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Innovators Tackling Humanity's Biggest Problems Seek Solutions by Studying Nature "Biomimicry" is the study of living systems for clues to create human designs that are better for both people and planet.

By Megan Schuknecht

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Alessandro Bianciardi wanted to help get fresh water to communities that needed it the most -- rural farmers in areas that were hardest hit by climate change-induced drought. So when he and his team of engineers and designers at the company Planet set out to create a more affordable, scalable and radically sustainable solar still, they went right to the source of the most effective R&D process they knew of -- nature itself.

The Planet team, including CEO Alessandro Villa and product developer Alessandro Zecca, is part of a new crop of social entrepreneurs who are incorporating biomimicry, or nature-inspired design, in order to take their innovations to the next level. Biomimicry is based on a simple idea -- that living systems can provide clues for how to create human designs that are better for both people and planet. It's a pathway to innovation that's leading social entrepreneurs to find new solutions to tough issues like energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, food systems, transportation, water management and more.

Related: Sowing the Seeds: What Gardening Teaches About Leadership

Bianciardi and his team knew that some plants, like mangroves, thrive in salty coastal waters. If they could find a way to emulate how those plants filter salt in seawater and apply it to their design, they could create a more affordable way to bring fresh water to farmers in coastal dry lands. Currently, desalination technology exists, but it is often energy inefficient and too costly for farmers to use to irrigate their land.

Basing the design on plants found in coastal ecosystems, the team created the Mangrove Still, an efficient desalinating device that can be produced at 1/5 of the cost of traditional solar stills. This makes it more accessible to farmers who can use the water to irrigate farmland and restore degraded soil in the process.

Why look to nature?

We live in a time where problems are multiplying faster than we can solve them -- at least by conventional means, with conventional companies. So for the nimble innovator, nature narrows the playing field of options down to what's worked over time. Biology-to-design is an imperfect process, especially with our highly imperfect industrial materials palette. But more engineers, designers, chemists, architects, and those who can't fit neatly in one box, are finding that living systems provide a model that can fast-track truly sustainable design.

Why biomimicry?

Biomimicry is a term popularized by writer and biologist Janine Benyus in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus realized that there were a growing number of scientists, researchers, architects and designers who were emulating nature to create groundbreaking solutions that support a healthy planet, but there was no term or overarching field to describe this important work. Enter biomimicry.

Nature has always inspired human innovation, from Leonardo DaVinci's flying machines to Velcro®. So, what makes biomimicry different? Beyond simply mimicking the form of something in nature or using natural materials, biomimicry is a design lens that encourages innovators to look at how living systems actually function. At its root is an ethos of regenerative design, using human ingenuity, math, engineering and physics to incorporate lessons from nature as best we can.

Want to create color? Instead of using toxic dyes, why not look at how nature creates color using structure, like the Morpho butterfly's wings? Want to collect water in a less resource-intensive way? Why not get inspired by how beetles collect water from dew and fog with their body surfaces? Want to grow food without chemical fertilizers? Why not look to ecosystems like prairies where polycultures thrive without external inputs?

A new kind of sustainability entrepreneur.

This emerging field is attracting a new kind of interdisciplinary problem-solver. Biomimicry entrepreneurs aren't interested in creating new solutions for their own sake; these solutions need to be circular and regenerative, healing what past humans have wrought.

The team from Planet, who received an Expo 2020 Dubai grant to pilot the Mangrove Still technology in multiple countries, is just one example of this new kind of sustainability entrepreneur. All around the world, individuals and teams are creating breakthrough solutions using nature as a guide.

Related: What Condoms Teach Us About Sustainability

In Chile, Camila Hernández and her team wanted to find a way to restore degraded soil in orchards across the country. They looked to hardy "nurse" plants that thrive in the Andes, despite the harsh, alpine conditions, to come up with the LifePatch, a biodegradable device that restores nutrients in the soil while protecting growing seedlings.

In Brazil, the Nucleário team created a reforestation solution that is designed to be used in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the Atlantic Forest, inspired by winged seeds, bromeliads, and forest leaf litter.

In the U.S., the Cora Ball team has developed a way to capture microfibers from laundry, preventing them from polluting our waterways. This design, a small ball that gets tossed in your laundry, was inspired by how coral filters water.

Want to learn more about this new approach to entrepreneurship? Here are five ways to become a biomimicry innovator:

1. Work across disciplines.

Chances are, most chemists, engineers, industrial designers or architects have never sat down with each other, let alone with a biologist, to problem-solve. Instead of sticking within professional silos, biomimicry requires a completely interdisciplinary approach, which forces people to think differently. The result? Pure innovation magic.

2. Link up with a community.

Entrepreneurship is not an easy road, and pioneering new approaches to complicated sustainability issues is even more difficult. Much like in nature, where there are hundreds of examples of different species working together in mutually beneficial ways -- mycorrhizal fungi, anyone? -- innovators don't get far alone. You can connect with fellow biomimics through the Biomimicry Global Network, which has more than 35 groups, each working to teach, practice and share nature-inspired design in their home regions.

3. Get support to bring your idea to market.

There are hundreds of accelerator programs today, but only one focused on bringing nature-inspired designs to market. The Biomimicry Launchpad is a training ground for early-stage or pre-commercial teams looking to get support in building a bio-inspired company that contributes to the greater social and environmental good. The Launchpad offers biomimicry training, mentorship, networking, exposure to strategic partners and opportunities to showcase breakthrough innovations to the media and the public. At the end of the Launchpad program, one team will win the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize®, sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.

4. Learn how to AskNature.

Are you curious about how to begin researching and applying nature's design strategies? Check out AskNature, a free online catalog of biological strategies and the ideas they've inspired. You can search by function ("how does nature create color?") and find examples of how different organisms accomplish that function, along with any related nature-inspired design solutions. Innovators from all fields are using AskNature to power their discovery process.

Related: Entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico Are Solving Problems in Hurricane Maria's Aftermath

5. Get outside.

The best part of being a biomimic? Immersing yourself in nature is part of the job description. Get away from your screens, go outside, and look at the world in a different way. That tree in your backyard? You may have appreciated it for its beauty or for how it provides a shady spot for you to nap under in the summer, but realizing that it's an energy-producing, carbon-sequestering, network-communicating marvel of engineering will make you see it in a whole new light.

Once you start seeing nature as something to learn from, and something to support rather than exploit, your innovation process will never be the same. Neither will your walks outside.

Megan Schuknecht

Director of Design Challenges

A biologist by training, Megan Schuknecht combines her passions for nature, education and entrepreneurship in running the Biomimicry Institute's annual Global Design Challenge and Launchpad programs, supporting nature-inspired solutions for a resilient future.

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