Why Did I Write this Book?


I began this book in a place of scarcity – a world that felt stifling and finite. There was not enough of anything – not enough time, not enough money, not enough hope, not enough joy. Certainly not enough of me to go around. I’d lost a daughter, a husband, a business, the better part of my sanity, and my self-respect - and I had three small boys to care for. Friends worried, and persuaded me to try a meditation course. Not my kind of thing, but I was willing to try. It was a New Year, and I was desperately in need of a fresh start.

The program would last 21 days, beginning with the eye-rolling mantra - “I come from a place of infinite abundance.” It was Deepak Chopra, and Day One began a fifteen minute journey through sunlight and cosmic stardust, streaming endlessly through me like a rain of protons. This I could do. Sunlight is infinite, as far as small beings like us are concerned. It’s ultimately the source of pretty much all value on Earth - living things can't grow without it. The plants gobble it all day long, snatching it and mashing it with CO2 and water to make the sugar fuel that powers us all. Perhaps it was easier for me to believe, since I live in sunny San Diego. But still, on average, worldwide, it is true. Sunlight is the source of infinite abundance in our world. There is so much of it, the plants can't even consume it all, an they don't even try. They don't have to, because sunlight is everywhere. The gong sounded, to signal the end of the meditation. I thought – “I'm going to write a book about this. People need to know that scarcity isn't the way things are. We're just doing it wrong.” Immediately I began scribbling - fifty pages then and there. And so began this book.

I confess, Day Two made no sense to me at all. So much for Chopra’s stardust! It was gone, and I just kept writing instead. The surprise was not just that all these magical living stories kept coming to me - from my own life - but that I grew toward them. They reminded me of who I am and what I love most. Today, I feel the warmth of infinite sunlight all the time, and delight in watching hopeful seedlings strive to reach it - not just because I am content and hopeful about the future, but because the journey draws me back to Earth's wild places, and the riot of living things that dance there. I visit as often asI can, and I bring my children with me every chance I get. Abundance is all around us, we just have to look deeply. Everything is connected, and everything grows toward the light.

Humans do things a certain way – we lead with our brains. We imagine where we want to be, and reverse-engineer those outcomes. We know where we want to end up. We are also deeply political – as primates, everything we do is negotiated. We inherit a fantastic talent for bluster and persuasion and manipulation – we are really good at getting what we want. Maybe too good – if seven or eight billion people know what they want and how to get it, it’s easy to see why we’ve got a problem. Primates have lived in these dominance hierarchies for hundreds of millions of years, but at base it’s a pyramid scheme. The brainy way doesn't scale – when you work in an organization with tens of thousands of people, and live on a planet with seven billion of them, our pyramids are bound to get wobbly. Chaos, instability, and scarcity are inevitable – with peak everything, war, famine, and overpopulation – our lives are hopelessly complex. Any child playing with blocks can tell you this. You can only build so high before the tower falls – no matter how wide you make the base. Chimpanzees are smart, but they don't live in cities. The politics would be too much.

But as an evolutionary primatologist, I also know just how different we are from our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. There’s been a very real and dramatic phase-change somewhere along the way. We may share 98% of our DNA with them, but that remaining two percent difference is a game-changer. I believe we are converging on a networked superorganism way of life - the same kind of structures we see in ants, termites, and honeybees - and even networked creatures like slime molds and the fungi underground. This happens a lot in evolution – when natural selection hits on a good idea, it tends to appear again and again. Form follows function. These other species are highly successful, and not unlike us. They, too, live in large cities, using dense communication webs to network with each other. Together they farm, herd, and milk other animals, gather resources, and build large air-conditioned structures. Their ultimate purpose is the same as ours – to make each generation more successful than the last.

Ants and termites and fungi been living this way for hundreds of millions of years, while our own parents had no idea about computers and cell phones. We have so much to learn about living in these sprawling networks – what do the ancient socieities know that we don't? Can they show us the way to resilient, adaptive, regenerative success?

I believe they can send us on the path, at any rate. These societies share a handful of deep, simple patterns that feel right to us, because we are superorganisms too. Collective intelligence, distributed leadership, swarm creativity, natural resilience, and regenerative value are fundamental to their scale-free success. When I wrote this book, my main thought was to share these ideas with you, so we cal all leverage them more consciously for a better, more adaptive, more productive future.

People have tapped this kind of intelligence in their communities and families forever - it feels very natural to us, but the challenge is scaling these techniques up globally and putting them to work in large companies and governments. It is my hope that Teeming translates these patterns into actionable habits, that we can put into motion in our own organizations. But, at its core, Teeming Is an adventure story, a journey into the parallel lives of other creatures. It's a labor of love, celebrating living things, including ourselves. It's a mirror – and a vision – of what the future could hold for us. Infinite abundance on a finite planet is within our reach. It is all around us, and all we have to do is look at what has stood the test of time, and what is working still. I hope you will join me on this expedition. Pull on your hiking boots, let's watch the moon rise.. Let's teem on together.

How Would Nature Elect a President?

Who's laughing meow?

Who's laughing meow?

Check out my latest article, on AskingNature, the Biomimicry Institute's blog! Featuring Socks, the Clinton's charismatic cat, and a boiling frog. Jump out of the water, already!

What if Business Was BioInspired? (from the Sustainable Brands Conference)

I had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego last week as a member of the press. It's always exciting to see big name corporations embracing sustainability, but this year I felt like a tipping point is in the works. Many big names are now trying to go beyond sustainability, and into regeneration. Could ecosystems thinking become a reality? Here is an article I wrote for Triple Pundit on my take. More to come!

Inhabitat - Design Will Save the World!

If you're wondering why I've been quiet lately, it's because I've got a new gig writing a regular feature for Inhabitat! In case you're not familiar with them, is a hyper-cool sustainable design website with the motto "Design Will Save the World." What's not to love about that? I pitched them the idea for a new column, The Biomimicry Manual, and they gave me the green light! The idea is to showcase "geewhiz green gadgets" from Mother Nature, getting biomimicry thinking out into the mainstream design community. I'd like it to be a household word and way of thinking, making it more approachable and comfortable to non-biologists. Whenever anyone does anything, they will hopefully start asking themselves, "how would Nature do this?" first.

And of course, I LOVE writing them. They are so much fun. And I will never run out of crazy beasts to write about. I've written on the aye-aye and echolocation, hagfish and spandex, the bombardier beetle and fuel injection, the pompeii worm and pollution clean-up, and many more. You can check out all my features here

Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

The Global Biomimicry Conference

In June, I had the great pleasure of participating in the 7th Annual Biomimicry Education Summit, and the first ever Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference, hosted together by the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Over 350 dedicated, talented, and far-thinking teachers, designers, architects, biologists, industrialists, and policy-makers from across the globe came together to ask "How can humans create conditions conducive to Life?" Not just sustainable economies, cities, and manufacturing, but a regenerative way of life that creates biodiversity instead of destroying it.

Over the course of three intense and exciting days, three major themes emerged:

  • How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced? 
  • How would nature design the materials we use to build them? 
  • And how would nature redesign our whole economy to encourage such regeneration? 
And lucky me, I was asked by Triple Pundit to cover these themes for their readers. Check out my five part series here! Number three (on 3D printers) is my favorite.

Domesticated 3D Printers?

The incredibly accomplished Neri Oxman's from MIT's Media Lab presented on the future of 3D printing at the Biomimicry Conference. This stuff is pretty revolutionary and exciting to me, especially since I really didn't know much about 3D printing. It's a game-changer for sure.

But Oxman pointed out that 3D printing technology is just in its infancy. Right now, it has three serious limitations. First, our materials are primarily non-structural, toxic, and non-degradable plastic resins. No bueno. More sick people and sick environments. Second, the size of the printing "frame," or gantry, limits the size of the object. Third, the printers accrete horizontal layers, one at a time, on top of each other. But of course, that's not how living tissues build themselves.

So, Oxman's team at Mediated Matter invented a freeform 3D printer. It might be the world's first, but they found it too primitive to execute their artistic vision. In the end, they used domesticated silkworms as living 3D printers, a brilliant workaround. The worms "printed" the beautiful Silk Pavilion now hanging in the MIT Media Lab lobby, with "smart" variations in density and patchiness responding to light and substrate. In essence, each silkworm served as an all-in-one biocomputer, programmed by DNA, and freeform printer. 

And what about the material in the printer? What could be more eco-friendly than printing with biodegradable silk, produced on-site, simply by feeding the silkworms plant material? We can imagine neighborhood "Maker" shops, creating objects to order with domesticated printers, not unlike a herd of goats or a yogurt 'culture' of microorganisms. Every family might have a carefully tended tank of silkworms or spiders or mushroom mycelium or vines, each bred to execute the simple rules we require for our objects.

It's certainly a compelling sci-fi concept, and food for thought. This idea is 'bio-utilization,' using other species to make our things. Many feel that "Making" (with biomimicry) should instead be a process of learning from other makers. In Janine Benyus' words, "It's time for humans to start making our own materials." 

Where and why we want to draw the line on that is a conversation that needs to take place, both within the biomimicry community as well as outside of it. Of course, we depend on domesticated species of all kinds, not just goats and yeast, but the crops we eat and the fibers we wear, the wood we build with, honeybees and silkworms, and even our pets. And nature does it too. Leaf-cutter ants have spent millions of years domesticating a certain fungus, and other ants tend aphids that they have selected for cow-like qualities like moving slowly, being docile, and eating a lot. Domestication is really just a kind of symbiosis. We modify each other. The entire web of life is like that. Is there a difference? I guess we are taking away the other species freedom to choose their own mate and chart their own evolutionary course. But hey. Nobody said life had to be fair now, did they?

There is also the question of how could we feed all those Makers? That's a big question for another day.

In any case, it is incredible to consider the diversity and clean beauty of form and function in natural materials. Can we learn from them, and make our materials "smarter?" Oxman suggested we could print variable-density concrete to provide structure where it is needed and conserve material where it is not, just like bone. And if we could scan and print freeform, could we not print objects perfectly designed by the space itself to fit? Just like living things grow and change to fit their environment? Or, what if we could print with carbon nanotubules, making a 4D printer? This material would change through time, responding to light, heat, force, or humidity to create a "smart" object that adjusts to the environment automatically. Or maybe we can cultivate self-assembling underwater structures from CO2, just like the corals do today? There are so many possibilities, it truly boggles the mind.

For now, the most important thing may be the fact that this is actually going to happen. 3D printing is coming soon to a town near you. It represents a radical opportunity for us to rethink our whole way of life, and we have to do it right. As Janine Benyus said at the end of Oxman's talk, (and I paraphrase) "let's make sure these printers aren't "tiny volcanoes on our desks," creating a new environmentally unsustainable hazard. Let's make sure that we develop and use locally abundant and benign feedstocks," preferably from the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans. Let's make things the way Nature does, digesting our 'products' at the end of their life and feeding them back into the "printer" to make more conditions conducive to life.

You can read more at part 3 of my 5 part series on the 2013 Global Biomimicry Conference!

Nature's Little 3D Printers

Day Two of the Biomimicry Conference continued this theme with an exciting futuristic presentation by one of Fast Company's 100 Most creative People, MIT Media Lab Director Neri Oxman. Oxman is on the forefront of the 3D Printing revolution, looking to create "smart" materials that act as natural ones do. In Nature, said Oxman, bones thicken in response to force, leaves grow toward light, and trees branches are shaped by wind. Why not a wrist splint that adapts to where you feel pain? Why not a lounge chair that shapes to your body and adjusts to your weight? Nature uses a stripped down palette of materials, which can dramatically change their properties with simple structural adjustments. Skin on your face, for instance, is not the same as that on the soles of your feet. What about printing with fiber optics to make light-production intrinsic to an object? Making a pair of glasses as a single object with variable transparency, rather than a separate frame and lenses made from different materials.

But Oxman's team at Mediated Matter found themselves frustrated by the primitive state of our current 3D printing technology. Then, they asked "How would nature design a 3D printer?" and decided to study the "simple rules" used by domestic silk worms to determine where and how to 'print' their silk.

The silkworms act as living 3D printers. The team constructed a Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome scaffolding, and released 6500 Bombina moryx silkworms. The worms "printed" the beautiful Silk Pavilion now hanging in the MIT Media Lab lobby, with "smart" variations in density and patchiness responding to light and substrate. In essence, the silkworm is a combined biocomputer and freeform printer, programmed by its DNA, and printing with biodegradable silk, produced on-site by simply feeding the silkworms plant material.

What does the future hold for this exciting idea? The printing material could be changed through genetic engineering (spiderwebs?) or the "simple rules" themselves (make it differently). Realistically though, that's a hell of a lot of silkworms for a structure about as big as an igloo. Which most likely makes this an art object and a teachable moment, rather than a scalable technology. What can we learn from these and other "living printers," like spiders, mushrooms, or corals? Imagine "growing" elements of your home, lighting, or furniture. Imagine downloading blueprints, possibly genetic, from the internet, and uploading them into printing robots that act like silkworms or other creatures? 

Of course, visions of a radically different manufacturing future make people a little nervous. What could be the unintended consequences? Genetic engineering in particular puts many people on red alert, and the domestication of other species can be seen as a violation of their sovereignty. What right do we have to breed silkworms to be flightless moths acting as our slaves? To take away their mate choice? These are questions worth considering as we think about what kind of future we would like to have. What would nature do? 

Janine Benyus stood up to offer her belief that biomimicry in material science should be a "process of learning from other fabricators. If you're wearing cotton, a plant made it for you. If you're wearing wool, a sheep made it for you. It's time for humans to start making our own materials." 

To read more, look for my article on Triple Pundit, part 3 of a 5 part series about the Conference!

Lessons from the Ostrich Egg

I've been sharing my experiences at the recent Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference in Boston, where a heady mix of dreamers and doers came together to talk about how to build our future the way nature would do it.

We asked ourselves "How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced?" and then, the more nitty-gritty question, "How would nature design the materials we use to build them?"

Tom McKeag, co-editor of the beautifully-designed and bio-inspired digital magazine, Zygote Quarterly, talked about the elegant simplicity of the ostrich egg. The egg has contradictory design requirements. It has to be strong enough to survive intact, but break apart for hatching. It has to be easily turned by the parent, but not roll away. It has to let waste gases out, but keep fluids in. All these contradictions are opportunities for innovation, he said.

Nature solves problems like these with "smart" low-cost structural arrangements of a handful of polymers, rather than creating a new polymer or plastic for every problem, or "plugging in" an energy-intensive answer. The sea cucumber, for example, instantly goes from soft to rigid, just by changing the orientation of tiny cellulose "whiskers" in its jelly. Nature uses very few materials, locally sourced, recycled, and recyclable. Simply genius.