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The Biomimicry Manual: What Can Water Fleas Teach Us About Innovation?
In business, innovation is non-negotiable. Stay fresh, rot, or go stale. That’s never been truer than today, with volatile prices, weather, regulations, supply chains, and public sentiment. You don’t know what’s going to happen, or when, but you know it will, and there’s a lot of opportunity in being first to recover. Resilience is a hot commodity, and nobody knows resilience like nature. Companies with a premium on out-of-the-box thinking find that really good innovation comes from mixing things up. Nature, however, does it all the time, and it’s a tried and true recipe when the going gets tough. For instance, water fleas (known to scientists as Daphnia) clone themselves most of the year. But as soon as that pond starts to dry up, BAM, it’s sexy time! They will try anything and everything to survive, hoping that they find something works. So is there a method behind this madness, and can we learn something from them? Find out in our newest entry of The Biomimicry Manual!
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If insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome, then the only rational answer is to try something fresh. Bring diverse people and ideas together, shuffle them up, cultivate diversity, network it, nourish it, and see what grows. ‘Open innovation’ is a hot buzzword right now, but it simply means ‘go outside your company for ideas.’ Biomimicry takes it one step further: Why not go all the way outside?  There are at least 30 million great ideas outside your door, all of which have stood the test of evolutionary time. Why not send your engineers, architects, and designers out there to swap saliva with them?
The Industrial Revolution is ending, and The Age of Biology is beginning. There are many reasons why, but a big one is definitely our thirst for new ideas. According to Julian Vincent of TRIZ, 88% of the time, nature’s solutions are novel, something we just haven’t tried. Biomimicry is a tremendous source of innovation. Radically disruptive ideas seem to come out of nowhere, irreversibly transformative, surprising, and yet obvious, and often far-reaching. When you stumble onto how nature does something, you often find deep platform technologies, really big answers that solve lots of problems. Drag reduction, repellency, turbulence, stickiness, and swarm logic [2,3]. And we’ve only just begun.
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Jay Harman of PAX Scientific knows about this firsthand. As a kid, he spent all his free time at the beach, watching waves and searching for seashells. His “ah-ha!” moment came when he realized that energy and matter don’t travel in straight lines, they spiral in vortices. That realization translates into far more efficient and quieter fans and turbines. “When you find a solution in nature, you say ‘look at that!’ You get goosebumps. It’s not hard to convey that excitement. You’re talking to the little kid in people. They get it.”  Biomimicry is a radical innovation catalyst, bringing odd groups of people together, breaking the narrow frames of our individual experience [3,4]. It can give a new vision and way of seeing, and it reconnects us to one other.
When you look at the state of our existence, what we are doing to this planet, to each other, and to all the other creatures living here, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. It’s just too much to fix. But biomimicry can offer us the big answers we need- just a few very big tipping points that could flip our way of life on a dime. We aren’t really that bad—we are just naked, clever apes, after all—we simply went down the fossil-fuel rabbit hole and suckled a whole passel of no-neck monsters at the teat of yesterday’s sunlight. Easily fixed, no?
Biomimicry is everywhere, helping us do things smarter, and yes, making real money. Even the phone you’re holding in your hand contains an intelligent chip, reverse-engineered to mimic the way your ear (or brain) filters out background noise. When you think about it, various life forms have been solving problems like ours for the past 3.8 billion years. The ones still around could probably teach us a thing or two about everything we do and aspire to. Innovation is nature’s way, let’s tap into her genius!
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.
Many thanks to the following people whose quotes and ideas I gleaned at the 4th Annual San Diego Zoo Global BioInspiration Conference.
- Janine Benyus, co-founder Biomimcry 3.8
- Jay Harman, CEO, PAX Water Technologies
- Dr. Ashok Goel, Co-Director, Center for Biologically Inspired Design, Georgia Institute of Technology
- Dr Paul Roben, Sr Director of Technology Development, Salk Institute
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