Biomimetic innovations are hindered by challenges to implementation, not inspiration

If biomimicry has so much potential, why aren’t there more bio-inspired innovations in the market? If we could be living a life with energy efficient processes and nontoxic materials inspired by nature, what is holding us back?

In order to answer these questions, our team conducted in-depth interviews with industry leaders and analyzed the existing resources available for biomimicry product development. 

Existing bio-inspired toolkits focus on concept inspiration and the early stages of the design process

Designers have no shortage of biomimicry tools to choose from, yet these same tools have not been organized into complete biomimicry toolsets that can aid designers throughout the entire product design process. Most biomimetic tools help designers generate concepts and map these concepts from the field of biomimetics to potential applications, but these tools offer little actionable advice on translating biological concepts into manufacturable prototypes.

The unique challenges of the biomimicry design process can be divided into four phases: prospecting, relevance, information accessibility, and implementation.

After our series of interviews and analysis of existing resources, we divided the challenges of the bio-inspired design process into four stages. We have used the term “designer” to indicate the person solving a problem with a bio-inspired solution, though this person may also be a scientist, engineer, or entrepreneur in some cases.

  1. Prospecting. When designers identify a problem to be solved, they usually follow a design process. As part of this process, designers may be encouraged to “look outside the box” for inspiration to solve the problem. This is an opportunity for nature to inspire a design, but only if designers have the foresight to look to nature or stumble upon it by mistake.
  2. Relevance. To be able to apply biomimicry to the problem, designers must be able to deconstruct the problem into its component parts (e.g. storing nutrients, maintaining temperature, or processing signals) in order begin to look to natural analogies. This role is often fulfilled by biologists or naturalists who recognize when a human problem has a biological analogy that that could serve as inspiration. Therefore, teams usually have subject expertise to recognize the opportunity to apply a biological concept.
  3. Information Accessibility. To create bio-inspired designs, designers must be able to understand the biological principles behind the inspiration for their solution. For example, while designers might understand that blue mussels produce a protein that allows them to stick permanently to slippery stones in the ocean, they must then ask how this protein is produced and how it works in order to replicate the effect. For most designers, this level of understanding is inaccessible due to the differences in technical language, knowledge systems, and foundational knowledge. Many designers address the “Informational Accessibility” stage by finding an expert-partner in the biological field to help them interpret biological qualities that are shared in academic papers into design concepts.
  4. Implementation. Once designers have found inspiration for a solution, they need prototype it, manufacture it, and then launch it as a viable business. If the designer is working within a larger organization, there are more resources available to help with each step of the implementation process. If the designer is working independently, these challenges are much harder to overcome.

Bio-inspired design faces similar challenges to typical product design, but the implementation is particularly sensitive to the large risk, lack of manufacturing technology, and uncertainty of business models for biomimetic products.

After realizing that implementation was the most challenging aspect of bio-inspired product design, we interviewed industry experts about their experiences, including design professionals, research scientists, business development leaders, and biomimicry experts. Although all product design and development processes are faced with challenges, we found that the interdisciplinary nature of the bio-inspired design made the process particularly sensitive. We found three major challenges with the implementation: risk associated with prototyping (monetary cost, time investment), lack of technology to support manufacturing at scale, and uncertainty about relevant, viable business models.

Discussion and opportunities for next steps

The field of biomimicry contains potential for new innovations that can support energy efficient, nontoxic products to build a more sustainable world. In traditional product design, people prefer to make steady, incremental controlled changes, but biomimicry can be threatening because of its dramatic results. However, the process of bio-inspired design does not inherently produce a sustainable product, and that product should be held accountable to normal sustainability analyses and considerations, such as life cycle analyses.

There are many tools that help designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs participate in the first three phases of bio-inspired innovation: prospecting, relevance, and information accessibility. However, there are few resources to support the actual implementation of a bio-inspired innovation, either through licensing or entrepreneurship.

There are many opportunities for further development in this area, including:

  • A network of professionals from a wide range of disciplines who might be interested in being involved in a biomimicry project (Biomimicry 3.8 has tried create a large network and local chapters have created networks on smaller scales, but they all lack business people in particular)
  • A roadmap with potential pathways based on existing team skill sets could offer some guidance for people looking to develop a new product or improve an existing one or a biomimicry-specific business plan framework that can highlight key areas that need to be addressed
  • Case studies of successful businesses with biomimicry products that can provide insight into overcoming major challenges and demonstrate replicable models for both inventors and investors
  • Opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations in settings where people feel comfortable even when they are not familiar with the topics, including:
  • Organization of work spaces or planning of “innovation districts” to attract diverse expertise
  • A biomimicry innovation accelerator or consulting firm with very strong business support
  • Cross-field continuing education for industry professionals, especially to gain experience and confidence in workshop/laboratories

Biomimicry as an important tool for engineering and sustainability education

Although bio-inspired product design may be limited by several factors that reduce its overall worth as a sustainability-oriented process, biomimicry may still serve an important purpose as a tool for education. Children and adults are generally more familiar with nature than with engineering principles, and biomimicry could be a mechanism to engage students who would otherwise not be interested. Even if products inspired by nature are not inherently sustainable, the process of biomimicry may inspire and engage others to create true innovations.