Why businesses should get back to nature

Some of the most inspirational design approaches in recent memory were directly influenced by the principle of biomimicry. They are living systems rather than machines.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

So, this week, I heard that carpet manufacturer Interface has made it halfway toward its "Mission Zero" commitment to completely erase its negative environmental impact by 2020. Since 1996, as an example (yes, VERY early in the sustainability game), Interface has reduced its net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 94 percent. At the same time, my beancounter sustainability skeptics, the company has cut $433 million in waste costs.

The reason I bring up Interface is twofold.

First, this is a fabulous example of a company that was enlightened from within. The famous story is that one of the company's employees was challenge by her daughter to bring some of the negative environmental impacts of Interface manufacturing processes to the CEO's attention. The result was a company that has received legendary status as an example of enlightened end-to-end sustainability.

The second reason I'm writing about Interface today, however, is that the business is a great example of how the corporate world can draw on the lessons and philosophies of biology -- in a process called biomimicry -- as a way of designing new products or new ways of doing things.

"Biomimicry: Nature's Solutions to Human Problems" was one of my favorite sessions at last week's BSR Conference 2010, an event that brought together sustainability executives from both the corporate and non-profit world. It was a great reminder that sometimes the answers to thorny design and business challenges are lying right in front of our face, if we opened our minds to think about things differently. "There is no waste in nature. Things are cyclical and things are living systems rather than machines," says Chris Allen, manager of the BIomimicry Design Portal Project for the Biomimicry Guild and Institute.

Here's how biomimicry influenced Interface: the principle is the veritable foundation of the company's modular carpet line. Early on, the company struggled with the fact that while its modular carpets were a great approach for helping reduce wasteful replacements in commercial environments -- no need to replace the whole floor when you can pull up just one affected tile -- the difference in dielots were a challenge. Allen reports that after walking in autumn-tinged forest, the designers realized that random colors were the best approach. Now, who cares or knows if you replace a worn tile with another one that "fits" the random pattern?

This is important because it has had a very real impact on some of the Interface design goals. Over time, biomimicry has helped Interface divert more than 100,000 tons of materials from landfills.

"Organizations, communities and economies are living systems, not machines. This is a systems-based approach to innovation," notes Allen. What better inspiration than nature, he asks, which has had roughtly 3.8 billion years to build a database of great ideas.

What other companies are learning from nature? Allen shared a great list of companies that are drawing on biomimicry to move toward a smart planet. They include

The Bullet Train
Allen says the shape of the train's "nose" was inspired by the beak of a Kingfisher bird, which is extremely streamlined so that the bird can enter the water quickly when it is hunting for fish. The shape of the nose helps avoid sonic booms across the landscape where the train runs. In addition, the designers looked to owl feathers and the way they cover an owl's body as a further way to reduce noise.

The Nissan Eporo Robot Car
The story goes is that Nissan looked at the swarming behavior of fish schools (they never hit each other) to develop the algorithms guiding the "behavior" of the Eporo robotic car (cute, no?). Imagine your car working its way through traffic jams with no fear of fender-benders. I'll bet insurance executive everywhere are trembling in their shoes. Imagine if robots could help eliminate bad drivers everywhere?

The Lotus Effect
A third example is Sto, which developed the Lotusan paints and coating line. The texture of these products works the same way as the surface of the lotus leaf, which encourages water droplets to pool. When these droplets drip off the leaf, dirt and other materials are removed. This principle is integral to the plant's ability to stay clean enough for photosynthesis.

Allen says other examples of companies using biomimicry to adapt their design principles with an eye toward sustainability include Kohler, Nike, HOK Architects, Seventh Generation, General Electric, Herman Miller, Shell and Colgate Palmolive. If businesses of this magnitude are willing to think differently about design, why shouldn't your company? The next time your engineers or designers wants to stare out the window for a while, you should let them get back to nature for sustainability's sake.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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