Janine Benyus: What Can Today's Designers Learn From Nature? Science writer Janine Benyus believes innovators should look to nature when solving a design problem. She says the natural world is full of ideas for making things waterproof, solar-powered and more.
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What Can Today's Designers Learn From Nature?

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What Can Today's Designers Learn From Nature?

What Can Today's Designers Learn From Nature?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show, the Power of Design. And so far we've been talking about things designed by us, by humans. But that is only one part of the story.

When did you start to sort of look around at all the things in nature, like a tree or a flower or a beehive and think, oh, my God, this is design.

JANINE BENYUS: You know, I can't think of a time when I wasn't sitting in the grass watching ants go by. I mean, I was always that kind of a kid.

RAZ: This is Janine Benyus.

BENYUS: So I thought of the natural world as, you know, a community because I knew all the birds and butterflies and where they were nesting. I thought of them as a natural city in the sense and that all the inhabitants were really good at what they do. People think about the struggle of nature. It didn't seem like a struggle to me.

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: Seems like they had it worked out.

RAZ: And so if you were to describe in just one sentence what it is you do, what do you do?

BENYUS: Well, we help innovators solve problems by asking the question, how would nature solve this? Has nature already solved this?

RAZ: Janine works with designers who want to find a better way to do things like lay floor tiles in an airport or insulate buildings. And she does this by looking at the natural world for design inspiration. It's an approach called biomimicry.

BENYUS: It's literally a bridge between biology and design. It's innovation inspired by nature.

RAZ: Which makes total sense, right? Innovation inspired by nature. But on the TED stage, Janine says in our day-to-day lives, we don't always see that connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BENYUS: I have this neighbor, and one time he came up to me - he was about 7 or 8 years old - he came up to me. And there was a wasps' nest that I had let grow in my yard.

And he asked me how I had made the house for those wasps 'cause he had never seen one this big. And I told him, you know, Cody, the wasps actually made that. And we looked at it together, and I could see why he thought - you know, it was so beautifully done. It was so architectural. It was so precise.

But it occurred to me how in his small life had he already believed the myth that if something was that well done that we must have done it? How did he not know - it's what we've all forgotten - that we're not the first ones to build? You know, we're not the first ones to process cellulose. We're not the first ones to make paper. We're not the first ones to try to optimize packing space or to waterproof or to try to heat and cool a structure. We're not the first ones to build houses for our young.

What's happening now in this field called biomimicry is that people are beginning to remember that organisms - other organisms, the rest of the natural world - are doing things very similar to what we need to do. But, in fact, they're doing them in a way that have allowed them to live gracefully on this planet for billions of years.

RAZ: I wonder - I mean, it seems like designers and inventors kind of always looked to nature for inspiration. Like you think of da Vinci or, you know, the Wright brothers. Like, they were looking at the natural world around them, and they were building things that mimicked them.

BENYUS: You know, you just mentioned two of the biomimics. And there were not that many of them, to tell you the truth. Now, I think when you go way back, we practiced biomimicry.

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: You know, we looked at the webs of spiders and said, you know, let's make fishing nets like this, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: We looked at the snowshoe hare, - the foot of a snowshoe hare and said, you know, let's make snowshoes like this.

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: I mean, I think because our survival depended on noticing what works.

RAZ: But as you said in your talk, it seems like we're going through a shift now - right? - like that more designers are paying much, much more attention to the natural world.

BENYUS: They are. And what's interesting now is that the questions that designers are being asked to fulfill are very similar to what organisms in the natural world have had to do all along. You know, they've had to use local raw materials, and we want to use local raw materials. You know, they've had to make things that are easily upcycled back to their environment. We want to do that, too.

So suddenly the playbook - nature's playbook - is like finding this amazing catalog of answers to the questions we're now asking.

RAZ: I mean, so what are some examples? Like, what are some of the things that we're using right now that were inspired by things in nature?

BENYUS: Well, for instance, every day people are walking through the airplane security things - that thing where you put your hands up over your head. And that is an acoustic camera that's based on the learnings from the Brazilian free-tailed bat and how it echolocates.

RAZ: And there are tons and tons of examples like this, including a little beetle from Southern Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BENYUS: This is a little critter that's in the Namibian desert. It has no fresh water that it's able to drink. But it drinks water out of fog. It's got bumps on the back of its wing covers, and those bumps act like a magnet for water. They have water-loving tips and waxy sides. And now kinetic and architectural firms are starting to look at this as a way of coating buildings so that they gather water from fog 10 times better than our fog-catching nets.

How does nature repel bacteria? We're not the first ones to have to protect ourselves. This is a Galapagos shark. It has no bacteria on its surface, no barnacles. So how does it keep its body free of bacteria buildup? It doesn't do it with a chemical. It does it, turns out, with the same denticles that you had, you know, in - on Speedo bathing suits that broke all those records in the Olympics.

But it's a particular kind of pattern. And the architecture of that pattern keeps bacteria from able to land and adhere. There's a company called Sharklet Technologies that's thinking about putting this on the surfaces in hospitals to keep bacteria from landing, which is better than dousing it with antibacterials or harsh cleansers that many, many organisms are now becoming drug-resistant.

There are scientists in Cornell that are making what they call a synthetic tree because they're saying, you know, there's no pump at the bottom of a tree. Its capillary action and transpiration pulls water up a drop at a time. And they're creating - you can think of it as a kind of wallpaper - they're thinking about putting it on the insides of buildings to move water up without pumps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: These are absolutely incredible examples. Like, you don't - I mean, I guess, you know, when you describe it, it makes perfect sense. But it also makes you wonder, like, why isn't this happening more?

BENYUS: That's a really good question. And I - in part, it's simply because, you know, the people who make our world rarely take biology classes. Imagine if a mechanical engineer - the first class they took was, how does nature pump?

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: You know? And they learned about whale hearts. Or how does nature distribute fluids? And they learned about the Murray's law and the perfect branching system and a perfectly efficient way to move fluids through tree branches and roots. That was their first class.

But we teach people in great detail how humans have solved problems in the past, and we very much elevate those people. We admire those people. But when we look to the natural world, we don't have that same level of respect yet.

RAZ: Yeah. When something is designed - right? - like, you can imagine that there's like focus groups and blueprints and tests and surveys done. But the cool thing about nature is it's totally unselfconscious, right? It just does what it does. And I wonder if there's something for humans to learn from that, you know - that risk-taking.

BENYUS: Well, you know, it's exceedingly cautious during its lifetime. Organisms are exceedingly cautious. They really are paying attention to their surroundings on, like, a second-by-second basis. You know, how are the conditions now? How are the conditions now? And they're adapting themselves to those changing conditions all the time. We could learn a lot from that. But then the way life innovates over generations is the reshuffling of information from two beings, like sex.

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: And the selection of which of those great ideas are going to get to go into the next generation is all about does it create conditions conducive to life?

RAZ: Yeah.

BENYUS: Is a conducive to life continuing? And that selection criteria is another thing that I don't think we quite have that yet. We need to start asking questions like will this product, will this process - or service or whatever it is we're inventing - will it allow life to continue?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BENYUS: The question is biomimicry is an incredibly powerful way to innovate. Life over 3.8 billion years has made a lush, livable place for us. How can we do what life has learned to do, which is to create conditions conducive to life?

Now, in order to do this - the design challenge of our century, I think - we need a way to remind ourselves of those geniuses and to somehow be in touch with these incredible models, these elders that have been here far, far longer than we have. And hopefully with their help, we'll learn how to live on this earth and on this home that is ours, but not ours alone. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Janine Benyus is the co-founder of the company Biomimicry 3.8. You can see both of her TED Talks at TED.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT BEAUTIFUL")

THE PHANTOMS: (Singing) You got to tear it down. You got to tear it down. Tear it all down. Sometimes you got to tear it all down to make it beautiful.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on the Power of Design this week. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brett Bachman (ph), Megan Kane (ph), Neva Grant (ph) and Sanaz Meshkinpour (ph), with help from Daniel Shukin (ph). Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel and Janet Lee (ph). I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading, right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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