Book Review Published Today!

I recently wrote a summary review of Giles Hutchins' excellent book, The Nature of Business, for it's North American publisher, and I was excited to see it appear today on CSRWire! I think its a great summary and interpretation of a very insightful book, and I'm quite pleased with it. Here is the link:
"Evolutionary Biology As a Model For Sustainable Business: A Review of Giles Hutchins' The Nature of Business" 
As always, thank you for reading!

The Nature of Business: Guest Blogger Giles Hutchins

        I am privileged to have Giles Hutchins, the author of The Nature of Business and the director of UK consulting firm Biomimicry for Creative Innovation, as my guest blogger today! Giles has over 15 years of business transformation experience and is working on a BBC/Open University documentary about the ways nature can inspire businesses to become more sustainable and resilient. He regularly lectures at conferences and business schools, and blogs at www.thenatureofbusiness.orgFor more information about Giles' excellent and highly acclaimed book, please view his two minute video clip.

Building A Bridge Between Business and Nature

        The ecological, social and economic crisis now upon us is as much a crisis of spirit as it is a crisis of resources. Indeed, part of the crisis of spirit is because modern society and industry tends to perceive the Earth as a set of resources, and values it as such. What scope is there for this paradigm to change in order to perceive the Earth as an animate, living system in which humans play a constructive, not destructive, part? In order to live differently... we must think differently, and this relates to the way that we see ourselves in the world.

        Just as our need to transform business is now becoming apparent, so is our need to transform our engagement with and response to nature.  In fact, our sensing and responding to nature holds much learning to help business transform. Understanding the patterns and principles of nature can provide insight into how best to future-proof business for the unpredictability ahead.

        All organizations operate within a community – an environment of interconnections – likewise so too do the people within organizations. The age-old adage ‘no man is an island’ is the same for an organization. In fact, just like an ecosystem in nature, the more diverse the relationships and resources an organisation makes use of, the more resilient it becomes.

        Organizations of the future are: collaborative, innovative, networking, emergent, dynamic organisations, more akin to living organisms. There are a plethora of nature’s insights that can be applied to business – all that is lacking is the ability to convert these insights into a business frame, for example:
  • Mycelium networks provide insight for a responsive and adaptive organization 
  • Nature (and business) is emergent and interconnected, not predictable and linear
  • Nature does not do waste.  Waste of one is food for another.
  • Natural ecosystems develop niches where each aspect of the material throughput is used.
        A business inspired by Nature is one that is resilient, optimizing, adaptive, systems-based, values-led, and life supporting -  these are ‘nature’s business principles’. These principles do not seek to reduce organizational behavior to biology, rather, they suggest a set of behaviors and qualities that simply echo the law of the system – Earth – upon which our lives and our businesses depend. They recognize the complexity of human nature and nurture, and are neither a model nor a theory, but rather a philosophy that reminds us that while humans are a special species on Earth0, we are still part of nature and subject to its law. If we do not conduct our business within the constraints of the system, we will inevitably go out of business.

        The circular economy, industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle, the learning organization and biomimicry all share a common foundation: they take inspiration from nature.  Nature has been dealing with dynamic change and complexity for over 3.8bn years, and the more we re-connect with nature, the more we open ourselves up to the wisdom that lies all around us.

        What is desperately lacking in today’s framing of sustainable business, and for that matter wider business transformation, is a language and engagement approach for business people to unlock nature’s wisdom and in so doing re-enchanting ourselves with nature - re-establishing our vital bond with our environment.

        By framing experiences people have with nature, nurturing them with examples of business inspired by nature, seeding ideas of new ways of operating, we can catalyze the re-connection across the currently broken bridge of business and nature. The re-building of a bridge between business and nature calls on skills and expertise from multi-disciplines: biology, eco-psychology and business change, for instance. This fusion of skillsets, with the right vision and mission, can help equip local, national and global business people with the wherewithal they need to adapt, innovate, embrace change and engage in meaningful business transformation towards a sustainable future.


How Would Nature Design a Diaper? Please Share!


Biomimicry Design Challenge, open to all!

I received an email this month from Kristin Follmer, a recent Rural Health and Sanitation Volunteer in the Peace Corps. She was stationed in Paraguay, where fresh water and sanitation infrastructure tend to be poor, and childhood intestinal infestation, primarily tapeworms and Giardia, is shockingly common (as high as 80%).

Kristin relates that education, hand-washing, construction of sanitary latrines, and protection of fresh-water are vital for controlling infestation, but there is one major obstacle: rural Paraguayans have no good solution to dirty diapers.

Diapers litter the streets to be shredded by dogs, (who find them to be a delicacy, spreading gelatinous mulch like ambrosia on the fifth of July). Kristin has found bio-inspired thinking to be useful in her work, planting trees (nitrogen fixers) around latrines to assist decomposition, and she asks if you, the reader, can come up with a bio-inspired solution to the problem.

According to Kristin, there are two main challenges to the problem. First, there is no good place to dispose of the diapers. Most families burn their trash and organic material like leaves. Peace Corps encourages people to dig a trash pit in their yards, but many families do not want to live alongside their trash when they can burn it so easily. Fresh dirty diapers don’t burn well, so some people throw them down the latrines, but that’s not a popular choice because they don’t want to their latrines to fill too quickly. Kristin’s friend, Sonia collected her daughter’s dirty diapers, then brought them into town, to be taken to a municipal dump. Another neighbor, Fulana, left the diapers with the other trash, to be burned later in the week, giving the local dogs a chance to root through and spread diaper trash around the block. Another popular dumping ground is the bottom of an isolated road, where intense rainstorms routinely washed the trash downstream.

Second, there is no running water. Most families have hand-dug wells, but no plumbing. Sonia, for example, walks to her mother-in-law’s home several times a day to draw water from the well, carrying it about 50 meters home. That may not seem far, but it takes a lot of water to cook, clean, bathe, wash clothes, wash hands, water the flowers, and drink. No one wants to add washing cloth diapers to that. Plus, a mother would need to find a place to dump the poopy water afterwards. This water, probably contaminated with parasite eggs, will likely to end up in streams where kids bathe, or create muddy puddles for pigs to wallow. One common type of parasite is transmitted from soil through bare feet, and mothers washing clothes are often surrounded by small children. And of course, it vital to protect drinking water, which most people drink from their wells without treatment.

Although it would certainly be possible for a woman to use cloth diapers, Kristin doesn’t know anyone who does. Even though a single disposable diaper costs the same as three eggs or a half-liter of fresh cow milk, which is significant to these poor families, they still prefer disposable because of the water and laundry issues. But Kristin feels that an alternative that was cheaper than disposables would be adopted quickly, as Paraguayans don’t like dirty diaper trash either.

Can you help? I think this is a great challenge, and Biomimicry can be a useful tool to address it with. My hope is that we can create a conversation around the challenge, and draw a variety of great minds in to this approach. Please send me your thoughts and ideas, and I will present updates here. Ideally, we can get some school classes to participate, so please do forward this on to any science, design, or engineering teachers you may know! Kristin says she can help speculate on the cultural acceptance of any solutions that may emerge, something that would make sense to a Paraguayan.

For those of you that have no experience tackling a Biomimicry challenge, here are some guidelines for the process. I’d recommend starting with one of Janine Benyus’ TED talks on youtube, then asking yourself, “what is the real challenge here?” Obviously, you can’t ask “How would Nature design a diaper?” Nature doesn’t do diapers. So, dig deeper. You might abstract the question to “How does Nature remove waste, or unwanted substances.” Or, “How does Nature deal with bacteria?” There is also the question of “how does Nature prevent leaks?” We want a solution that a mom would actually LIKE! You may find that you want to change the entire system, going back further than the diapers!

Next, do your research. Look for organisms that tackle these kinds of problems. You will probably want to look at for some of Nature’s tried and true engineering solutions. Don’t be afraid to play with ideas, no matter how strange or silly, and above all, HAVE FUN! Keep me posted along the way. Let's brainstorm together! Kristin and I are excited to hear what you come up with!

Mimicking the Mimic

Thaumoctopus mimicus, better known as the Indonesian Mimic Octopus, is one of my absolute favorite creatures. Other octopuses artfully blend into rocks and seaweed while stalking their unsuspecting prey, but the Mimic skillfully shape-shifts through a cast of bold, flashy, even frightening animals. Would-be predators retreat from a convincing deadly sea snake, a menacing lionfish with venomous spines displayed, a boldly cruising open-water stingray or poisonous flatfish, or the bullet-fast claws of the mantis shrimp. Meanwhile, a lusty male crab is fatally attracted to an alluring but murderous ‘female’ crab, and at the end of the day, our little octopus male repeats this deception on his own species, sneaking (in drag) to mate, right under the nose of a larger male. This mimic has been observed imitating at least fifteen different species.

The mimic octopus adapts to a surprising array of situations with a remarkably flexible strategy: it mimics the successful adaptations of other species. Humans, too, have hit upon this strategy: Biomimicry allows us to consciously imitate the special powers of other species, broadening our ability to adapt to novel situations. And, like the octopus, we require flexibility, thoughtful use, and speedy action (in the face of impending climate change). 

Can we mimic a species that mimics other species for a living? (If we really want to fall down a rabbit-hole, we can mimic the tiny fish that mimics the octopus mimicking other species. But let’s avoid that). What can this octopus teach us as we embark on our Biomimicry venture? And what about other species that mimic for a living? 

Octopus tool use

 Many organisms copy others for personal gain. Some use the strategy to avoid predation. The viceroy butterfly mimics the unpleasant tasting monarch, hoping hungry birds will pass it by. The harmless king snake mimics the deadly coral snake in bold warning coloration. Ground squirrels rub their tails with rattlesnake skin sheddings, waving them vigorously when the snake approaches: beware, I am a bigger snake.


Others use the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” approach to lure their prey. The Alligator Snapping Turtle opens its pitiless maw, wiggling its pink tongue suggestively like a soft juicy worm. The assassin bug masterfully plucks the strings of a spider web, imitating the spider’s struggling prey until the hunter rushes out, becoming the hunted. Parasitic larvae of Lampsilis shellfish imitate small helpless fish, inviting ingestion by larger fish. The larvae pass through to the predator’s gills, upon which they dine until adulthood.

Some species pretend to be females of other species, luring careless males in for a dangerous liason. (And yes, it is always the male who is tricked). Bolas spiders emit a chemical much like the female Psychodid moth’s sex pheromone. When the male comes in to cruise her, he flies headlong into a sticky, dangling decoy.

  Mimicry is also used to enhance reproductive success. Some males pretend to be females of their own species, allowing sneaky access to mates. Even plants have this trick down: orchids specialize in masterful imitations of female insects, luring males into elaborate acts of cross-pollination. Parasitic cowbirds use mimicry to secure quality daycare for their offspring, laying eggs that look like those of other birds. The changelings hatch in the host nest, and promptly push the native eggs overboard. The unsuspecting native mother cares for the parasitic brood as if it was her own.

By now you are probably thinking, “These species are poor examples for us! They only mimic to eat and avoiding being eaten, and to make more of themselves! We want to mimic other species so we can survive profitably and sustainably.  What can these other species possibly tell us? 
Maybe it’s true. As humans, we wish to mimic abstracted strategies to make a living that supports us for the long haul. Generally, we aren’t seeking to deceive a third party (though biomimicry can certainly take us this route if our “survival challenge” is a biotic one, such as managing malaria or preventing birds from flying into windows). In addition. we learn to mimic strategies within a single lifetime, or transmit our discoveries culturally to the next generation. Surely the octopus and the other organisms we have mentioned are going through the motions of a hardwired, if elaborate, genetic dance. How far can the octopus’ strategy inform our own need for a radically flexible adaptation, one that can shift with the prevailing winds of both the marketplace and climate change?

 In Biomimicry, it’s important to go beyond the superficial and delve deeply into an adaptation’s biology. Let’s do that with our Mimic Octopus: no, it does not learn its duplicitous trade from a caring parent or teacher. But it is deucedly intelligent nonetheless, capable of advanced reasoning and even self-awareness. Perhaps it acquires its methods the hard way: through a short lifetime of trial-and-error. 

The octopus brain is small, no larger than that of a lizard (pretty remarkable, considering that of its’ clammy relatives have no brain at all). Researchers like “relative brain size” as a comparative measure of intelligence across unrelated species. This puts the octopus around the level of a komodo dragon. But wait. It turns out that fully three-fifths of the octopus’ brain cells reside in its arms…along with taste buds and photoreceptors remarkably similar to those in our eyes. Their whole body is an inside-out decentralized brain, with sensory organs built right in! If an arm is detached by a predator, it will still attempt to hunt and grab prey, stuffing it greedily to where its mouth once was. Octopi seek and store tools for later use (they plan suits of armor and doors for their dens), have distinct moods (red for rage) and capricious whims (squirt the cute keeper). They even play with balls and bottles, have a sense of self (implied by their thoughtful mimicry of other species), and can solve virtually any puzzle if there is a juicy crab at the end of it. Childproof Tylenol bottles? No problem. They are notorious midnight aquarium marauders, sneaking into other tanks nearby, returning home once satiated with neighborly concern. These are the hallmarks of true intelligence, which we associate exclusively with a select cadre of long-lived, social mammals and birds.

Perhaps it is informative to ask why the mimic octopus has this advanced ability. What evolutionary function does it serve? The consensus among evolutionary biologists has been that intelligence allows members of long-lived social species to remember and differentiate one another for complex political maneuvering. Elephants, dolphins and whales, humans and other apes all fit this pattern, as do parrots and crows. Octopuses are neither long-lived nor social, and do not engage in complex political machinations.

Why, then, does their intelligence converge upon our own (convergent evolution being the development of similar adaptations in unrelated species due to similar environmental pressures)? Why does the octopus, a creature so alien to our sensibilities, whose ancestors had no brains or eyes or even backbones, have intelligence possibly rivaling a rhesus macaque?

Soft-bodied and vulnerable, the octopuses long ago gave up the security of life in shells, much like our own ancestors gave up a sheltered life among the trees, covered in protective fur, doubled over in a gut-guarding crouch. For both families, the reward has been radical expansion and access to an untold wealth of open niches. Octopuses occur across the globe, from shoreline to abyss. (Old folks in the Northwest even spin woolly yarns about the elusive Pacific Tree Octopus). The price of admission for us both has been a hat full of clever tricks.

Octopuses and their relatives have maintained their way of life for some 300 million years, while we are new to the game (less than 50,000 years). To accomplish this hat trick, the octopus has adopted the same flexible, thoughtful, situation-specific mimicking of champion species that we have only recently hit upon. It’s a brilliant strategy, and one that we are eminently pre-adapted to use. If we move quickly, we just might find Homo mimicus around 300 million years from now.

Extremophile Planet

The Red Planet

Like millions of other Earthlings, my heart thrilled as Curiosity made improbable contact with the surface of the Red Planet. The upright ape pries open another nut, I thought to myself. Our niche expands again.

The first photos from Mars look like turn-of-the-century pinhole camera images of an alien and exotic land. They suggest a window to a past, seen “through a shattered glass, darkly.” We are here to look for shards of the past, fragmentary glimpses of what once flourished here. Maybe Curiosity will tell us about life on Mars, and maybe Mars will tell us something about life on our own blue marble.

Mars appears blasted, utterly inhospitable. It’s easy to conclude that life made no start on this barren rock, that no spark ignited the complex dance of carbon. Life may be unique to Earth. But the more we learn about the Red Planet, the less ‘unique’ Earth seems to be. Like claims about humanity’s top rung on the four-legged hairy ladder of life, our place at the planetary table seems a little less secure. The boundary between us and them sidles ever closer.

First photos from Curiosi

Mt. Sharp : NASA
Mars has a lot in common with us, besides being a great home for our discarded electronics. Though its surface is now too cold and dry to support known life forms, it was once a wet place, with many of the conditions we hold sacred to life. Liquid water may still exist below the surface, and with it, simple microbes or photosynthetic bacteria.

Mars' south pole contains huge amounts of frozen water, and recent changes in craters and sediment deposits suggest that liquid water flows sporadically on the surface. Flash-flood gullies and subsurface geysers may offer a safe retreat for microbes and even simple plants, sheltering them from solar radiation. Scientists of some repute suggest that transient dark spots recorded in NASA’s fly-by imagery represent bacterial colonies. As springtime sunshine penetrates the ice, these organisms stir and photosynthesis begins. Pockets of liquid water form, protected from instant vaporization until exposed to the ruthless Martian surface. Once revealed, our cosmic brethren desiccate and blacken. 

Blasted Martian landscape
If life is a simple matter of electrified chemistry, we should find multiple births in life’s cradle. But every Earthling shares a common genetic ancestry, and it seems that the “vital spark from inanimate matter to animate life happened once and only once, and all living existence depends on that moment.” You can’t just zap the primordial soup and create life.There are a few more ingredients in our self-replicating confection.

The most fundamental is the cell membrane, collecting and concentrating life’s raw ingredients into tiny reactive beakers. Second, our inert bubble needs a spark: a source of energy to defy, at least temporarily, the laws of thermodynamics. Life must acquire energy rather than lose it if it is to find perpetual motion.

On Earth, bacteria break down molecules and consume their energy. The  methanogens eat methane and wash it down with water. Other bacteria dine on sulphur, or survive on water alone. These ancient children feed on the primal matter of Earth. These are the extremophiles, lurid “colored smears on the surfaces of rocks” that make their homes in Earth’s forsaken places: boiling sulfuric volcanic vents, lightless ocean seeps, and the scalding flatulence of explosive geysers. They are gifted problem-solvers from a time before the Sun’s power was unlocked, and rich subjects for Biomimicry. Chances are, if we find life on Mars, it will be a similar case of arrested development. In fact, our methanogens grow beautifully on simulated Martian soil. Who knows, maybe someday their extremophiles will inspire our innovations.
Possible water-formed gullies on Mars

On the third rock from the Sun, Earthlings went even further. By striking a flint on the now-ubiquitous green pigment, chlorophyll, they tamed fire. With each iota of light energy captured, a little green creature puffed a single breath of life-giving oxygen into the larval atmosphere, to be gobbled up by the oxidizers of this New World. They spread and puffed away, until finally, the photosynthetic bacteria produced oxygen faster than it could be locked away. Our original life-givers still quietly exhale today in the far-away acidic and saline lakes where grazing snails fail. Life creates conditions conducive to life, and so cooperation and collaboration were there from the beginning. Judging from our own planet, we might expect to find an entire interconnected ecosystem dining on light energy and methane just below the Martian surface. 

Polar ice cliffs: NASA/HiRISE Team
At some point, Earth’s inhabitants got vastly more creative still, and our evolutionary history radically diverged from the scientists’ most wildly imagined Martian fantasies. On Earth, multi-celled creatures evolved and invented sex. Today, most Earthlings scramble distinct sets of genetic information together and dole them back out in fresh combinations to their children, testing each one on our big blue lab.

Are we all Martians? Bobak 'Mohawk Guy' Ferdowsi
If we do find a Martian, what are the chances this rare mutation (life) occurred independently? Isn’t it more likely that our neighbor down the street is a sister from a different father, especially since our rovers idle at the Martian curb as we speak? Our ancient climates were similar: could life flit between them like finches in the Galapagos? A billion tons of Martian rock has surfed the cosmic current to our shores, and some microbes and even lichen can survive such space journeys. If life blew to Earth on a Martian wind, like dandelion fluff across the Pacific, the spark that binds us is still singular and special. Life remains “nothing less than the transformation of matter itself,” forging indifferent elements into a vital, self- regenerating system, the elusive perpetual motion machine. 

Such journeys evoke Columbus-era species-swaps, like Pocahontas’ descendants returning home from a life-altering vacation. Maybe all of us, from slime mold to spider to ape, are born of distant ancestors whose separated-at-birth children toil on beneath the Martian ice. You can’t help but think the ones left behind got the short end of the stick. How much more miraculous are Earth’s ecologies compared with even the richest Martian ecosystem? Where are the rainforests, with over 600 insect species in a single tree, each with a pocket penknife of surprising talents? Where on Mars will we find ten million species or more coexisting in bewilderingly interconnected networks? Where does life beget conditions conducive to life? Curiosity’s blasted vision suggests we won’t find it. “In the beginning, there was dust, and one day the great, improbable experiment of life will return to dust” and primeval cells like those we imagine on Mars will once again “spread their colored slime over the Earth, even as creatures of complexity and elegance know their last days.” Until then, let’s enjoy our vacation.

All quotes and much inspiration are from Richard Fortey’s fantastic evolutionary memoir, Life.

Team Banana

Last month, in Tlapacoyan, our team was challenged to create a better way to pack fruit and get it to Mexico City with less spoilage. Yihad Ghattas is our meticulous Colombian urban planner. Our architect, Roberto Ferrar, is from Mexico City, and I am the biologist. We start by asking what kinds of fruit are grown in the region. What are the real problems faced by the growers? We interview several locals. The range of fruit is bewildering, varying fantastically in size, durability, and requirements for ripening, humidity, and temperature. Lychee, mango, oranges, limes, grapefruits, papaya, avocado, pumpkins, mamey, sapote, guanabana, melons, and even coffee…how can we possibly come up with a solution for all these? Chucho, a former grower, tells us that the most important fruit in the region is the banana. And the Tlapacoyans are not happy about the way it is grown.

Tlapacoyan is a region of stunning beauty, beloved by its people. Here, the Rio Bobo churns forcefully through a dramatic primeval landscape of ancient figs and giant ferns, dotted with colorful orchids and bromeliads, dripping with pulsing slime molds, and laced with the intricate webs and nets of an endless array of skillful and patient hunters. Team Banana picks its way carefully through coursing streams of leafcutter and army ants to get to Bobo’s sandy, bouldered shore, framed by towering trees, and littered with the corpses of hundreds of plastic bags.
Banana bags and monoculture

Covering the penca

Over the ceaseless rumbling of the river and the deafening buzz of cicadas, Chucho tells us how to grow bananas. A single violet ‘penca’ balloons perversely from each tree. These are sequestered from insects with a transparent blue baggie, which has the added function of concentrating levels of the banana’s own ethylene, thus hastening ripening. The grower cleaves the penca from the tree with his machete, and the purple bruise fades to sickly chartreuse as the bags are peeled off and discarded, sometimes catching the air to sail off like jellyfish. The bananas are plunged into the ‘carburo,’ a kind of liquid charcoal that serves as artificial ripener, and divided into family-sized bunches. These are placed into a second baggie, stacked into cardboard boxes, and loaded onto an open truck. The trucks rumble off, in a thick cloud of diesel exhaust, toward the enormous distribution center in Mexico City. Days later, the trucks return with the boxes and plastic baggies (which the distributor does not want), and more jellyfish make their way to the shore.The banana trees are planted in endless monotonous waving rows, right to the edge of the jungle. It takes a full year for these ragged shoots to produce. Once the tree yields its solitary fruit, it dies, and the fecund forest floor becomes barren, the soil degraded. The richness of the rainforest depends on the incessant rhythm of scurrying feet, scrambling mouths, and pulsing decay. When this dance is interrupted, the nutrient cycle stops. It is difficult to start the music back up.

 The Tlapacoyans want to feed their families, which extend voluminously backward and forward in time to include ancestors and grandchildren. Their livestock grazes peacefully between the ancient temples, sacred ball-fields, snaking stone walls and manicured waterways built by the Old People three thousand years ago, in a past that still seems present. And not because they left their plastic bags lying around.

Our task becomes repelling insects, ripening quickly, and packing efficiently, while considering the integrity of the land and maintaining a living for the growers. The bananas must be ready to sell on arrival. The faster the growth-to-market cycle, the more money to be made. Profit, People, Planet, the three 'P's. Especially Profit. It’s time to biologize the question: How does Nature protect, pack, and preserve? We brainstorm a long list of possible organisms and structures, and observe that Nature goes into high gear protecting, preserving, and packing its most precious cargo. Packets of priceless information are horded jealously in genetic vessels of all kinds: eggs and larvae, nests of birds and colony insects, seeds, pods, and cones, even spittlebug foam.

We discard coconuts in favor of honeycomb, a brilliantly lean modular system for protecting larvae, preserving nectar, and packing honey. The hexagon permits no wasted space, and cells and bubbles naturally form hexagons when pressed together. Buckminster Fuller, the genius behind the geodesic dome, knew this. A honeycomb of lightweight, durable, locally available, and ultimately biodegradable bamboo boxes will stack perfectly in the trucks. We can even fold them down for the return trip, using a simple locking rod patterned on the flamingo knee joint. Roberto turns engineer, working the numbers, making blueprints, and constructing a passable model from BBQ skewers and scotch tape.  

Our Champions: the Bonete pod and the multi-storied forest

More champions: Sea sponge and spider web

Can we combine this with a peapod duffel-bag structure on the penca to keep out the insects? We walk through the forest, searching for suitable seedpods. We come up with Jacaratia mexicana, the Bonete. This tree grows in the seasonal rainforest, and sports a tough cone-like waterproof ‘berry’, which in cross-section appears as a pentagon. Moisture collects on the exterior and is shunted away to the ground. The berry stays dry until the seeds are ready; the pod breaks free, falls into the moist ground below, and dehisces at huge force, splitting its sides to fire the seeds out for germination. Can we make a bag inspired by the Bonete?

And what about ripening? At home, I tuck unripe fruit in a brown paper bag next to a red apple. The apple emits ethylene, ripening its companion. We find Jose Carlos Cervera, a young Yucateco botany professor who spends his days measuring the exact gaseous inputs and outputs of a couple of individual succulent plants. Grown far too intimate with the secretions of his subjects, Jose hates plants. He’s our man: he tells us about the wide assortment of 'climacteric' fruit that produce ethylene: peppers, pumpkins, bananas, avocados, all locally available. We can grow these alongside the bananas, mimicking the multi-storied forest around us, and simply chuck a few into each box as we pack. But which one? Peppers like to be dry, and avocados are big and shady. Nobody seems enthusiastic about sapote. We settle on pumpkins, grown throughout the year, available in many sizes, and thriving on neglect. In fact, the ancients traditionally planted maize this way, alongside squash and beans, which fix nitrogen into the soil.

Honeycomb and flamingo knees

We need to pull this system of disparate parts together. The sea sponge comes to mind: a porous bag of tissues inside a tough exterior tube. Water draws nutrients through the tube, to be filtered for consumption by the porous bag. Or spider webs, passively filtering insects while the breeze passes through. We can use these strategies to keep insects out, while drawing ethylene in. Our plan emerges: a mesh bag, surrounded by a waxy canvas tube, is tied over the developing penca. The bottom mesh receives ethylene from the pumpkins growing below, while denying entrance to insects. The penca is cut down and separated into bunches. Our hexagonal bamboo structure goes into the bag, and the bananas are packed into it, along with a few small pumpkins. The bag is closed and loaded onto the truck. After unloading, the units are folded down so other items can be brought back to sell in Tlapacoyan. When the grower returns home, he is greeted by the delicious smell of frijoles, platanos, y calabaza. Con mucho gusto, Tlapacoyan!
Team Banana: Roberto Ferrer, myself, and Yihad Ghatta

The Ecosystem Engineer

I’m currently fascinated by organisms that create conditions conducive to life for other organisms. Ecologists call them ‘keystone species,’ but I like the term 'ecosystem engineers.' These aren't creatures that are merely content to explore a little niche in their backyard. These are species that discover radically new ways of doing business, blow the roof off their ecosystem, and provide all kinds of opportunities that weren’t there before.
Often, this inventive organism will bloom into a flowering ‘radiation,’ expanding unchecked into new habitats and diversifying into multi-forked branches of exquisitely perfected species. Other species come along, using their ‘waste’ as a source of new creation.
Beaver Dam
Big as a Black Bear!
I imagine a pair of beavers damming a fast-moving river, providing deep, still waters to protect and raise their young. Their pond and wetland creations are used by many other species. Sediments and pollutants are removed from the waterway. Some trees are drowned, leaving skeletal deadwood homes and food for insects, spiders, birds, fungi, and plants. The beavers fell tall, broad-leaf trees, which regrow as bushy hedges, easily in reach of browsers. Near San Francisco, Alhambra Creek’s $10 million flood-improvement project was ‘destroyed’ by a pair of beavers who thought it needed additional improvement. Long-departed steel-head trout, mink, and otter returned to the creek. For the beaver, engineering waterways was a great strategy, lasting millions of years, as far back as the Eocene. There was even a giant beaver the size of a black bear. I would love to see it, but just two species remain with us today.

In the Pleistocene, another ecosystem engineer was at work. A huge variety of elephants, large, small, woolly, bald, even one with a spork, were instrumental in creating the savanna-grassland patchwork we see in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Uprooting trees, decimating forest edges, ancient elephants provided clearings for grassland to spread. Grazers benefitted, and so did our own ancestors. We also see elephants excavating dry riverbeds with their tusks, creating wallows essential to other species in the long dry season.
from Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History
Forest before Elephants
Forest After Elephants
Other ecosystem engineers include towering ancient fig trees, offering substrates and habitats for countless tropical epiphytes, insects and spiders, birds and primates, lichens, and various rainforest mammals. Coral reefs teem with life, generating a jaw-dropping richness of endless jewel-like diversity. 
Old fig tree with his friends, T. Woolley-Barker
         The soil below our feet positively seethes with ecosystem engineers. Our most productive terra firma was created by lichen, a fantastical chimera of fungus and algae, working together to harvest minerals from bare rock. Darwin himself devoted an entire book to the industrious earthworm. And how about the subterranean mycorrhizal network of fungus?  An incredibly dense network pushes and pulls nutrients, water, and other information beneath the soil, unseen, suppressing various insects and bacterial populations, nurturing specific trees, orchestrating evolutionary succession according to their own inscrutable plan, like a pulsing planetary neo-cortex. Who knows what they are up to…but you can bet they’re engineering their ecosystem in some pretty radical ways!

         And what about our atmosphere? Here’s where it gets really interesting. I recently visited a strange, salty, axolotl-filled volcanic lake in the mountains of Mexico. The shore was ringed with rounded, bleaching humps that looked for all the world like enormous decaying brain corals. It turns out these ‘stromatolites’ are the calcified byproducts of ancient photosynthetic bacteria that created our planet’s atmosphere 3.8 billion years ago. They are still at work today in a few isolated spots. Thanks to them, we have air to breathe, and a nice cushy ozone layer, which blocks out most of the UV light, allowing us (and many other species) to live on land. Their gift to us also transmits water vapor, burns up meteors, and keeps us warm. Thanks, stromatolites!
Alchichica Stromatolite Lake, T. Woolley-Barker
In each of these systems, a single, radical adaptation changes the world, making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts, and the ecosystem much richer than a random jumble of species. But what about humans? Surely we are the ecosystem engineer par excellence? We are rapidly changing the composition of the atmosphere, the temperature and weather patterns of the Earth, adding polymers that never before existed, bringing vast quantities of metals to the planet surface, cutting and burning forests, paving surfaces, and modifying every environment to suit ourselves. That’s our radical invention: we can figure out how to use ANY niche. 

But are we making conditions conducive to life? Sure, some future epoch will no doubt see the rise of complex plastic-eating bacterial communities, and some photosynthesizer will figure out what to do with all our carbon. And of course, the rats and cockroaches and pigeons and dogs and mosquitoes love us just the way we are. Aren’t we just another inventive organism, blooming into a flowering radiation, expanding unchecked into new habitats and diversifying into multi-forked branches of exquisitely perfected niche-exploiters?
I believe this is basically so. When humans encounter boundaries, we diversify into different jobs, and stratify into different classes. Propagules sail bravely off to find new worlds and new opportunities. But this time, its different. Barring a juicy planetary discovery and a quick way to get there, there’s nowhere left to go. Its time to figure out how to use this niche, Earth, in a way that will sustain us. That’s our radical invention, right? We can figure out how to use ANY niche. Which means figuring out a new strategy, a way to sustain a diverse web of life that we can be a part of. A way to change our waste into a resource for other organisms. A way to create conditions conducive to life, and discover radically new ways of doing business. A way to blow the roof off this ecosystem, providing all kinds of opportunities that weren’t there before.

3.8 Billion Years of R&D at the San Diego Zoo

I recently had the pleasure of assisting the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership in an all-day “Sustainability Walkabout” for the Sustainable Brands conference. The highlight of the day was a Biomimicry segment hosted by the world-famous San Diego Zoo. First let me say that, though I spend a lot of time at the Zoo, it was an exceptional visit. And not just because the perfect flamingo eggs I’d seen the week before, each perched carefully atop a miniature mud volcano, were now transformed into tiny, fuzzy, stilt creatures bobbing around beneath their sensible pink parents. This visit, I was getting the inside scoop from Sunni Robertson, animal trainer and educator extraordinaire.

Sunni started with the giraffes, pointing out their precise, finger-like prehensile tongues while we fed them lettuce. The impossibly long, bluish tongues are perfectly designed to work gently and precisely around nasty two-inch acacia thorns. And they can actually lick their eyeballs.

She showed us the buttressed skull and jaw of a deceased giraffe, so heavy that seven mighty vertebrae are required to prop it up. How many vertebrae hold up our own puny skulls? Seven. That’s right, despite the giraffe’s incredibly long neck, Nature simply worked with the original mammalian blueprint to come up with a unique solution.

That’s common in evolutionary design: Nature likes to borrow and rework from the parts she has in stock. Take the giraffe’s cinder-cone horns, for instance. Made of keratin, just like hooves and hair, the same simple units are endlessly repurposed. Ultimately, all these parts are made from hay and leaves at ‘room temperature.’ No toxic by-products, no waste, no fossil fuels or plastics. And when the giraffe’s life is complete, everything is returned to Earth to make new hay and leaves.

No flies pester the giraffes. They prefer the wild ass and camel that stamp and twitch nearby. Turns out, the giraffe secretes its own perfumed insect repellant, redolent of jasmine and orange blossom. Perhaps someday we will buy ‘eau de giraffe’ from our nearest REI. Beats DEET, I’m sure.

Another bio-inspired anti-insect strategy is right next door, with the zebra. Do the stripes confuse lions, or are they aimed at a lowlier target? Flies hate sitting on mixed color fields, just like my cat. All black or all white is great, but the close-set stripes drive flies away in droves. Maybe we should give up our tasteful teal and brown recycled soda bottle hiking jackets for racy zebra patterns. Meow!

Economists estimate that 97.5% of the thermodynamic energy we use becomes waste 6 months or less after production. If we can’t improve that, half the species on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. But those same species have already invented and honed the leanest possible techniques for exploiting the same kinds of niches our products inhabit. We would do well to look closely. Why reinvent the wheel, as they say?

For instance, where in Nature do square boxes occur? Nowhere I can think of. Corners just aren’t efficient, says resident Biomimic Helen Cheng. Consider instead the boxfish, an agile darter that inspired the Mercedes-Benz ‘Bionic’. The result: a roomy minivan with the aerodynamics of a drop of water and a 20% increase in fuel-efficiency. Its easy if you know where to look.

We enter the Southeast Asian rainforest of Tiger River. Lush, dark green foliage encompasses the bus, while mysterious pings and whistles dip and rise from nearby treetops. Here, plants are growing fast, competing in an all-out race to reach the sunlight, winding and snaking over other plants to climb to the light. Leaves are very large, designed to shield roots from flooding and to maximize energy absorption.

Sunni points out the heavyweight tigers lounging at the top of the exhibit, lapping water from an engineered stream. The barbs on their tongues move water up to their mouths like a series of tiny cups on a water wheel. Why the bright orange coat? It’s a surprisingly common color in these rainforests. The orangutan, many birds, and some infant monkeys display similar coloring. Surely that orange is a neon sign saying “eat me,” or “I’m coming to eat you”? ‘Convergent evolution’ refers to completely unrelated organisms arriving at the same design solution independently. When we see that, it must be a great solution! It turns out that red wavelengths are the first to disappear in low light. And, most animals do not have the variety of color perception displayed by humans and other fruit eaters. For most creatures, red is indistinguishable from green, and green is all around us. The tigers, orangutans, and infant monkeys are completely invisible unless you are a bird or primate.

Next, we see the hippos, lazing in the sun, coated with thick red ooze. This oily goo consists of tiny crystals, each reflecting the sun away from sensitive skin. Our own industrial processes can’t produce crystals this small, or sunscreen this effective.

Another clever strategy for surviving a hot climate is found in Elephant Odyssey, my kids’ favorite section of the park. Can we find a use for “ear conditioning”? Blood circulates and cools in the African elephant’s enormous flapping ears, while a unique gel in each of their pillar-like feet helps pump that blood with each impressively silent step: a beautifully efficient solution with applications in buildings, coolant systems, and footwear.

The California Condor, brought back from the brink of extinction by the Zoo’s hand-rearing efforts, are dear to our hearts despite their grim appearance and grisly diet. Unusually acidic stomach acid, strong enough to digest bones, makes them impervious to carcass-loving anthrax and botulism. Perhaps this scavenger trick could be used to combat terrorism and food poisoning.

Our bus pulls near an outbuilding, and we disembark for an activity, guided by the zoo’s resident Biomimics: Helen Cheng, Dena Emmerson, and Claire Wathen, shadowed by myself. Our group receives a few of Nature’s designs: pine cones, feathers, leaves, seedpods, and bark. We are asked to select an item and sketch it. Most groups I’ve done this with are shy about putting pen to paper. But this group is eager and design-savvy. Beautifully intricate sketches emerge. The process forces us to become more observant. Describe the object using all your senses. What is Nature using this object for? Why is each detail the way it is? Some features are shaped by chance, neutral in function and arbitrary in detail; others may be tuned to precision, attracting mates or pollinators, prey, or symbiont conspirators; still others may perform integral functions: obtaining nutrients; regulating temperature, hydration, or light exposure; locomotion. How can the object inspire emulation? Can we use the feature to do things more efficiently?

The results are impressive: energy-efficient homes and humidity-sensing watering devices modeled on the pine cone; blister-packs for pills and water-collection devices inspired by seed pods; wind- and weather-resistant building materials modeled on palm thatch.

One strategy that jumps out is Nature’s passive responsiveness to change. Windows open and close, darken and lighten in response to light or temperature. Turbines adjust to wind speed, and watering devices respond to humidity. Building materials become more flexible or more rigid, more or less permeable, softer or harder as needed, without external energy input. Genius solutions allow us to tread more lightly on our Earth.

The Zoo’s mission is nothing short of preserving 3.8 billion years of R&D. Every organism on this planet has been extensively test-driven, and only the really good design concepts are still around. But even a great design can only take so much. Biomimicry is a natural way to bring concrete value to this treasure, so maybe we’ll be more motivated to save it. The Zoo exhibits a vast living library of plant and animal strategies that can inspire and inform our own industrial design, and companies like Procter and Gamble, Nike, and Qualcomm are eagerly looking to Nature for their next innovation. I’m excited to join them.

Try Failing

Biomimicry is really an ideal structure around which to organize the whole school curriculum. Why do I think that? Well, 47% of high school dropouts said the classes were too boring. 8% said they wanted more real world relevance. Biomimicry takes care of both.

Ask an engineer of a certain age how they got interested in engineering. They'll tell you they took apart radios and TVS and cars and tried to put them back together again when their parents found out. Sometimes they fixed it, sometimes not. They didn't know the right answers ahead of time, and it didn't matter. They just tinkered until they were satisfied with the results. Kids don't get many opportunities to take things apart these days, and when they do, chances are they will just find a bunch of faceless circuit boards. They don't get to tinker, to explore, to try things out with no adult telling them the answer, or keeping them so safe they never stray from the path, or telling them what to do next. In short, they don't get to play around with science. 

Contrast that with Biomimicry. Biomimicry is about observing with all your senses, listening with your heart and mind, being free to experiment and fail, being free to invent and find out how things work. Biomimicry is about realizing that everything in the world has NOT already been tried, or at least not by humans! It is about realizing that there are far wiser teachers than the ones at your school. Biomimicry is about playing outside, drawing, listening to the crickets. It's about weird and wonderful nature shows, faraway places, and your backyard. It's about transformative power, life changing excitement, making the world a better place. And above all, it is hopeful. And its yours. 

Biomimicry connects so many aspects of learning: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math, and Urban Planning. It can get a kid STEAMED UP to learn about the world, take it apart, and get her hands dirty trying to fix it.

The Velvet Underground

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy LegoLand - Andrew Burton/REUTERS
The mycelial network underground
Social media network connections for Tweeters mentioning OccupyWallStreet
I just returned from the annual Biomimicry Education Summit in Portland. What a fantastic trip! The highlight for me was dancing with Janine Benyus until two in the morning. That lady can indeed dance. Did you know she was a New Jersey DJ back in the days of the Talking Heads? I bet she could spin some tracks...

I asked her what she thought of the Occupy movement. She replied with this story:

Some time ago, the late Vaclav Havel, revolutionary poet and reluctant first democratically-elected president of Czechoslovakia, wanted to speak with her. She arrived to find him already too ill to meet her, but his Velvet Revolution friends took her on a whirlwind tour of the old underground hideouts. Janine was amazed to discover that most people lived their ordinary lives right below the surface, completely separate from their official lives above ground. Havel's friends explained that one day, everyone simply came out into the light to live their real life, and the revolution was a reality. Janine sees a parallel to our current situation. The infrastructure is already here in place, just like the mycelium of the fungus underground, and the new future, just like the fruiting body of the mycelium (the mushroom), is ready to pop out from the underground network that is right below our feet. Even as we speak.

Thank you, Janine, for a night of revelry and optimism.

How would Nature teach Chemistry?

Earthquake proof building: Coral Reef. Carbon neutral house project in Haiti, designed by Vincent Callebaut to help victims of Haiti earthquake.

Yuriy via Picasa

Do you remember your high school chemistry labs? Mine went like this: We took mysterious chemicals out of skull-and-crossbone labeled jars, blasted them over gas-flamed Bunsen burners, made explosions, and then dumped our reactions down the drain. It's a micro-scale re-enactment of our industrial manufacturing process.

Sam Stier is the charismatic Director of Youth Education for Biomimicry 3.8, and he has a lot to say about high school chemistry labs. He is currently developing a Biomimicry-based chemistry curriculum for kids. He starts by pointing out the exoskeletons of a coral reef community, not at all unlike our own cities, filled with buildings made up of tiny separate apartment units. Both are basically made of cement, but our manufacturing process is quite different from the coral reef. Humans blast limestone out of the earth, then cook it at 1400F (the temperature at which bones burn, obviously not real hospitable to life), generating 6% of the world's carbon emissions in the process. Then they truck it to the building site.

Contrast this with the corals: they raise the surrounding pH of the seawater, then bubble their own carbon waste through it. Presto! Cement, right where you want it. Sam capitalizes on this green chemistry in a unit called 'Materials without Mining," which features a "Concrete without Quarries" lab. Simply bubble dry ice (or your car's tailpipe emissions) through water, using Drano (NaOH) to simulate the raised pH. Simple, easily available or even recycled starting materials, no bunsen burner, no hazardous wastes. Sequester carbon while you're at it.

Did you know that it takes three to five years to recover the carbon emissions required to make a single photovoltaic solar panel? We mine quartz sand and scorch it into glass at a blazing 1200F, roughly the same temperature as the hot side of Mercury on a bad day. Compare this to the humble leaf, which consumes carbon while producing limitless energy from the sun, and pretty much just needs soil and water to get started. Thus begins Sam's unit on "Power without Pollution."

And how about "Life-Friendly Chemistry," starring the blue mussel, which anchors itself to the rocks of the intertidal impact zone with superglue-like strength? No toxic formaldehyde binders in this underwater adhesive: the mussel cements itself with a substance similar to the dopamine made in our own brain. I'm delighted to say that mussel-glue has made its debut in the plywood at Home Depot, as well as in the surgery-room.

Think about it: we twist an elaborate menu of chemicals into some 300 polymer contortions, many of which are even more difficult to take apart (but that's what landfills are for, right?). Consider Nature's industrial warehouse. Just a handful of abundant elements come together at ambient temperature, mostly in water, to form an apparently limitless array of combinations. When Nature is done with her creation, it simply degrades to make food for the next combination. Modular, biodegradable, and locally sourced. Now that's chemistry.

How would Nature Make a Solar Panel?

Unlike a lot of conferences, the Biomimicry Education Summit in Portland this week really did not feature much in the way of products. However, Sam Cochran, the CEO of SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology) was invited to speak about his solar ivy. I found him and his technology to be pretty inspiring, so I thought I'd tell you about it here.

Sam is a young guy, recently graduated from Pratt Institute's Industrial Design program. Which makes his story all the more compelling. He saw a problem, saw a solution in nature, made a prototype, and found financial support to bring his product to market. Maybe any kid with a bright idea, a little tinkering, and a lot of energy can make it happen.

Sam saw ugly solar panels on various buildings, and thought, "why not make them more like leaves?" Now, if you've given it much thought, and I have, you know that photovoltaics don't hold a candle to the elegance and efficiency of the real deal. Photosynthesis is nothing short of serious design genius. But still, we grasshoppers must study the master.

Leaves are modular, replaceable, orient themselves to the light, take a diversity of forms depending on local conditions, are aesthetically pleasing, vertically positioned, and have dual functions for water management and root shading. Sam mimicked these features with GROW, customizable, flexible, leaf-shaped thin-film organic photovoltaics. They are 100% recyclable, with the lowest carbon footprint available. Each leaf can be tuned for maximum exposure and output, mimic desired canopy shading conditions, and even illuminate in different colors for signage. How much would you pay? WAIT, don't answer! Because you also get this: They can capture wind energy using a piezoelectric generator!

Accompanying software evaluates buildings for optimal GROWing conditions, and SMIT also offers photovoltaic tensile solar fabric that can be used for tents, canopies, umbrellas, carports, boat sails, about a wetsuit? Now you won't have to pee in it to stay warm. This fabric can also be used to collect water while it generates electricity.

Breaking news is that SMIT will be installing Solar Ivy at the University of Utah in the very near future. Thanks for sharing your fantastic journey with us, Sam. Keep making the world a better place and showing other young folks how to do it too! Good luck!