The First Biomimicry Summit in Europe:
Switzerland’s Financial Capital is Seduced by Nature’s Genius
Jamie Brown, Project Director, BASE (Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy); former Head of Secretariat, UNEP Sustainable Energy Finance Alliance, Switzerland 3 Sept. 2012
Nearly 100 leaders from fields spanning industry, finance, architecture, engineering, government and academia came together in Zürich, August 29-31, 2012, to learn from nature at the Biomimicry Europe Innovation and Finance Summit. Organised by the Foundation for Global Sustainability in cooperation with swisscleantech, Biomimicry 3.8, Ethical Markets Media and others, the event offered the opportunity to learn about the field of biomimicry as well as the latest research, commercialisation and financing platforms that will accelerate the path to market for bio-inspired projects. It was also the first platform to introduce prominent industry and finance professionals to the Principles for Ethical Biomimicry Finance™, presented in Zürich by Ethical Markets President Hazel Henderson.
A Treasure Trove of Innovation Ideas
Biomimicry is “the conscious emulation of nature’s genius,” explained Biomimicry 3.8 co-founder Dayna Baumeister in Zürich. Instead of seeing nature as something to extract from, biomimics borrow the recipes it has developed through 3.8 billion years of evolution and apply them to problems in the human world. Emulating the bumps on the fin of a humpback whale, for example, allowed manufacturers of wind turbines to produce twice as much energy from half as much wind. Inspired by the way corals build reefs, a company in California has been able to sequester carbon dioxide from the air to produce concrete. The Venus fly trap uses tension to flip from convex to concave, which inspired the design of a temporary attachment system that can be opened and closed on plastic bags.
Many conference participants are themselves working on biomimetic design applications. Daniel Germann from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the University of Zürich is researching how mussels burrow through surfaces in order to emulate this in robots. British exploratory architect Michael Pawly presented projects to a captivated audience including a biomimetic office space and design applications that mimic beetles to create water in the Sahara Desert. “Biomimicry is the best source for innovation ideas today,” he asserts. “It represents 3.8 billion years of R&D, now facilitated by previously unimaginable design tools.”
“Most R&D departments have not understood biomimicry and have not looked at that treasure trove of inspiration,” notes Lynne Reaser, Chief Economist of the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute and former Chief Economist for Bank of America. Recognising this, the San Diego Zoo – which holds the world’s largest human collection of plants and animals – announced earlier in August the establishment of a Centre for Bioinspiration to work with industry on biomimetic business applications. Chris Garvin presented similar efforts by the Biomimicry Innovation Centre at NYSERDA, which gives biomimicry workshops for companies that have resulted in R&D proposals including plant and bacteria-inspired strategies to improve air filtration, as well as insect-inspired algorithms for advanced building energy monitoring.
Conference participants entered the Zürich Zoo to practice learning through direct observation of nature and animals, adopting a childlike openness and “quieting their cleverness” as taught in biomimicry training. Re-connecting with nature is an important aspect of the biomimicry approach, which emphasises the deep extent to which people and nature are intertwined.
The design principles used by nature have been compiled by biomimicry professionals into a set of “Life’s Principles.” These can be applied to an analysis of human problems in any field. Samuel Furrer, curator of the Zürich Zoo, for example, presented strategies from nature that humans can use to avoid conflict. Zürich is known as the financial capital of Switzerland, and a special emphasis was placed at the conference on opportunities to apply nature’s genius in the field of finance.
Biomimicry Proposed as a New Investment Theme
Biomimicry can inform finance at the micro, macro, local, regional or global levels, in investment or in policy. In fact, the biomimicry approach is so versatile that there is a danger of confusing specific target audiences by discussing applications which lie beyond their disciplines; but when the discussion is tailored effectively to an audience and its particular interface, biomimicry appears to have irresistible appeal across fields and specialisations.
The mainstream investment community will primarily be interested in biomimicry as a wellspring of innovation ideas that translate into projects with real market potential. To be convinced of this, investors will need to see case studies and the track record of a portfolio of bio-inspired projects. A discussion of the broader potential of biomimicry to make human society as a whole more successful and sustainable may be extraneous to this particular target audience, and might even frustrate investors if they are sensitive to a perceived rivalry between environmentalism and industry, or to criticisms of the financial system. Presented alone, however, the market performance of bio-inspired projects may prove to be powerfully convincing from an investment standpoint. “You want to invest in what works,” noted one conference participant. “You have something in common with nature there.”
Biomimicry.ch, organised by Jacques Chirazi, is therefore exploring the design of a biomimicry fund in Switzerland in collaboration with swisscleantech and others. An overarching goal at this stage is simply to bring the idea that nature can inspire innovation to the finance world. “Investors are always looking for a new theme,” notes Lynne Reaser. Projects within a biomimicry investment portfolio would have been screened according to how well they follow design principles that were pre-tested for sustainability over 3.8 billion years, and the robustness of these strategies will no doubt help to ensure that biomimicry becomes an important investment theme in the future.
In the meantime, however, the financial system itself is undergoing a major transformation. Ethical Markets and Biomimicry 3.8 have therefore gone one step further, applying Life’s Principles to the re-design of finance and economics more broadly.
Launching the First Principles for Ethical Biomimicry Finance
Nature’s design strategies are universal to all organisms. Given that the human species is interdependent with other forms of life, the success of our methods of production and exchange depends on how well they “fit in” with these laws of nature. This applies to the systems of money and finance, which is why Ethical Markets and Biomimicry 3.8 are launching the Principles for Ethical Biomimicry Finance™.
“There’s all of this new science now invalidating economics – which never was a science to begin with,” notes Hazel Henderson in her presentation in Zürich. The new science comes from psychology, endocrinology, brain science, behavioural research and, of course, biology. “[T]his is where we come in with Biomimicry and Life’s Principles,” she explains. The disciplines of finance and economics are now being re-designed, and nature has already established guidelines that will help ensure a successful outcome. The Principles for Ethical Biomimicry Finance™ thus seek to translate the lessons of evolution into what will be the economics of the future.