What Is Biomimicry?

Innovation is part of human life, but it’s also an essential part of nature. Evolution and natural selection are the oldest forms of innovation, and they’ve informed an important subfield of science: biomimicry. Biomimicry is the design of products and systems that draw on natural organisms and processes to spark innovation.

While the concept was first coined in the 1950s, an early example of biomimicry was the development of aviation by studying and imitating birds. Another well-known example of biomimicry is the invention of Velcro. A Swiss engineer studied how thistle burrs stuck to his clothes and designed Velcro according to how nature had designed thistle burrs.

There are many other nature-inspired innovations across all kinds of products and systems from vehicles and electronic gadgets to clothing and household appliances. However, “we human beings, who have been trying to make things for only the blink of an evolutionary eye, have a lot to learn from the long processes of natural selection, whether it’s how to make a wing more aerodynamic or a city more resilient or an electronic display more vibrant,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.

The term “biomimicry” was originally popularized by Janine Benyus, who wrote a book titled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997. She then co-founded the world’s first bio-inspired consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8, as well as the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit dedicated to making biology a natural part of the design process. She has won countless awards and accolades for her work in bringing biomimicry into public awareness. In an interview with the Center For Biologically Inspired Design, Benyus explains the concept at length:

“Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems… The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers… After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”

Examples of biomimicry are in all parts of human life. The tree-climbing robot Treebot imitates the way an inchworm crawls up a tree trunk. The beak of a kingfisher inspired the redesign of the front of Japanese bullet trains to make it more aerodynamic and faster while using less electricity. A shark’s skin has the remarkable ability to fend off microorganisms—a feature imitated by the U.S. Navy when it developed new hull coatings to inhibit marine growth on ships. Hospitals also use biomimetic sharkskin film to combat cross-contamination. And the rough fins of a Humpback whale, which enable propulsion, served as the foundation of wind turbine innovation.

Who Employs Biomimicry Specialists and Professionals?

Biomimicry specialists and professionals often work as product designers, packaging designers, building designers, and sustainability-focused engineers. Others are inventors and start their own companies.

Because the science of biomimicry is not yet fully established, it is often placed under the umbrella of environmental science. Biomimicry is also considered “green”—as in green jobs or green products—and is closely related to sustainability, as it has the ultimate goal of imitating nature.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not currently have data on biomimicry specialists but does predict an above-average increase in opportunities for environmental scientists and specialists. The BLS (2017) projects an 11 percent growth in job openings across the U.S. between 2016 and 2026. Applicants typically need a bachelor’s degree in natural science or another science-related field for most entry-level jobs in environmental science.

Potential employers of professionals trained in biomimicry include local, state, and federal regulatory agencies; agricultural companies; construction companies; consulting and legal firms; manufacturers; and waste management firms.

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Featured Professors in Biomimicry

Dr. Dayna Baumeister is the co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8. She also designed the world’s first certified biomimicry professional program in partnership with Arizona State University. With more than 20 years experience in the field, she has helped more than 100 companies consult the natural world for sustainable designs including Nike, Interface, General Mills, Boeing, Herman-Miller, Kohler, Seventh Generation, and Procter & Gamble. Dr. Baumeister is a professor at ASU and the co-director of ASU’s biomimicry center. She is also the senior editor of Biomimicry Resource Handbook: A Seed Bank of Knowledge and Best Practices.

Denise DeLuca is the director of the sustainable design program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She co-founded Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative change-agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. She also consults for Swedish Biomimetics 3000 and was previously outreach director for Biomimicry 3.8. She has a master’s in civil and environmental engineering and an an advanced certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED-AP).

Where is Biomimicry Taught?

Biomimicry is a fast-growing field, and there are a couple of universities and other organizations offering biomimicry training and degrees.

Biomimicry 3.8

The education partner of the Biomimicry Institute, Biomimicry 3.8, offers two online courses for those interested in an introduction to biomimicry. The first course, biomimicry basics, is a four-hour self-paced course in which students learn what biomimicry is and how it can be used to generate ideas to solve human problems. The second course, introduction to biomimicry, is an online foundational course in the core philosophy and key elements of biomimicry. Neither of these courses is eligible for college credit and does not confer credentials on those who complete them.

  • Accreditation: Green Business Certification (GBCI), Living Future Accreditation (LFA)
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $65 to $150
  • Program length: Three to four hours

Arizona State University

Students in ASU’s groundbreaking master’s in biomimicry program learn how to apply biomimicry principles across corporate, government, education, and nongovernment organization sectors. All coursework is delivered completely online and in conjunction with Biomimicry 3.8—the internationally recognized leaders in the field. The master’s program is designed as an expansion on ASU’s online graduate certificate in biomimicry, where 13 of the 15 credits associated with the certificate program can be applied toward the master’s degree. Graduates of the master’s program learn how to implement biomimicry across a variety of applications, create a biomimicry consulting practice, incorporate biomimicry into education, and develop innovative and sustainable solutions to global challenges. The degree requirements include 30 credit-hours and a portfolio of at least three practicum courses.

  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $750 per credit
  • Program length: 30 credits

Arizona State University & Biomimicry 3.8

Outside of the two options above, Arizona State University and Biomimicry 3.8 offer a third option for biomimicry specialists. The certified biomimicry professional (BPro) program is a renowned, one-of-a-kind program that combines ASU’s online biomimicry master’s degree and six in-person immersion sessions. The part-time program is accessible to working professionals and designed for those interested in leveraging concepts that have evolved from nature over the last 3.8 billion years to create innovative and sustainable solutions to the most pressing global challenges. Applicants must have graduated or successfully been admitted to the master’s program through ASU Online.

  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Format: Online and in-person
  • Tuition: $41,550
  • Program length: Two years

Minneapolis College of Art and Design

MCAD offers an online master’s degree in sustainable design, a field which is influenced by biomimicry. Students complete 30 credit-hours and a sustainability-based project to earn their degree. The program provides an introduction to biomimicry, systems thinking, and life cycle analysis, as well as theory, practice, and leadership courses for a holistic and hands-on training and experience. Students learn how to implement sustainable practices and explore innovative sustainable design techniques. Potential careers for graduates of this program include green building and construction designer, green business marketer, eco-fashion designer, sustainable graphic product and packaging designer, and sustainability-focused engineer.

  • Accreditation: The National Association of Schools of Art and Design and Higher Learning Commission
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $855 per credit
  • Program length: Five semesters

Outside of the dedicated programs mentioned above, there are many other degrees that incorporate biomimicry principles, often as part of environmental science programs. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Master’s in land resources and environmental sciences at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Coursework is available on-campus and online.
  • Master’s in ecological restoration at the University of Florida. Coursework is available online.
  • Master’s in management and organization with a specialization in sustainability at the University of Colorado in Denver, Colorado. Coursework is available online, on-campus, or as a hybrid of online and on-campus.
  • Master’s in sustainable management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Coursework is available online only.
  • Master’s in geographic information systems for sustainability management at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Coursework is available online.

Complete information on curriculum, tuition, and accreditation can be found on each institution’s website.