Inspired by life : Rethinking the modern world
Deputy Director in charge of scientific development at the Centre for Studies and Expertise in Biomimicry (Ceebios).
Ceebios is a SCIC (cooperative for collective interest) which brings together a network of expert actors in France and is developing the resources essential for the application of biomimicry by the academic, institutional and private sectors.
Vice President & General Manager, Southern Europe, South Asia and South East at Interface, an American manufacturer of floor coverings and world leader in carpet tiles, head-quartered in Atlanta.
How do you define biomimicry and why is it becoming increasingly important?
Laura Magro: Biomimicry involves the drawing of inspiration from living things in order to boost innovation, especially in a sustainable way. It is about understanding how to meet the challenges of sustainable development by relying on knowledge and the principles of living strategies that have been ‘selected’ by over 3.8 billion years of evolution. It is an approach that is both philosophical and scientific, which requires a strongly interdisciplinary approach, bringing together biologists, engineers, architects, designers, and so on. It is structured around a design methodology which encourages us to consider any technical problem from the point of view of living things in order to find a sustainable solution.
Humanity has always been inspired to create by processes found in the natural world. Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines is well known, for example. But it was around the 2000s that scientific publications clarified the concept of biomimicry, as defined by the American researcher Otto Schmitt. American biologist Janine Benyus popularised it by showing that we could draw inspiration from living organisms as a model of sustainability at all scales, from the smallest, at the nanometre scale, to the largest at ecosystem scale. Biotechnologies have enabled a tremendous development in knowledge of living things. The entire challenge of biomimicry is in promoting them for the creation of products and models for sustainable organisations.
Why did Interface take an interest in biomimicry?
Éric Rampelberg: Biomimicry is part of the overall environmental strategy of the company, begun in 1994 by the founding CEO, Ray Anderson, after he read the book The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken. This strategy, awarded the United Nations Global Climate Action Prize in 2020, is based on two major orientations.
The first, the Mission Zero initiative, aimed to have zero negative impact on the environment in 2020, and today all our products(1) are carbon neutral(2). The second, the Climate Take Back, aims to make Interface a regenerative company, capable of creating value for the environment by 2040. With this global approach, biomimicry is fully integrated into in the design and sustainability considerations of our products and our production processes.
It is based on the belief that the right solutions exist, and are already present, in nature. Like Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus joined the Eco Green Team of the company to support it in this process.
The ArtScience Museum, Singapore. Its shape, inspired by the lotus flower, allows it to recover and reuse rainwater, while optimising the diffusion of natural light.
How does this approach concretely help to create sustainable innovations?
L. M.: Living systems use a limited range of otherwise abundant resources (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, etc.) to intervene over a wide spectrum of mechanical and functional domains optimised by evolution. Their adaptation strategies are efficient and resilient (material recycling, frugal energy consumption, etc.).
The living world also offers genuine ecological specifications from which we have a lot to learn in the design of materials and industrial processes that are less polluting, economical with energy and, with respect to materials, recyclable, in accordance with the imperatives of the ecological transition. To take a few concrete examples: in energy, there are tidal energy turbines that imitate the wave movements of marine organisms so as not to disturb the marine ecosystem; in materials, the biomineralisation observed in marine sponges can be used to define glass manufacturing processes at ambient temperature and pressure; in the building industry, it is an algorithm inspired by phyllotaxis(3) plants that can be used to optimise the development of a district in terms of sunlight exposure; in the digital world, there are vision sensors inspired by the human retina, combining computing power and low energy consumption.
What product innovations at Interface result from biomimicry?
É. R.: Initially, we started with the design of carpet tiles, taking inspiration from the shapes of living things. Our designers went to the forest to observe the layout of forest floors. Their apparently random nature has given rise to a new way of thinking about modular flooring. In 2001, Interface launched Entropy, a carpet tile with a non-directional pattern. This principle allows individual replacement of the tiles and installation in any direction with great benefits in terms of waste produced: 1.5% against 14% on average for the installation of a traditional carpet. Today, the range of our products that are designed with this randomness in mind represents more than 50% of our sales worldwide.
Biomimicry is involved in the manufacture of materials. For example, the company wanted to replace the method of bonding tiles, which generates VOCs (volatile organic compounds). The new product “TacTiles” is inspired by the complex adhesion system of the gecko’s legs and replaces the adhesives usually employed to bind tiles. Result: VOC emissions are almost zero.
This type of innovation is fully in line with the Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) approach, by which we assess the footprint of our products from the extraction of raw materials to their end of life. This eco-responsible vision accompanied by biomimicry is a powerful vector of innovation that has allowed us to stay at the forefront of the development of new trends and regulatory frameworks, helping power our growth as an organisation.
Humanity has always been inspired to create by processes found in the natural world. Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine is well known, for example.
How do you prevent a very high-speed train, like the Japanese Shinkansen, from making toomuch noise, due to high air pressures, while passing through tunnels?
To answer this question, engineer Eiji Nakatsu was inspired by the beak of the kingfisher, a bird that dives into water while barely causing a ripple.
What is the economic potential of biomimicry and which countries are most active in this field?
L. M.: The economic impact of biomimicry promises to be significant because it is a lever for sustainable innovation in many, if not all sectors of economic activity, from housing and construction to digital, including energy, health, chemicals and materials, agriculture, but also water, waste, textiles, etc. It is estimated that the global market for biomimicry will be $18.5 billion by 2028 according to a study by the American BIS Research Institute(4). Its economic impact would represent $425 billion extra on the GDP of the United States by 2030 and could create over two million jobs. In a region like Nouvelle-Aquitaine, more than 31,000 jobs could be created within ten years if biomimicry was fully rolled out across its entire economy. Asian countries – in particular Japan – the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and, more recently, France are embracing this approach. The United States and Germany have invested significantly. Germany is at the forefront in Europe because it has implemented a national strategy over the last twenty years and structured a network around two major research centres, Biokon and BK(6).
How is France positioned with respect to this innovative approach?
L. M.: First of all, we must recognise the undeniable asset of France, which benefits from exceptional biodiversity with the collections of the National Museum of Natural History among the richest in the world, and the diversity of its natural environment. The country possesses immediate access to 10% of the world’s known species, particularly when its overseas territories are taken into account. These are key resources for when taking a bio-inspirational approach. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is growing, with 200 companies interested in biomimicry and start-ups that have raised more than 500 million euros since 2015. Public actors are also showing increasing interest(7). The CNRS(8) cites bio-inspiration as a major direction for promoting research to be deployed over the next five years and has launched the BIOMIM research group.
Our centre is working with Ademe(9) to integrate biomimicry into its project tendering. The approach is being developed among large manufacturers concerned with aligning environmental and economic performance, like L’Oréal, for example, which has integrated biomimicry into its strategic research and development roadmap, as well as the energy company RTE and even the real estate developer Icade. The construction sector is a clear illustration of where the transformative potential of biomimicry, which contributes to the emergence of regenerative buildings that produce positive impacts in their environment, is being applied. It is a radically new way of thinking about the city of tomorrow.
Biomimicry (...) is based on the belief that the right solutions exist, and are already present, in nature.
What does the concept of a regenerative business mean for Interface?
É. R.: Biomimicry supports the company’s eco-responsible approach beyond product design, on a systemic scale. In partnership with Biomimicry 3.8, we have been developing the “Factory as a Forest” (FaaF) methodology since 2016, which echoes this question: “How do we make our company function like a forest?”.
The idea is to go beyond “zero impact” to create factories that generate positive impacts in the ecosystems where they are located. Indices relating to carbon, water, soil, temperature, biodiversity, etc. have been defined for our plant in LaGrange, Georgia, and implemented to analyse the differences between ecological performance and that of the site, and to transform how it works. The water filtration system, for example, must be able to filter as much water as nature would. The ambition is also to use carbon as a raw material in the industrial process, like plants with photosynthesis.
FaaF is a long-term project that we will gradually roll out in our other factories around the world. The new industrial revolution will bring an industry that creates environmental value
and biomimicry is a major tool.
Interview by Catherine Véglio, economics journalist.
- 1 Carpet tiles, LVT vinyls, rubber floors.
- 2 Interface reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in its factories by 96%, the amount of waste sent to landfill for its entire activity by 92%, and water consumption in its facilities by 89% and has achieved 99% renewable energy use at its factories in the United States and Europe.
- 3 Phyllotaxis is the order in which the leaves or twigs are implanted on the stem of a plant, or by extension, the arrangement of the elements of a fruit, a flower, a bud or a flower head. The science that studies these arrangements is also called phyllotaxis.
- 4 Global Biomimetic Technology Market Report - Analysis and Forecast, 2018-2028, BIS Research Institute, 2018.
- 6 BK: Kompetenznetz Biomimetik.
- 7 “Biomimicry, what development levers and prospects for France?”, France Strategy, 2020.
- 8 National Centre for Scientific Research.
- 9 Ecological Transition Agency.