In this episode, I speak with Beth Rattner, the executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, a fascinating organisation whose purpose is to naturalise biomimicry in the culture by promoting the transfer of ideas, designs, and strategies from biology to sustainable human systems design.
We explore everything from technological innovation, resilience and the economies of the future, to what it might mean to re-write deeply-held narratives about what it is to be human, in order to tread a more regenerative path.
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
Beth Rattner directs The Biomimicry Institute’s strategic vision, managing the organisation’s program development, fundraising, and marketing efforts.
She speaks publicly on how biomimetic design in products, cities, and agriculture can bring about a new level of resilience to our economy and ecosystem, which in turn spur new levels of social equity.
Written, recorded & produced by Nathalie Nahai © 2019.
NN: Hello and welcome to The Hive podcast. On today’s show I have the pleasure to be speaking with Beth Rattner, the executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, a fascinating organszation whose purpose is to naturalise biomimicry in the culture by promoting the transfer of ideas, designs and strategies from biology to sustainable human systems design. Beth directs the institute’s strategic vision, managing the organisation’s program development, fundraising and marketing efforts.
She speaks publicly on how biomimetic design in product, cities and agriculture can bring about a new level of resilience to our economy and ecosystem, which in turns spur new levels of social equity. So, Beth, I’m extraordinarily excited to be talking with you today. Thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
BR: Oh, thank you, Nathalie, it’s really lovely to meet you and to spend time with you.
NN: So, before we dive in, for those of us who may not know, can you explain a little bit about what biomimicry is and why it’s important, especially maybe right now?
BR: Sure, of course. Well, biomimicry quite literally means the imitation of life. And the process has been around I mean, Leonardo DA Vinci was a very famous biomimic. He deep looked at nature and trying to understand how a woodpecker’s tongue would work, for instance. And then apply those mechanical devices to things that he invented. The way that we use biomimicry today, is this process of going back and looking at what works in nature, structurally process wise, system wise, and then applying it to human centred design.
NN: Okay, so prior to your work in this fascinating field, you actually trained as an attorney. How did you move from being in the world of law into this kind of work? It seems like quite a different field from an outside perspective.
BR: I get that. For me, being a lawyer was about fighting injustices. And in particular, the thing that I was worried about and that I was focused on was criminal law and then environmental injustices. And at some point, you realize that you are … And I still think that legal recourse is incredibly important to our society. But at some point, you realize that you would like to be at the front end of the pipe instead of the back end of the pipe trying to fix what went wrong. And I happen to be exposed to two books. One was Cradle to Cradle by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, and the other one was Janine’s book, Biomimicry.
And in that process, I realized, wait a minute, we could actually be using design as a force for good. We could actually ameliorate the problems before they even begin. So that was the introduction to my shift. And the story is actually a little bit funny. I was working for Hewlett Packard at the time. And we were working on the bottom of the economic pyramid. What was called the emerging market solutions group. And so we’re trying to figure out how do you stop all of the industrialized madness that we’ve done to our own land, before you export it to places like India and Africa and Brazil, which were growing economies?
And looking at Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry, was this huge light bulb that went off, which is wait a minute, we can actually design quite differently, for not just a take back society, but also one that’s actually regenerating at the process. And I was hooked. And I just thought that this is what companies need to be doing. And companies are such an enormous force for moving economies in general, that if we could practice this, not just at the corporate level, but if we could get this kind of education all the way down to when kids are first learning about engineering, they’re first learning about cutting to make anything, even a paper airplane. Why are we making paper airplanes, and not paper hummingbirds? And I thought that was a better calling for me personally.
NN: And from a personal perspective, I think the psychology of how we deal with the challenges that we face is really important. And so going from one established path, and then taking, I would imagine, might have felt like a humongous risk to choose to go into a different direction. How did you do that? Because I think a lot of people listening to this might think, I want to do something, I don’t know how.
BR: I was really foolish, and I really didn’t give it a lot of thought. So that’s my number one piece of advice. Do not think this through.
NN: Just be naive and jump.
BR: Absolutely. Yeah. If you think it through you will not do it. I think that’s true for so many things. Is that we survive because we’re afraid. That is just a truth of humans. We get afraid, and it limits our creativity, it limits our actions that we’re willing to take. And at the time, I was lucky enough because Hewlett Packard was massively downsizing. And literally the day that I went to my Cradle to Cradle conference in Palo Alto, was the day that I happened to be late because I was getting my papers, to be let go. And Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart were in the back of the room, and happened … I literally happened to like, physically run into them, it began a conversation. And then I ended up being lucky enough to help them write the sequel to Cradle to Cradle, which was the up cycle. And sometimes just Providence.
NN: It’s extraordinary.
BR: If you follow something that you really … I was so passionate about that work and remain passionate about that work. And all of the work that Ellen MacArthur Foundation has done around circular economy. If you’re just in the places that you are inspired, and then you meet Janine, and you go up a whole level. All of a sudden, you’re going outside and she’s pointing at a tree. And she’s like, do you know what this is? It’s a tree and like, no, it’s a plumbing system. Do you realize the redundancy of the system and look at the circular design of how if any one of those branches gets knocked off, the tree doesn’t die, right? Whereas if we, of course you knock at a major pipe, there’s disaster. This concept of looking to nature for how to design everything that we do from new ways of adhesion and filtration, and literally plumbing systems. I just feel it’s a daily inspiration, honestly to look outside.
NN: And what amazing teacher to sort of be able to see so much more in that which we take for granted much of the time.
BR: Oh, yeah. She sees architecture everywhere. Yes, she’s like, that’s a city, right there. How’s that a city?
NN: Like, that’s just moss… She’s like no, it’s so much.
BR: Exactly. That is Janine.
NN: So, it seems to me that if anyone’s been reading any of the news in many parts of the world, that more of us are waking up to the reality and urgency of the climate crisis and the damage that we’re coursing. And while it’s really important that we face up to it, which I think can be very difficult and very frightening, like you were talking earlier about fear, it’s also really important that enough of us have a strong enough voice to share and create a vision of what’s possible. So we have something to move towards. To hold in our minds.
And at the Biomimicry Institute, you envision a world in which people view nature not as a warehouse of goods that we can just stockpile and take unceasingly from, but also somewhere, which can be a source of inspiration, that we can give back to in almost a more relational sense, like we’re relating to it differently. On a practical level, what do you think needs to change in order for us to change the way in which we see nature? So away from this kind of resource, and more towards this other thing? And what does that look like for you?
BR: Sure. Yeah. I think the quote that Janine uses is it’s from a warehouse of goods, to a storehouse of knowledge.
NN: Oh, that’s lovely.
BR: She’s quite a good writer. I don’t know if this is true worldwide, but certainly United States, I think about 2%, 2.5% of people are considered innovators. And then you have your subsequent, what, 10, 15% that become early adopters. But if you’re going to reach and within that 2%, interestingly enough, 90% of them have taken some form of STEM, science, technology, engineering or math course. So you never know who that 2% is going to be, right? So, we have to start … If we’re going to change literally the way that we see. And I think that is what we’re talking about. I like that quote by Buckminster Fuller, which is, you really can’t, I’m going to butcher this quote, is the goal is to obsolete what exists, the goal is not to try to change what we have. I think he says it exactly opposite that, right?
It’s virtually impossible to change what people are currently used to and where they’re comfortable. Because you’re asking people to give up their gas guzzling car, no, but you can actually obsolete a gas guzzling car with a really beautiful electric car. That’s the model that we’re talking about. But you literally have to start seeing things differently. And the process of getting to that 2% of people who will ultimately become innovators, really does begin when you’re quite young, and looking at the world differently.
So we actually, with the Institute, we give people the opportunity to practice. And we give them access to learning biomimicry, we give them the opportunity to practice it. Because biomimicry is like yoga, right? You don’t actually learn it, unless you try to do it. And the way that you do it, is quite simply by trying to figure out what’s either a problem that you want to solve, I want to create new ways of capturing … Like I live in California, so moisture capture is a really big deal. Local storage will ultimately be an issue for how California achieves resiliency. We won’t have these like enormous … The same is true for power grids, right? There’ll be micro grids of food, micro grids of water, micro grids of energy. And that’s how will achieve levels of resilience. And we’ll have to look to our local ecosystems for the best models for doing that.
So if you’re a kid, and you’re being told, you live in Arizona, where it’s incredibly hot, how does the heat become a benefit and not a detriment? And then so you go outside, and you look at the Saharan silver ant which can survive temperatures, right up to 120 degrees. And you think, oh why are our roofs not designed just like those hairs of the Saharan silver ant? And this is what a group of middle school kids actually came up with. So, they literally redesigned roof tiles. And I hope that one day it becomes an actual product, because it’s quite genius.
I think that’s the process, right? Is that as soon as you’re young, you can learn one of two ways. You can learn by looking at established roof tiles, right? You’re going to make … Every kid makes some kind of a house. They make a structure. And right now, we all see asphalt tiles. But if you didn’t see asphalt tiles, and you just were told, structurally and functionally, what is it that you’re trying to achieve? You might look to very different models to do so. And the first place you would look would be outside.
NN: It’s extraordinary. It’s funny, isn’t it? I remember reading a piece of research that was giving different kinds of queries to children and to adults and they’re finding that actually children without the models that have been set up for them, of how to approach problems, come up with way more unusual solutions. And-
BR: That’s right.
NN: … are less distressed when the ones that they tried don’t work. They just keep playing because it’s within the frame of play. So, it just sounds so exciting that that might be a way in which to innovative, is to encourage young people.
BR: Buckminster Fuller, himself had vision problems. And they were given back in that day, peas and toothpicks to play with. And every other kid was told to make a building. And they all made rectangular or square buildings. But he didn’t. He felt his way as a visceral experience. And he created everything to be triangular. Because he found that to be a more stable structure.
NN: Oh, that’s so interesting.
BR: That’s where the genesis of the geodesic dome came from.
NN: Wow, isn’t that extraordinary? So, you’re talking about some of the ways in which you can work with children to help solve problems that as adults, we find maybe I might suspect harder to solve. You’re current currently working on some really exciting projects around this. Including the youth design challenge. The biomimicry global design challenge and the launchpad. Can you tell us a little bit about these? And what they hope to achieve?
BR: Of course, yeah. So just as I was saying before, the institute is really trying to find ways to create the next generation of, what does the next generation innovator look like? And how do we start? Where are those insertion points where we can actually change the outcomes? Because we all know that we don’t have a whole lot of time. So, on one hand, we have to be working with established companies to help them change literally the products and services that they’re making today. And we have some great companies and through our partner with Biomimicry 3.8 that they work with. At the same time, you have to be preparing the next generation for what’s ahead. Whether that looks like mitigation, or frankly, adaptation.
And so we want to make sure that the next generation is actually equipped. And so our design challenges, like I said, it’s really a method of practice. And I don’t know about in the UK, but here, every state, and every school district is called different in its requirements. And so the idea of actually being able to have state-wide curriculum around anything is really hard. So, we actually just kind of put in this supplemental module, which is a design challenge. And it can be done briefly in a couple of weeks, or can be over the course of a semester. And the kids take on a climate related problem. And that could be anything from food systems to water to, of course, energy and storage, etc.
And what they produce is amazing. And then that same process of looking at design challenge as a, sort of an augmented part of either University work or if you’re an entrepreneur, and you’ve already graduated, you can do the same. And then the winners, not from the kids, but the proper 18 and older adults, they qualify for our launchpad. We take them about 10 teams a year. And they go through a yearlong process of prototyping and testing and making sure that this actually meets a required need. And then they are given $100,000 ray of hope prize, which is sponsored by the Ray Anderson foundation. And if you don’t know who Ray Anderson was, the CEO and founder of Interface Carpet, which he had this really bold vision, which is that he was going to stop being a plunder of the earth.
And carpets are really difficult industry, as you may know. It’s quite a toxic problem. And then of course, as soon as you rip it up, you try to take it to a landfill and landfills don’t want it anymore. So, carpet as a sales product, is a really difficult one. And he reinvented it, with a method of tiles and take back and ultimately changing the backing so that it doesn’t come from toxic materials anymore. He was a true pioneer. And that company continues to be at the forefront. But then when he died, he left a chunk of money to creating more Ray Anderson’s. And that’s what we’re hoping to do. Is we’re hoping to cultivate through our launch pad the next group of innovators who are going to be disruptive thinkers. And by looking to nature.
NN: So, one of the things you mentioned earlier about this idea of mitigating the things that are going to come, the difficulties that are going to come, and then also adapting to them. In terms of timescale, what are your thoughts as to how things are currently unfolding. If we continue making changes slowly, which, who knows how things are going to play out with the pressure of being applied politically in different places around the world? But if things continue to move slowly, and we don’t act on a large enough scale in time, what kind of adaptation do you think will be required? How do we become more resilient? What would be the worst-case scenario? And how do we deal with that? It’s quite a big question, I’m sorry.
BR: No problem. I had a hearty breakfast, I’m ready for these questions. It is difficult on a daily basis to read the paper … And I think, the way that I would even begin to unpack that question would be to say that the reason why I get hopeful by looking to nature is because of three reasons. One is, back to the circular economy point. The work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation around circular economy is so important, I think, because we’re going to try to see at a massive scale with the biggest companies frankly on the planet all working together what is possible to shift in a short amount of time. Biomimicry is an accelerator of the circular economy.
Of course, circularity is a biomimetic concept, right? But in quite literal terms, we can actually advance the creation of different levels of materials or we could actually obviate the need for certain more, let’s say I’m going to give you a sort of a practical example around toxic coatings for instance or more efficient fans, right? Or how concrete is made, cement is made. 70% I think, of the buildings that will be standing in just 2035 in India have not yet been built. Most structures will be 50% or more cement or concrete. Concrete is the right term, cement is actually there, right? Concrete is a mixture of cement, which is usually Portland cement plus aggregate plus sand.
All of that process is incredibly destructive. It’s incredibly high GHD, greenhouse gas producing process. Whether you’re talking about burning ancient limestone, right? Which limestone itself was marine organisms that used to actually eat carbon right out of air and sequester it. And then over time, it becomes solidly put into rock. Which is why the White Cliffs of Dover are white. It’s a really safe place to store carbon actually, rock. But what happens is, we start to mine it. And then, which is busting it apart, and releasing carbon, but then we heat it to incredibly high degrees, thousands of degrees of temperature, and therefore we release even more carbon.
There are carbon negative ways of making cement, championed by a man. One of them is called Blue Planet. Brent Constance is doing this work, he’s phenomenal if you’ve haven’t heard of him. And at the co-location of a source emitter, like at a coal plant or even a natural gas plant, he runs the carbon through this calcium and magnesium solution, which is exactly how a lobster would make its shell in a short order-
NN: Oh wow.
BR: … and he’s able to actually create this new coding and then he puts that coding, this is essentially like at least 40 to 50% by mass carbon, onto … He creates new rock. So instead of right now, every day, right? We’re building new roads, we’re building new buildings, thousands of miles away, someone’s busting up a mountain and then carting it over here to where we need it. This is a much more sustainable way of achieving the same goal. China’s the same. Like I think China in between 2011 and 2013, used more concrete than the United States used in the entire 20th century, just in those two, three years in China.
So, the rate of development is enormous. And so we have to actually radically, redesign everything. And the only way that we can do it in a tested way, is by literally looking to what’s worked. And we only have one model for what’s worked. And which is the natural world. And we’re going to have to change it because our material source, right? Our material palette is nowhere near as sophisticated as what nature has, but at least if we could start to follow those blueprints, we can make things quite differently. And I think that that’s the big hope. The good news is that things can change rather quickly, if we would all sort of agree to this a different method or process.
NN: Who are the stakeholders that need to be able to jump on board with that? For that level of change to happen?
BR: That’s a great question. I do think it’s companies. I think that we’re at this place right now where people want to be inspired and know that they’re still going to be able to meet their product goals or their quarterly goals. But at the same time, everyone’s sort of waking up to the fact that the economy is everyone’s waiting with bated breath, as pockets all over the world change. And we all see that climate is impacting things in a far greater pace. I think that … Look it’s always either policy. And policy can be by regulatory policy, it can also be certification, like lead-based certification, or Cradle to Cradle or any of the other eco certifications. You can also have leadership and stories. This is what the whole CSR community is built on, right?
If Nike is doing it, then its competitor wants to do it too. And I think that that’s powerful. And I think that’s the circular economy. And then the last category would be academia, and that goes all the way from university down to kindergarten. If we can actually have stakeholders, each one of those things trying to align around the basic tenants of imagine if humans made things that were regenerative. Imagine if humans were a force for good. That’s also a fundamental concept. We think that we’re bad, right? We think that we’ve broken this place and that we’re in terrible danger. And some people feel just so guilty about that.
And other people just feel like they want to change the people who are doing the bad things and don’t seem to realize that they’re doing the bad things. But maybe that’s not useful. Maybe as an emotion, that’s not useful. Maybe actually, what we could just do is go back to this kind of like, let’s just obsolete, what’s not working and go to something that is. And I think if you have enough pockets, in regulatory environments, in corporate environments, in academia, then you’ll have enough proof points where we’ll all start to shift.
NN: I want to also in terms of things like behaviour, that obviously one person making different choices is not going to have that much of an impact. But for instance, I just read recently that Tesco which is one of the largest grocery supermarket stores in the UK, are test driving across to large stores not having any plastics for vegetables and fruit. And this is some that always really aggravates me, when I see plastics. Because in my local store, I’m living in Barcelona, they have compostable bags. Which I always take quite a few off. Because then I use it again to put my food and when I take it for compost waste recycling, which they have it. So it really works.
And so it just really upsets me every time I go to shopping and there’s just this plastic that doesn’t need to be there. And finally, Tesco which is kind of fairly, it’s an accessible store. It’s not a really high faluting planet organic type of market, but people are starting to realize that maybe their behaviour can change, just by virtue of the fact that there aren’t any plastic bags. So then they have to change their behaviour and the choices made for them.
BR: That’s right.
NN: And then suddenly, if enough people’s choices are made for them, then maybe they start changing their behaviour and then the behaviours of their friends may change also. How quickly do you think we might start to adapt what we feel is necessary and maybe on a bigger scale, so things like, do we really need to renew our devices every two to three years? Because that’s a whole nother ballgame.
BR: That’s right.
NN: What do we actually need to be fulfilled to live a life that is, I would say meaningful? We’re so distracted with all of this extra stuff that we don’t really need.
BR: No, we aren’t. And it’s funny. Somebody just told me this, and I have to believe her. She’s an organizer, right? So when somebody has just too much stuff in their house, they call this person and they come in. Well, I don’t know if you know about Marie Kondo?
NN: Oh yeah.
BR: She’s incredibly world famous now. But apparently, this has been a tipping point. I think she’s in a good example of a tipping point. Just to harken back to Malcolm Gladwell for a second, right? There’s a context that all of a sudden people bought into this myth. For decades, right? That the more stuff you had, the more comfortable you were and therefore ultimately, the safer that you were. Or that you enjoyed a certain level prestige. So Marie Kondo comes in, because there are people like you and me who are worried about how much stuff we have in our lives, and we don’t want the plastic to go here, etc. She comes at it from a total different angle, and she becomes this huge overnight sensation. But the context that she works within was right for somebody like that to come along.
Goodwill here in United States, is filled to the brim. Our trust centres are filled to the brim. People are getting rid of their stuff, because there’s this mentality that actually has begun to shift. And I don’t think it would have shifted if just Marie Kondo existed 20 years ago, right? But I think that context is everything. I do believe that there’s a level of awareness. My nieces who are 12 and 13, like they won’t take a plastic straw. They just want to take one. And that’s … When I was a kid, of course, I took a plastic straw.
NN: Yeah, and this idea of also things like plastic toys. I went to look for shoes today. And I was looking at … So my brother has a little baby boy. And I was looking at these shoes, and some of them are really cute, but they were shoes that have the little LED lights and the flash when you walk in them. And I was thinking this is cute, but how much extra waste is there? First of all, most of this is plastic, and then there’s electrical parts that aren’t going to be reused. It becomes so much harder to maintain and recycle. I’m not going to buy that.
BR: It’s a great question because on one hand … And this is where I really learned this from Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, which is we don’t want to quash that creative spirit that created the LED sneakers, right? Because they’re fun. And there’s joy there. And in Cradle to Cradle, it opens with this beautiful cherry tree which is abundant with blossoms. And the creator of the cherry tree doesn’t say, let me limit the number of blossoms because it’s too extravagant or it’s too wasteful.
This idea of nutrient metabolisms is a really deep nature based biomimetic concept, which is that if everything were to operate in clear metabolisms, technical metabolism, all of our … Again, our plastics aren’t metals. And any of our higher tech devices can be designed completely for take back on the biologic sphere, you would have cottons and woods and so any sort of say, elastic materials, that can biodegrade over time, we’re going to need to feed the biological metabolism so that it grows, so that it restores it again, we repair the damage done by industrial agriculture, etc. and toxic dyes that have been dumped into our rivers. At the same time, we can still make those cool shoes. We just have to … We literally need new molecules, and we need better take back systems. And I think that that’s where things can really shift. Because there’s really nothing wrong with a device, a cellular device, for instance, or a laptop. There’s no way that they shouldn’t be … It’s too expensive for the company to make them. It’s too rare for over conflict minerals to actually let that go into the bin.
We have to find ways of taking everything back. And I think that seems to be the like the biggest promising area. We’d have 75% diversion rate, 80% almost diversion rate here in San Francisco. Meaning that only 20 to 25% of our waste actually goes off to landfill. And those percentages will start to populate everywhere. There’s simply not room. Countries aren’t taking waste anymore. And by the same token, companies are saying these are assets, I want my assets back.
NN: And we’re talking about take back systems. You’re talking about being able to recycle things which we currently are not recycling enough as we should be?
BR: That’s right.
NN: Yeah. So in terms of things like practical steps that we can take on a day to day basis. Are there certain things that you see to be effective in smaller scale communities, for instance?
BR: Sure. I think the thing that … I can’t say this enough, and it’s going to sound a little bit predictable I guess that I would say it, but we have to spend more time outside. We have to find more intact ecosystems. Even if they’re small, little intact ecosystems, a little creek bed by your house or a park, that over time, Golden Gate Park where I live or Central Park in New York. Those, they were designed. But over time, they’ve actually adapted to the local conditions, and many other things have now thrived there. We need to observe what works in an intact ecosystem. And quiet, our cleverness as Janine would say, quiet, this part of our mind that thinks we can problem solve everything.
And just start to deeply observe. And I think in that process, three things happen. Number one, you’re going to see something you did not see before. Literally, you will have an idea that you didn’t have before. The second thing is that we’re going to find something that works specifically in your geography. We’re not going to have this big sort of … I think that the economies of the future will not be this big, large, centralized economies, where there’s just a few companies, I think we’re going to see massive numbers of distributed, decentralized systems. That’s how we’ll achieve … Partially out of necessity and partially out of resilience. But the third thing is you’re going to have a level of enjoyment. We forget that that’s a really important part of being human. Is how much joy we have on a daily basis. And we have to bring that back. We can’t be worried all the time without bringing some joy as a guide.
If you saw how beautiful a peacock feather was under a microscope, right? Or actually just looking at it. And then you thought, I want to be a designer. I don’t know anything about design, I don’t know anything about … If you are so in love with the colours of the peacock feather, that you said, I’m going to figure out a new way to do structural colour, you would, of course, be solving a multibillion industry and problem. But you wouldn’t do it from that perspective, you’d be doing it because you were so motivated by joy and love. And that’s what we see in little academic research institutions all over the world. People are just motivated out of this deep sense of like admiration for what’s possible.
NN: And I think that … So what you’re talking about is so inspiring because I think many people now, and we’re faced by the enormity of the challenges that are now coming into view, into sharp focus. I think the sense of hopelessness and feeling of being overwhelmed and of guilt, which you mentioned earlier and of wanting to hide one’s head in the sand. I’m familiar with these feelings or wanting to make sure that you have a stable career so you can put food on the table, which means not changing your behaviour too dramatic. All of these things that we pile in and we kind of calcify our positions, so that we don’t have to make choices that we believe are going to be really hard.
And so a few people actually talk about the potential for joy, for deeper engagement, for meaning. There’s a book that was written by David Holmgren, and he was a coordinator of the permaculture movement, called something like the Art of Frugal Hedonism. And I love this idea that we can be both frugal, and also deeply, sensually awake and hedonistic at the same time that these do not have to be mutually exclusive approaches. And the same thing with talking about the joy of innovating.
BR: That’s right.
NN: And the use of technology. That these don’t have to be things that we demonize ourselves with or damage the earth with.
BR: I love that. I’m a huge fan of permaculture. And so I love that you brought it up. And actually to that point, it was a permaculture instructor here, named Brock Dolman who told me about the work of Kat Anderson, have you heard of her?
BR: Tending the wild? It’s such, I mean, this is such a great disruptive idea, right? Which is we think of, we must preserve the wild places. Conservation must look like we don’t touch it. But many of the native cultures absolutely work together in the wilds. And when settlers came to California, and they saw fields of looping and walked on the backs of fish as they crossed the rivers because they were so thick, it’s only because the Native American cultures actually had planted and created the conditions for such life to exist.
They didn’t artificially manipulate it, but they are absolutely came in and tended it. Tended it like a garden would be tended. And that concept that we are worthy of being partners with nature is such a, it’s such a departure, frankly. Even in the environmental movement for us, because right now they invite like nature is good, and humans are bad. That’s kind of the narrative. But we have to shift that, that we were part of nature too. We were created as well. And gardens are four or five times more productive than a farm and the farms can be more productive than just open prairies. And that we can learn from the open prairies. We can learn from the forests, about how to bring those designs into what we do.
NN: And do you think that’s one of the reason why people are starting to give greater voice to indigenous voices, who’ve always had lots to share, but just have been completely silenced, really. That there is a call for those of us who have greater platforms, that have more visibility to actually make space to hold up some of these wisdoms.
BR: I definitely think so. And talking about people who were the original biomimics, right? They learned through deep observation. That’s a permaculture, concentrated, thoughtful and protracted observation. And that’s what cultures who have lived literally in harmony with nature over just hundreds, if not thousands of years can teach us and we’re lucky that [inaudible 00:33:23] still exist.
NN: Well, actually, on that point, one of the resources that you’ve created that I really want to highlight here, if people interested, the asknature.org.
NN: Which is kind of like a modern version of this sort of oral, rich history of wealth, of information and insight. Can you tell us a little bit about that as well?
BR: Thank you for asking. And yeah, so, of course the first answer is always go outside. But the second answer is that … Because that’s not possible for everybody, all the time, is asknature.org and it’s a free online database where you can type in penguins, for instance, because my nieces love penguins, right? Or you can actually type in a functional question. Like insulation which penguins happen to be incredibly good at. And if you think about how thin their fat layer is, and then and how their feather layer is, compared to they are mammals that have to keep their internal temperature at a very high degree, whereas Arctic and frigid outside. You can type in any sort of function and see a list of organisms. And from that place, you can actually click on it, and then you’ll get a deeper understanding of what that insect or animal or plant does. And that becomes a jumping off point for you then as any kind of an innovator, to explore. But I mean, I just use it, I’m not a proper innovator, but I just look at it every day, because I’m inspired.
NN: Just pick your favourite animal of the day and go learn about them.
BR: Honestly, I think so. And if you’re a designer or an engineer, you stopped taking biology a long time ago. And that’s kind of the core problem. Is we need to provide a tool that’s a bridge, because you just simply don’t have that sort of time, or exploration in you. So we actually really are making it for the people who make our world. And from that perspective, they’re hopefully going to be given new and innovative ideas that are going to disrupt their own thinking. And then we’ll go from there. I’ve always wanted, just like how there’s a stock ticker that runs at the bottom of some of the new shoes, right? And we [walk 00:35:23] with tremendous, tremendous accuracy and fidelity. Like if it’s moved at like a fraction of a percentage point.
But we don’t have any sense of like, how many species were lost today? Or how many new species were discovered today? Or what are some of the measures of the biological world that we could be tracking on a regular basis so that we would have a deeper connection to what that information is. That’s my dream project. Not just bad news, but hopefully good news, too. And so we would, on a daily basis, be just literally aware of what’s happening around us.
NN: And more connected?
BR: And more connected.
NN: So if I were to ask you, what’s your biggest concern for the future? What would you say that is?
BR: It’s such a great question. And especially as somebody who’s inclined to worry about everything as I am. But I have to say two things. One is, fundamentally it’s a lack of empathy. I think I’m most worried about that. I’m most worried that we will stop caring. I mean, sometimes we don’t even really care about our own species, we see it all the time that we’re not really great to each other. We’re really not great to those who are not in our species. That’s how the pecking order seems to work. I worry about that probably the most. And I think a by-product of that is species extinction.
And not just because we will miss these beautiful creatures. I think that’s reason enough, but they were going to teach us something. They were going to teach us how to think about 3D printing for instance. I think 3D and 4D printing will be the future, there’s sort of no question in my mind about that. But if we could actually have … And if we could have these biological blueprints, that teach us how to make things and we could actually work with green chemists to make very fundamentally different polymers. And think about, like, there’s a tree frog that actually like spits and exudes this saliva-based material and literally 3D prints its own nest for its young.
BR: Seriously. And I’m so sorry that I can’t think of the name of the frog that does this.
NN: You can google it.
BR: But it is a tree frog that does it.
NN: That’s extraordinary.
BR: And it’s literally, right? That’s how its manufacturing its hospitable environment for its young. When we kill off that tree frog because nobody thinks above because that development had to happen or because X had to go in, or new road had to go in, everyone’s like, oh, yeah, let’s lament the poor tree frog. But the truth is, we just did ourselves a tremendous disservice. Now we don’t have, a model, a plan of action for how to do this in the most elegant way. And so, from a purely selfish standpoint, I think species extinction is an enormous problem. But if I were to go back to the empathy factor, I think if we could learn to love the tree frog, right?
If we could learn to love the little … There’s a spring tail, it’s little green insect. It’s like blue and it’s grey and it’s fuzzy. And if you saw them in mass, you’d be like, this is scary. But it holds the key to really a multibillion-dollar problem which is around stain or oleophobicity, stain repellency or water repellency. It is the most repellent creature on the planet. And its design, which no joke, an exterminator would, say like you sure you have a problem and to get rid of it. It is the answer for us. And if we can learn to structurally model, the spring tail, we could change how rain jackets are created, how stain repellent couches are created. We just have to … That degree of empathy and curiosity is what literally might save us.
NN: And perception shift.
BR: That’s the phrase, you’ve just said it perfectly Natalie. It’s that shift in perception.
NN: So if you’re thinking about something that gives you the most hope, right now, you’re out of fuel. Because I think we all need a little bit of hope, what are some of the projects or ideas that are giving you cause most hope right now?
BR: Yeah. Unquestionably, the thing that gives me the most hope, are these kids. With very little instruction. And I mean, very little. Because we can’t possibly, I mean, we had our first pilot year with, this is middle school and high school kids. So we’re talking about 11, 12 years old. Their teachers signed up for our challenge, the design challenge. We didn’t even advertise it really. And 600 Kids participated, which was way more than we thought we would want on a pilot. And then we’re just closing our second round, which we also didn’t advertise really. And we got 4000 kids, because it’s now spread. And we want to see hundreds of thousands. And what they produce, is amazing. They’re with again, just a little bit of guidance, and resources, like Ask Nature, we also have a toolbox online. If you go to our challenge website.
So there’s free resources for anybody to sort of pick this up. And watching the creativity that gets unleashed in terms of real problem solving, is far in away the most helpful thing. Because it shows that we’re not lost yet. All is not lost in terms of hope. Because a 12 year old will solve our problem for the roof tiles, right? That is hopeful to me. And to know that it’s really possible. And for anyone, anywhere because you don’t … Ideally, we do send the kids outside and they get that experience of reconnecting and environmental education at the same time. But even if they don’t, there are a beautiful online resources right now. And they can start falling in love with nature in the very, safe comfort of the couch or their notebooks.
NN: Yeah, that is available to everyone no matter where they are.
BR: It’s available to everyone. I think that democratization of access, is really important. And that, I mean, I can lament technology all day long, but the truth is that is the greatest gift that it’s given us. And it will level the playing field.
NN: So if people are listening to this, and they’re feeling very inspired as I am right now, what action would you say that people can take to build towards what is more empathetic connected with nature? Yeah, hopeful future, that sounds wonderful.
BR: It is wonderful. Come over Natalie, come over.
NN: I know.
BR: Whenever I speak, or Janine speaks, publicly, I feel like we always get the same three questions, which is, how do I learn this? Personally, I’m inspired, I want to do this. How do I get my kids to learn this? I want them to be prepared. This is the resiliency strategy. This is the differentiation strategy that they could really succeed with. And then the third one is, is always, investors like what you just described, like the structural colour, which is a real thing going out of University of Akron, or a group called Pax Scientific, which is like 85%, more efficient fans. And if you think about the number of hot days that are coming, and the number of people who are buying air conditioners, and how you better move that without heat, fans are a huge part of what the world will need.
So if you can create a fan that’s based upon a spiral design that is on the present in nature, and achieve such greater degrees of efficiency, like that’s an investable product. So those three things always come up. And so in terms of how can I start to practice? The answer is really simple. We want anybody of any age, to enter our design challenge. Even if you don’t really want to start your own company, I think it’s just like I said, it goes back to the yoga analogy, just start to practice. And in that process, think about the problem you’d want to solve. So that’s called design to biology. Or go the other way around. And go, I am just fascinated with the ladybug or I am fascinated with this particular tree. What would I create if I deeply understood it and just spend time understanding that organism?
And then for kids, it’s really I mean, getting them to practice as well. The youth design challenge is free. These are free design resources and modules that are available. So just have a parent tell their teacher about it, and they can go to youthchallenge.biomimicry.org. And then the investors. We haven’t figured out a really good answer for that yet. But we’re probably hopefully, going to be working with a number of investment firms who recognize the value of biomimicry, frankly, because it’s more efficient. The designs are almost always cost effective. And it was never the intention, but nature is really efficient with resources. So it’s a very natural by-product.
NN: So in terms of resources, you’ve mentioned a few. I just want to make sure that people have everything they need. So on Twitter, you guys are @biomimicryinst?
BR: That’s right.
NN: And then Instagram Biomimicry Institute, then there is biomimicry.org, asknature.org, are there any other resources that you’d love to point people towards, they can find out more?
BR: Yes, and challenge.biomimicry.org, which you could get too from the same biomimicry.org, main page as well. But they’re all nested so that you can find them rather easily. And there are a tremendous number of free resources online. I encourage people who are just beginning, you don’t have to sign up for a really big long course. Just start reading online and watching a bunch of videos that are really fun and inspiring to watch.
NN: Cool. And finally, just personal curiosity, what’s your most inspiring organism that you just kind of go, that that one.
BR: Oh, that’s such a great question. Honestly, every time I learned something new, I feel like that’s the one. But I have this deep. I’m really fascinated with the questions of insulation, wind resistance, water repellency. Because those are such big problems in our in … The clothing and attire or the fashion industry. I am amazed by all things hair. I mean hair is just crazy. Like polar bear hair, this concept that it’s largely translucent, but it has this core and throughout it has a hollow core inside of it that is reflective of heat. And it both radiates heat back into the body on incredibly cold days. And it’s also a mechanism for, yeah, just regulating the temperature. We always think of polar bears as being really having this thick fat layer, but it’s actually their hair, that protects them from the wind and the cold. So I’m really just amazed by hair. Dog hair, which I collect copious amounts of on a daily basis. Fascinated by dog hair. I think that hair is one of those. And the tiny little hairs that we’re talking about on the spring tail, for instance. Hairs are … Hairs, bumps, ridges. These are things that nature uses a lot of. Nature uses structure all the time to change functions. So the more we can pay attention to structure, the better off we’ll be.
NN: That’s fascinating. The next time I’m having a quick shave or something, I’ll have to pay more attention to the hair.
BR: Exactly. If you think those hairs.
NN: Are there. Exactly. Well, Beth I’d love to speak with you loads more, but you’ve given us so much of your time. Thank you so much. I’ve really really enjoyed talking with you. It’s been such a pleasure.
BR: Thank you Nathalie, it’s been my pleasure.