THE LIVING FUTURE UNCONFERENCE: Biomimicry and the "Adjacent Possible"

Janine Benyus presenting at the Living Futures unConverence 2015, Seattle, WA

Janine Benyus presenting at the Living Futures unConverence 2015, Seattle, WA

The evening was breezy and brisk as we traversed Seattle’s downtown streets, heading for the Living Future 2015 unConference and its opening night events.  After mingling our way through the vendors section, we followed a man in a salmon costume into a large hall for the keynote address. Several elders from local Native American tribes began with a prayer. Then Sarah Bergman, director of Pollinator Pathway, described her a large-scale participatory project connecting cities, farmland, and national parks for bees and other pollinators.

It’s when Janine Benyus, the keynote speaker, took the stage that the tenor of the conversation shifted. With the earlier speakers we were still thinking about and existing in the present tense. With Benyus, we were in the future – the distant future – where biomimicry is a given and humans have restored balance to our natural systems thereby “creating conditions conducive to life.”* It was a paradigm shift, and that’s where she began her lecture, and it took me a minute to catch up. The thing is, Benyus is so far ahead of us that she’s actually inspired by the future. But, before we launch too far into that future, you may be asking, “What is biomimicry?”

Biomimicry is a term coined by Benyus herself that’s defined as “learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.”* It’s using nature as a mentor. It’s “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.”* Studying the design of a leaf in order to create more efficient solar cells is an example of biomimicry. Or examining how Namibian beetles catch fog and condense it into water, then applying that design to a desert irrigation system. Benyus, a biologist, innovation consultant, and author, stresses that for any given design challenge – waterproofing, heating, daylighting – there are millions of organisms to learn from.

Benyus is also quick to point out what is not biomimicry. It’s not designing something and post-fabrication saying, “It reminds me of a whale.” This, Benyus sites, is convergent evolution, the development of similar features in different species. Biomimicry, on the other hand, is a design process that requires consciously consulting the natural world as a starting point. Additionally, using a renewable resource such as cork flooring, although it’s eco-friendly, is not biomimicry but bio-utilization. What about purifying water with bacteria? Again, not biomimicry but bio-assistance. Benyus explains that biomimicry is not using an organism itself, but borrowing a design idea from an organism.

Throughout her presentation, Benyus returned to a common refrain, “the adjacent possible.” It was the first time I’d encountered the “adjacent possible,” so I did some quick research. It’s a term introduced by theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman that refers to an evolutionary process where biological systems are able to morph into more complex systems by making incremental changes – not great leaps. We did not go from walking to spaceships without first building bicycles, cars, and rockets. Or, to use a building analogy: you build a first floor with stairs, then you build a second floor with stairs, and finally a third floor. Each floor makes access to the next floor possible. You can get to the third floor because of the second floor. That’s the adjacent possible. You can’t see it or get there today, not directly. But through small steps, one next to the other, you can arrive at a vastly different place from where you started. It appears that Janine has applied the adjacent possible to biomimicry and can see into the future the elegant and innovative solutions to design and building challenges.

As I sat in the darkened hall, I began to wonder what that might look like. What are the biomimicry implications for the building industry, and how might the “adjacent possible” transform the field? What is biomimicry from a builder’s perspective? How might the “adjacent possible” help us innovate and envision the future of building? One obvious result of applying biomimicry to building would be an even closer collaboration with architects and designers. Because biomimicry looks to nature at all the stages of making – planning, designing, fabricating, evaluating – it’s easy to envision architects and builders communicating and cooperating at the planning phase. Additionally, with the utilization of biomimicry, the very nature of building may increase in technical and chemical sophistication. We could sub-contract biologists and chemists. There may even be a need for an on-staff biologist. Or, builders may borrow from birds the design for creating extraordinarily colorful plumage, and act more as scientists, combining molecules and chemicals, then overseeing as fibers organize themselves to create color by scattering light. At the very least, the fields of building and architecture will cross-pollinate with the fields of biology and natural sciences, creating a need for multi-disciplinary practitioners.

     Nanofibers of bird feathers create color by scattering light. 

     Nanofibers of bird feathers create color by scattering light. 

Furthermore, biomimicry could change not only the products and materials we utilize (that’s happening already), but our fundamental building systems and processes. To address the first point, our waterproofing products are advancing dramatically. Dovetail is currently building a net-zero energy home using a new product, Wet-Flash, which wicks moisture on the outside while allowing water vapor to escape from the inside, creating a waterproof yet breathable barrier. Sound familiar to human skin? That’s not just a coincidence, but a deliberate design choice, says Tom Schneider, the chemical engineer who developed the product. It’s not a far leap, then, to imagine a future of builders creating structures that are living and breathing and productive.

Addressing the point about process, we take for granted our current organizational structures and construction order of operation because they are tried and true. But, what could we learn from bee hives, a pride of lions, or a flock of crows? How could natural processes inform and improve the design of our building processes? Expanding on the idea of the adjacent possible, Benyus asked, “What did you make possible today?” As builders, we’re in the business of making. It’s an exciting moment when we can ask not only what did we make, but what did we make possible today.

How do you think biomimicry and the adjacent possible will influence design and building? How do you think builders will adapt in order to leverage biomimicry? What do you think is the adjacent possible for our field?


*Janine M. Benyus, “A Biomimicry Primer,” Biomimicry 3.8, 2014