ANALYSIS: Biomimicry Part 2 - Eye on Business

Dispatch from SSC Intern Kang Chang

Efficiency is a word repeated quite often in the environmental sector and increasingly in the world at large.  Premonitions about what this word might entail when applied to our energy or water use differ.  If efficiency proponents have done their job correctly, you wouldn’t need a Hero of the Planet to tell you that efficiency can be lush and extravagant.  William McDonough, co-founder of MBDC and co-author of the book Cradle to Cradle, uses the example of a deciduous tree that produces a wonderful display of foliage every fall, producing an abundance of seeds by using up only renewable solar energy.   

When considering the magnitude at which this happens every fall, one might begin to see the whole endeavour as a bit chaotic.  That is exactly one of the thoughts of the designers at Interface Inc. during their day spent studying the forest floor and stream beds.    

They came to realize that no two things are alike - no two sticks, no two stones, no two leaves. It's total chaos, yet there's a pleasant orderliness in the chaos...

...said Interface Inc. Chairman Ray Anderson.

This realization of a concept that permeates nature gave rise to a line of carpet tiles, named Entropy, one of their most successful products.  Each tile is unique and can be installed in any direction, which greatly reduces installation time and production waste as compared to more traditional tiles.   

An example of efficiency inspired by nature comes from an industrial park in Kalundborg, Denmark.  Here the application can be seen as being inspired by any food web, an example is pictured in Figure 1:

The intentional design of the industrial ecosystem allows each company to utilize the residual and by-products of the others.  Thereby exhibiting a lower impact than an individual company that would obtain its resources ‘from scratch’.

The thing to notice in both of these systems is that all lines point to another node in the system.  For the food chain this mean the energy within the plants is being consumed by the herbivores and the carnivores are consuming the energy embodied by the herbivores. In the case of the industrial park in Denmark, unused energy in the form of heat and steam from the Power Station is being used by the fish farm and Novo Nordisk, respectively.  The residual products of one company in the system, which would normally be considered as waste and a liability, have now become a valued asset.  Whereas in a more traditional industrial system one would see by-products of such as steam, heat and fly ash pointing out to nothing, meaning they are being passed on to the environment and becomes everyone’s liability.   

Creating a market for a company’s wastes can be seen as an exercise in networking, or forming relationships with other companies whose resources are your unwanted outputs.  This exercise may come as an unfamiliar challenge because the idea is to not look laterally at peer companies but up and over to a completely different ‘species’ of companies whose treasure is your trash.   

All of these examples can be seen as an undertaking of design.  As natural forces designed the environment and all species, our study of the world around us allows us access to successful, underlying design tools to shape our economy and companies.  Those companies that increase effectiveness, reduce negative socio-environmental impact, and create communities, will be those that make intelligent use of these tools.