The systems thinking we introduced earlier in the chapter tells us that we need to develop and maintain a symbiotic relationship with our environment and nature more broadly. Integrated systems will not survive if one of the components is depleting another important component that contributes to the overall system.
The industrial age of the 20th century produced many critical innovations but corporations that manufactured them and the customers that bought them were driven by two factors – price and quality. Therefore, neither the corporations nor their customers were concerned with the environmental impact of manufacturing methodologies.
This approach is slowly giving way to a new approach where environmental impact has been introduced as a third factor. Now, an increasing number of corporations and their customers want the highest quality at the lowest price but ALSO want the lowest environmental impact. This is driven by the acceptance and acknowledgement by an increasing proportion of the global population that we are depleting and negatively impacting our environment at an unsustainable rate.
As a result, at this point in time in our history, there is growing demand for products that do not deplete the environment and, in many cases, people are prepared to pay more for products that minimize or eliminate their negative impact on the environment. More recently, there has been an increase in a scientific approach called biomimicry – utilizing natural models to achieve industrial objectives without negatively impacting the environment. It is an excellent example of one of the central principles of MPI (understanding natural systems and applying this understanding to manmade systems in order to improve them).
Organizations have to address numerous increasingly complex and interrelated challenges including globalization, inconsistent workforce demographics, environmental pollution and depletion, changing demands of the digital economy and changing business models.
The majority of the physical products that we produce result in collateral damage along the way. In some cases it ruins the environment. In some cases it ruins us (such as products that become carcinogens).
Janine Benyus is a natural scientist and the author of six books on biomimicry. She focuses on research that enables us to emulate natural models in order to design sustainable products, as processes and policies that are more conducive to sustainable life rather than causing harm. Benyus reminds us that nature has 3.8 billion years of research and development, 10 to 30 million species and countless well adapted solutions. Benyus says there are three questions we should answer:
1. How does nature make things? Up until now humans made things using a process known as heat, beat and treat. This involves heating up a compound then beating it into the required form then treating it with chemicals. This process results in at least 90% waste and 4% product. This is not sustainable.
2. How does nature make physical things disappear into systems? Nature does not deal in “things”. No “things” in nature are separate from nature (including humans).
Benyus provides examples of biomimicry and insight into several big ideas from biology:
1. Self-assembly. The production of computer chips results in the production of carcinogens. Benyus says that there is a diatom (a small organism) that contains silicates that involves a bio mineralization process that is now being mimicked to create computer chips without the carcinogens. Another example is a species of brittle star whose a skeleton is coated with eye like lenses that are superior to those manufactured in labs. Researchers have indicated that these lenses have absolutely no distortion whatsoever and, interestingly, these lenses also self assemble. There is also a sea sponge that has fiber optics that work better at moving light than the fiber optics that we currently manufacture and the fiber optics from the sea sponge can even be tied into a knot.
2. Carbon dioxide as a feedstock. CO2 is not an enemy just because we exhale it. Plants use CO2 to construct many important compounds. One researcher has found a way to use a catalyst to make polycarbonates (biodegradable plastic structures) out of CO2.
3. Solar transformations. Some researchers are mimicking the energy harvesting device inside of purple bacteria.
4. The power of shape. The fins of Wales have tubicles and these little bumps actually increase efficiency of movement. If used on the edge of an airplane they have been found to increase efficiency by up to 32%. This obviously has significant implications for the use of fossil fuels.
5. Color without pigments. As a peacock whose bluish color occurs due to shape as opposed to pigments. Light bounces off certain layers in a process called thin film interference. This creates the possibility of using light and layers in a way to create color instead of using paint or some other similar coloring mechanism
6. Cleaning without detergents. A leaf has an outside layer that enables self-cleaning with water. There is one company that is mimicking this process in a building where the building is self-cleaning with water.
5. Quenching thirst. The Namibian beetle pulls water out of fog and the pill bug can pull water out of air (it does not drink fresh water). This has significant implications for the availability and production of water.
6. Metals without mining. Benyus says that separation technologies will be critical asks, what if we could separate metals from waste streams? This is what microbes do.
7. Green chemistry. This natural chemistry is replacing industrial chemistry. Benyus says that nature only uses a subset of the elements in the periodic table but industrial chemistry uses virtually all of them.
8. Timed degradation. This would enable us to create packaging that can perform its function for a given period of time then naturally biodegrade. There is a muscle that has natural threads that hold it to the ground but they automatically start biologically degrading almost exactly 2 years after it dies.
9. Resilience and healing. One of our challenges today is to get vaccines to the people that need them. One of the reasons is that the refrigeration is required to maintain the vaccines during the transport process. There is a water dwelling micro animal called a Tartigrade that is capable of completely dehydrating while staying alive for many months and then regenerate itself. One researcher mimicked this process in a way that allowed the vaccines to totally dry out while still remaining alive and, in doing so, remove the requirement for refrigeration.
All of these are examples of nature creating an extremely high quality version of products that we are currently manufacturing using unsustainable processes and depleting our environment.
Benyus says that the more important point here is that these organisms have found a way to do amazing things that enable them to take care of themselves while also taking care of the environment that sustains them. This is the design challenge that faces us as humans.
Next article in this series: “Open Systems And Open Source”