for their idea, and formed a team. Each submission I reviewed involved an immense amount of work from these teams, and I’m grateful to them for the time and effort they put toward the challenge. While as judges we couldn’t advance every team to the Accelerator Phase, I was impressed by every entry I saw.

You can read about the finalists here. Over the next year, they will continue to refine their designs and develop their business plans. I honestly can’t wait to see how much further they progress, and I know that when we sit down to judge them for the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize®, our jobs won’t be any easier. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Stay tuned for more. With The Biomimicry Institute, we’ll be awarding a Ray of Hope Prize for the previous cohort of finalists at the Bioneers Conference this October (our immense gratitude to Bioneers for hosting!). Also in October, the next Design Phase will open, again with a climate change theme. I’m sure that you’ll be as inspired by all the ideas that emerge as I am. And heck, if you have your own bio-inspired solution to climate change, I urge you to consider joining the Challenge!

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About the Author

John A. Lanier joined the Ray C. Anderson Foundation as Executive Director in May 2013. Serving in this role has been an immense honor, and he feels privileged to work with his family to advance the legacy of Ray, his grandfather. Lanier’s passion for environmental stewardship was sparked by Ray’s example and story, and he never tires of sharing this story with others.

Prior to joining the Foundation, Lanier was an associate attorney with Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan, LLP, specializing in U.S. Federal taxation. He represented the interests of various Atlanta-based nonprofits, gaining experience in nonprofit formations, compliance and applications for recognition of tax-exempt status. During that time, the Ray C. Anderson Foundation was one of his clients.

Lanier currently serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for Southface, the southeast’s nonprofit leader in the promotion of sustainable homes, workplaces and communities through education, research, advocacy and technical assistance. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Project Drawdown and Chattahoochee NOW.

Re-printed, with permission from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ecocentricity blog.

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The man-made world is horribly designed. But copying nature helps.



Japan’s Shinkansen don’t look like your typical train. They’re fast — so fast they coined the term “bullet train” — with long, pointed noses that let them reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.

But these Japanese trains didn’t always look like this. Earlier models were rounder and louder; they often suffered from the phenomenon of “tunnel boom,” where deafening compressed air would rush out of a tunnel after a train rushed in. A moment of inspiration from engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu changed all that.

He led a system redesign based on the aerodynamic features of three bird species — the serrated wings of an owl, the rounded belly of the Adélie penguin, and the pointed beak of the Kingfisher. Nakatsu’s case is a fascinating example of biomimicry, the design movement pioneered by biologist and writer Janine Benyus. It’s the idea that big challenges in design, engineering, and sustainability have often been solved before through 3.8 billion years of evolution on earth. We just have to go out and find them.

This is one of a series of videos Vox is launching in partnership with 99% Invisible, an awesome podcast about design. 99% Invisible is a member of Radiotopia.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.


Originally published on Vox.com.

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