Biomimicry: The Power of the Metaphor


Biomimicry can be defined as the discipline of applying nature’s principles to solve human problems. This emerging field has the potential to create 1.6 million jobs by 2025, and could represent $1.0 trillion of the US GDP in 15 years.

The applications of biomimicry in design, production and research are subject to interpretation and vary greatly between disciplines. Design inspiration and environmental awareness are two applications of biomimicry that have proved to be the most mature and promising; biomimicry as a business opportunity has yet to prove itself. So how do we, as designers, take the idea of biomimicry and apply it to our own work in a mature and effective manner? We say: don’t under-estimate the power of biomimicry as a metaphor!


The general public is already talking about the world in biological terms; everything from referring to a YouTube video going ‘viral’ to phrases like ‘learning by osmosis.’ Using biology and the natural world as a metaphor is extremely powerful. A recent study challenged two groups of participants to imagine solutions for fighting crime. One group was given the analogy of crime as a monster, the second was given the analogy of crime as a virus. Results showed that the ‘crime as monster’ group came up with solutions such as incarceration and punishment (as appropriate for a monster) while the ‘crime as virus’ group found more preventative, knowledge based solutions. Simply replacing one word (or adding an additional layer of information) in an analogy affects the way you think about a problem, and its outcome. This could be the strongest potential for biomimicry: a metaphor that changes the way we approach a problem.

Biomimicry also requires true multi-disciplinary coordination; communication between disciplines is essential for its success. The concept of biomimicry inherently implies a translation between nature to something else (mimic + bio), therefore it is important that we avoid the “translation gap” which is often a pitfall. The gap in translating nature’s principals to other disciplines could be analogous to translating from one language to another; often the true meaning of the text is lost when replacing words.

Its because of this new awareness for biomimicry and bio-technology that Karten Design attended San Diego Zoo’s Biomimicry Conference. Keynote speakers such as David Schenone of NIKE, Jane Suri of IDEO, science historian James Burke and Robert Full of UC Berkeley shared their thoughts on global biomimicry efforts. Stay tuned for part two of our thoughts stemming from attending this conference.

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