Nearly 10 years after writing a book that essentially created the field of biomimicry, Montana resident, author and entrepreneur Janine Benyus was named one of Time magazine’s 43 “Heroes of the Environment” late last month, a recognition that included a profile in the magazine and trip to London for the awards ceremony.
Benyus, whose 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature sought to explain how humans could create a more sustainable planet by mimicking designs perfected by nature, said the recognition came a gratifying surprise. “They told us a few weeks before that we had been nominated, but I didn’t find out until right beforehand that it had happened,” the Stevensville resident said this week.
Among the 43 honorees are an array of environmental leaders, scientists and activists, including David Attenborough, Al Gore, James Hansen and Richard Branson. Oddly, while the environmental heroes section is available online, the print version appeared only in Time’s several international editions. Why the editors excluded the section from U.S. readers is probably another story altogether, said Benyus, who none-the-less said she is quite pleased to be honored.
In her profile, glowingly-written by Rocky Mountain Institute chairman and chief scientist Amory B. Lovins (himself a Time environmental hero), he writes that “Benyus draws her design inspiration from nature’s wisdom, not people’s cleverness. Some 3.8 billion years of evolution have exposed the design flaws of roughly 99% of nature’s creations.” He writes that by reorganizing the biological literature around function not organism — to reveal which organism knows how to solve your design problem — Benyus and her colleagues are helping “the world of the made work like, and live harmoniously with, the world of the born.”
Benyus said Lovins is a longtime friend who managed to keep the profile a secret after Time editors asked him to write the piece. “It almost made me cry the first time I read it,” she said. The recognition included an invitation to a ceremony for all honorees in London, which Benyus attended October 25. Though only 16 of the 43 “heroes” were in attendance, she said a conversation with David Attenborough was among the highlights.
Commonly cited biomimicry innovations include solar cells inspired by leaves, paint that self-cleans like a lotus leaf, detachable adhesives that mimic gecko feet, and buildings designed to ventilate like termite mounds. Both the Biomimicry Guild and Institute are aimed at working with businesses and educating the public about the environmental benefits of such innovations.
“The phones started ringing in ’98,” she said. “Companies wanted to make their products more environmentally sensitive, and we agreed to sit down at the design table with them.” Clients today include North Face, General Electric and General Mills.
It’s not a perfect science for sure, and Benyus said there are constantly concerns about companies attempting to patent the science behind innovations like the detachable adhesives for their own financial benefit. “That really worries us…We want everybody to have a chance to learn from the gecko.”
To counter efforts to patent the innovations of nature, Benyus and her biomimicry staff are in the process of creating an free online portal where all biological information will be organized by function. Benyus said attorneys have told them that putting that knowledge in the public domain will make it harder for corporations to call their own.
Benyus noted that biomimicry can and has been used to improve products and systems such as weapons, efforts that she does not support. “Sure, there are people who look at the penguin and try and make a better torpedo,” she said, explaining that the guild and institute only take on jobs that address environmentally sustainable systems.
While there have been calls for an updated version of Benyus’ 1997 book, the next major project for the biomimics is a book expected to be published next October that will address “100 phenomenal ideas that should be mimicked.” The institute is working with other groups, including the World Conservation Union, on the list, in the hopes that it will garner some public attention once released next fall.