Innovation is usually discussed with only the future in mind, but a keynote speaker at the National Association of Environmental Managers (NAEM) Forum in Louisville, Ky. believes the key to meaningful environmental progress lies in our natural past.
Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, presented an audience of 700 professionals from over 300 companies with the concept of Biomimicry: an approach to innovation that seeks to emulate nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies to find sustainable solutions to human challenges. The goal is to create products, processes and policies — new ways of living — that are well-adapted to life on Earth over the long haul.
Benyus – a biologist, author of numerous books, innovation consultant and self-proclaimed “nature nerd” – said Biomimicry is a way of looking back at 3.8 billion years of good ideas in nature to allow us to leapfrog ahead without having to go through all those years of evolution. We can benefit by emulating the organisms that have already gone through the trial-and-error process and come up with proven solutions.
Among numerous examples from nature offered during her talk, she brought home the point of looking at things that organisms do that are completely different from the way we do the same thing. For instance, take a peacock feather, she said. If we were to make it, we would use chemicals and pigments. Actually, the only pigment in a peacock feather is brown, but because of structural color and transparent layers, as light reflects back to us through the layers, it creates the color blue or green or gold to your eye. She went on to say that because of this learning, there’s now a major car company and a technology e-reader company using these layering techniques and ambient light to create the different color pixels to your eye. As well, the method requires fewer toxic chemicals and less energy. There’s little doubt that we have much to learn from nature.
For businesses, Biomimicry is about bringing a new discipline – biology – to the design table, Benyus said. It’s not about going off and writing an environmental impact statement, which is common among environmental practitioners, but to go far upstream and ask the question, “How would nature design this?”
Businesses are finding that the ideas from the natural world are reducing environmental and economic risk as well as touching on other areas of the business system, like product innovation. There is little doubt this plays favorably with customers that are now, more than ever, keenly aware of what a company’s sustainability platform should include.
The conference – where attendees have converged to learn, benchmark and network with other EHS practitioners, and maybe even consider Kentucky’s hospitality a bit later with a sip or two of bourbon from one of several distilleries within walking distance of the convention center – continues until Friday.