Category: Book Reviews

Natural Communicator

Being involved with the development of this first-of-its-kind Biomimicry PhD program and having co-founded two startups, I’ve experienced how challenging communication can be in these fast-paced, quickly evolving environments. Luckily we can learn a lot from the world around us! Although not many other organisms use “verbal” communication like we do, they have developed very intricate and successful strategies to collaborate and co-exist. Continue reading

Lecture on Biomimicry: Reflections

In this blogpost I’ll be sharing some thoughts that arose after giving a guest lecture at Diablo Valley College in California. I was invited by Leo Bersamina, a great artist, teacher, and inspiring person. It’s actually funny how we met; He was sitting next to me on an airplane. We hadn’t exchanged words, but after finishing lunch he was having difficulties putting away his tray table and I thought he could use some help. Our conversation quickly went from talking about airplane tray tables to design, colors, and eventually biomimicry. We stayed in contact and almost a year later he invited me to fly out and give a lecture about biomimicry to a group of undergrads. You never know where a conversation with a complete stranger might lead, but in this case Leo and I ended up sharing amazing life stories, interesting discussion, and I was offered an opportunity I would not have had otherwise. Taking every chance you get to learn from strangers, rather than living in your own asocial ‘virtual world’ of your phone (just now, before posting this post I saw this 4 min video “Look up” which is about this very topic), is something I’ve been actively doing after reading the book “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World”, written by Tina Seeling. A must read (or listen), even for those who aren’t in their 20s anymore! As executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, an entrepreneur, a neuroscientist, and a successful teacher, Tina shares provocative stories and provides inspiring advice, tangible skills and insights that will last a lifetime.


Not only was it my very first lecture, the audience was primarily fine art students. As a biotechnologist, I haven’t had much exposure to fine arts and therefore don’t speak “the language.” But as I prepared the lecture I made new and unexpected connections between structural coloration (see blogpost about my research) and design; I saw how structural colors are very much relevant to the art world. One great artist that inspired me is Franziska Schenk. I met her during the Living Light conference in Namur, Belgium a couple of weeks ago. She is a pioneer in synthetically creating iridescent colors by consulting with experts in the field and using principles she learned from studying mechanisms of coloration in natural organisms. This article is a great read if interested in this topic. Also, I think it is a great example of how bringing two different worlds – science and art – together leads to very innovative applications. This is Biomimicry at its best.

Schermafbeelding 2014-05-03 om 8.09.44 AM

One important challenge was keeping the students engaged throughout the lecture, which was much more technical than they are used to, because I was sharing some scientific research. This, I think, is a typical challenge when talking about biomimicry, as it is best practiced when truly interdisciplinary. This is something people who want to disseminate biomimicry in an inspiring but more than superficial level should be thinking about. Sharing successes and failures will help our community develop a common language and be more intentional about the manner in which we are spreading the biomimicry meme!


Here are my reflections after giving my lecture at Diablo Valley College:

– I kept the technical details to a minimum but didn’t remove them entirely, incorporating a sufficient level so the audience would understand the science…but I could have shared even more visuals. Artists want to see things with their eyes; SEE the world in a different way.

– Leo and I had agreed beforehand that he would jump in at anytime when appropriate. This way he was able to draw connections that I didn’t recognize, since he knows the background of his students. I think this was a great way to keep the students interested, as it made the lecture more interactive.

– Asking questions of your audience helps keep them alert.

– Sharing some personal stories, experiences or interests make it more appealing and easier for them to relate to what you’re talking about. If you can do it, why not them?!

–  I wanted them to do some thinking as well, so I ended the lecture with a short exercise. {I’m wondering if it would have been better to give the exercise somewhere in the middle?}

The exercise was the following:

I told them a short story about being inspired by the purple snail. I gave them its biological strategy: Purple snails float on water surfaces by means of a bubble raft made by its mobile foot, which blows air bubbles and, after enveloping them in mucus, makes a sort of raft that allows them to travel wherever the current and wind takes them. Then I had them work in small groups of five to abstract a dsign principle [emulation] and brainstorm how this principle could inform human design. I asked them to think about the three levels of biomimicry: forms, processes and systems. I reminded them to not consider applications beyond transportation; are there other fields where you could apply this strategy?


Here are some of the coolest ideas that the students came up with after only 10-15 minutes:

–       An inflatable lifejacket for use during emergency situations like a plane crash or a sinking boats; a temporary patch for a flat tire; an emergency landing gear “pillow”
–       The principle could inspire the design of a curtain, creating a veiled layer
–       Gas storage system: e.g. hydroponics for growing plants; oxygen device for deep sea diving

Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

As I read more and more on Biomimicry, Biomimetic Concepts, and continue to use many of the same Biomimicry go-to resources, I wanted to try and branch out from many of the recurring ideas and examples that I’ve heard too many times to count now (no matter how neat and interesting!). For example, most of us reading this blog have heard of the Shinkansen Train in Japan, which was notably inspired by the beak of a Kingfisher bird; or, the more efficient wind turbine blade inspired by the tubercles of a Humpback Whale.

Hence, I set off to find something new. Although incredibly cool, I didn’t want to read about new cockroach inspired robots or Eastgate and Termite Mounds. What I did want to find was something more esoteric to Biomimicry and I happened upon the book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal. I was immediately hooked off the title!   With that said, I was overall disappointed in the book, but only because I was looking at it particularly through my Biomimetic scope and I was thinking nature lessons for a kinder society would extend beyond just Chimpanzees and Bonobos. Ok, so I’ll break this down into pros and cons of the book.

Pros: The book really is a great read (when I’m able to take off my Biomimicry critique glasses). If you like personal anecdotes, then you won’t be disappointed with the perhaps hundreds that are scattered throughout the pages of this book. I learned a lot about the Hominidae family (the Great Apes) and their group behaviour, as well as individual interactions and how they solve problems within their group and amongst themselves.  For instance, chimpanzees often share food with others and those that do, often have a stronger bond, much like a human family. There were also many wonderful examples of cross-species empathic behaviour, such as a dog in Argentina named “La China” whom, with the motherly instinct in full effect after just having her own brood, heard the cries of a human newborn baby in the dumpster, picked up the baby boy, and started nursing it alongside her own puppies.

Cons: “Nature” in this book is limited to the myopic view of the Great Apes, with just a few other Elephant, dog and Dolphin examples. I also found the book to be one anecdote after the other to drive home the notion that animals are “unfeeling” or have no empathy. I understood the point de Waal was making after the first chapter of chimpanzee behavioural anecdotes.

De Waal argues that despite the many disasters we’ve seen, such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, humans are – at their evolutionary core – unselfish. We’ve evolved like many other herd animals to be bred with empathy. There are certainly a few lessons that humans can learn and takeaway from this book, such as, when chimpanzees argue, they immediately embrace and kiss to keep social order. However, there are a few I definitely wouldn’t recommend to have translated over into the human world, such as when Bonobos argue or they encounter high-stress situations, they engage in sex as a way to diffuse tension and settle arguments (regardless of gender). I don’t think humanity as a whole would be able to tolerate that.

The overarching thesis of this book: Animals, especially herding animals, have a high degree of empathy because through evolution, we’re bred to have emotions and social bonding experiences. De Waal states that we’ve evolved to have empathy via emotional contagion (“catching” emotions from those with whom you associate closely), but doesn’t go much further beyond the surface of his hypothesis; It’s more of what we have in common with the other Great Apes than truly what we can learn from them.  Unless you want to read the hundreds of anecdotes, then you have the gist of this book.

List of links about Biomimicry

The first cohort of fellows has been given the great opportunity to do an internship at a design firm, Balance, Inc.., located in Cleveland. Design is an important aspect of biomimicry because it is about finding connections between scientific knowledge and human applications. Looking through a designer’s lens, biomimicry is a great tool for innovation. So this collaboration was put forward with the goals that we (Biomimicry PhD students) would learn how designers work in a setting with real-life challenges, and in return we would bring the designers a different perspective.

I was the first to kick off the series of internships. Time has passed by too quickly; it’s already my last day. I enjoyed spending time surrounded by creative people that all seem to really like their job. A month wasn’t long, but I was able to get a sense of how designers work and how a biomimetic approach differs from a more ‘traditional’ design approach.

Obviously, the biggest difference between a biomimetic approach and a ‘traditional’ design approach is that the biomimic seeks inspiration from nature. After having defined the problem to be solved (i.e. function to be fulfilled) the biomimic starts digging in his or her brain for biological realities he or she has been exposed to that will inspire solutions to the challenge at hand. The ‘traditional’ designer is also digging into his or her memory for design inspiration, but in this initial brainstorming phase I saw a big difference between what a ‘traditional’ designers vs. a biomimic finds inspiring. Ideas the designers at Balance were shouting out were all related to existing products, designs and services that they have encountered in their lives, from impressive working engineering solutions, greatly designed products, to small tools they sell at the local store. I was honestly impressed by products and services they knew about that I couldn’t even imagine existing. On the other hand, very few were thinking about how spider webs or even our own human body could help solve the challenge.

I realized that in both cases, creativity is based on what you already know and highly limited to how you could connect those things together. Limitations of your own imagination can be widely extended by exposing yourself to more fascinating things. The designers at Balance shared many great websites I can use to get inspiration; they told me to go “shopping” to see what crazy things are out there. Well, this is essentially the same manner in which a biomimic could get more exposure to natural inventions. If you don’t have time to go “shopping” in your backyard or on that local trail, the internet is a great source too. I’m not saying you should always use the internet as an alternative to venturing outside, as your brain activity is drastically better after walking outside versus sitting quietly, staring at your computer screen (but we do appreciate you staring at your computer screen to read this).


But the internet is a good source of inspiration when getting outside is not an option.  To make your lives easier, and honestly mine too because writing this post has forced me to compile links gathered through the past years, I made this list of interesting links for reading about biomimicry. I encourage you to visit these links when you want to get inspiration from nature (indirectly!).
Hope this helps to inspire you and motivates you to use nature for solving that challenge on which you are working!

And of course, please feel welcome to share links I haven’t included. The biomimetic community should work together to build upon this list.


–      How does nature….
–      Biomimicry 3.8 – Case Studies:
–      Global access to knowledge about life on Earth:
–      The nexus of science and design in the field of biologically inspired design, using case studies, news and articles:
–      BCI is offering a radical new way of doing business; a way that is both inspired by and in harmony with Nature:
–      Curated by Janine Benyus:
–      This book takes us into the interesting world of biomimetics and describes various arenas where the technology is applied. The 25 chapters covered in this book disclose recent advances and new ideas in promoting the mechanism and applications of biomimetics:
–      The Next Nature Network explores how our technological environment becomes so omnipresent, complex, intimate and autonomous that it becomes a nature of its own: [their theme tap has some good ones]
–      Integrating Ecological design. Their practitioner guide is truly helpful and all-inclusive:
–      Is there a biologist on your team?


–      Best of Biomimicry (2013)
–      Nature knows best: A biologist and a designer take creative direction from the Earth’s operating system
–      Biomimicry – finding design inspiration in nature
–      How Biomimicry Can Help Designers and Architects Find Inspiration To Solve Problems (2012)
–      University of Akron’s research into geckos’ natural stickiness may pay off in companies and products:
–      Aspiring to improve the world by crafting a career in sustainable design:
–      Bringing Biomimicry to market: Impact investing inspired by nature (has great links for books, genius of biome report!):


–      Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature (3 episodes):
–      David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, episode on Biomimicry:
–      PBS NOVA – Making Stuff Wilder (S41E04, Oct. 23 2013):
–      Videos on Animal and plant adaptations and behaviors:
–      Planet Earth:
–      The story of solutions: 


–      The Biomimicry column blog:
–      Digging deeper to understand and apply biomimicry as innovation methodology:
–      Emerging design ideas of biomimicry, critical creativity, sustainability and strategic thinking:
–      A key to good design is a sense of responsibility:
–      The book of the mimicry of the living:
–      Nature + Design for a Sustainable Future:
–      Sprouting sustainable, nature-inspired ideas in Northeast Ohio:


–      Biomimicry Education Network:
–      The Bio-Inspired Design (BID) Community promotes the practical application of bio-inspired design, emphasizing the ‘challenge to biology’ approach:
–      Centre for bioinspiration:
–      The Biomimetics for Innovation and Design Laboratory (affiliated with the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto):
–      BiomimicryNYC is a consortium of individuals from all industries, sectors and backgrounds dedicated to fostering a community of nature-inspired practice in the New York City metro region:
–      The University of Akron Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center:

The Shark’s Paintbrush – The English Version!

When Bill and I were discussing blog posts a couple weeks ago and he mentioned writing about The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and how nature is Inspiring Innovation, I was extremely excited – First to hear that the book was in Mandarin so quickly, but also because this book is quite special to me.  I had known about Janine Benyus’ pinnacle book Biomimicry:  Innovation Inspired by Nature for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Jay Harman’s book that I realized that Biomimicry didn’t have to be just an idea– I, and many others inspired by nature, can actualize these great ideas.  I’ve heard the phrase “Aha moment” quite a bit in Biomimicry (and elsewhere, but for me, seems to be quite prevalent in this niche, perhaps because there are so many great ideas and innovations at such a quick pace).  Reading The Shark’s Paintbrush was a great “Aha Moment” for me in that I realized I had to explore Biomimicry in a more formal way and use it as a tool to improve the destructive environmental trajectory we humans are currently on.

The Shark’s Paintbrush is a fascinating read for just about anyone interested in Biomimicry – from the seasoned scientist to your mother who wants to understand what you’re now up to professionally.  The book encompasses a notable array of fantastic examples sweeping across a wide range of disciplines, whilst peppered with humorous anecdotes of Harman’s personal experiences from working on fishing observation vessels in Australia to openly discussing some of his business failures in the U.S. and most importantly – the lessons learned from those.

I am a big fan of Naomi Klein and upon reading her books, specifically, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, I was left with a sinking, depressive feeling (both highly recommended, by the way – I know I sold those both very well).   The biggest takeaway I received from Naomi Klein’s anti-capitalist, anti-globalization books was this:  Big business and globalization is bad and completely trashes the environment and tramples human rights so that one can buy a $5 shirt at Old Navy.  After reading those some years ago, the notion of “business” left me a bit jaded.  I see businesses extracting and using natural resources, often times to the detriment of the environment and future generations and I want nothing to do with businesses….until I discovered two things:  1.  Corporations are so powerful that they are the ones that have the power to shift mindsets and alter “business-as-usual” and 2. Biomimicry as a tool.

Tom Toro CartoonCartoon by Tom Toro

It was during this time time of revelation for me, whilst reading The Shark’s Paintbrush, that I’m not reading something on the depressing and heavy side of business.  Rather, it’s quite inspiring and left me hopeful that Biomimicry is a great tool for businesses to use, not only to reduce the amount of materials or waste, but also ways to give back to nature.   In reading this book, Harman takes the reader on a trip to various locations meeting different organisms and their amazing functions and abilities along the way.  You’ll also be inspired by the biomimetic product innovations,  as well as corporations that have improved their organizational processes and systems by taking inspiration from nature, and are actively working to integrate nature into their bottom lines.

Happy reading, and if you have any particularly inspiring books to you – let us know!  We’d love to hear!

Biomimicry Book Translated in Traditional Chinese

     shark_EN          大黃蜂飛得比波音747還快_全書封_M

Less than two weeks ago, a new book in Taiwan caught my attention.  Actually, it’s a traditional Chinese translation of a book published in the US last year.  The English title is “The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation”. Continue reading


switch_bookSwitch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard is a book that will change every reader. Chip & Dan Heath, the bestselling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, have a good sense of how to reach their audience and make the lessons stick. While this book is fresh in my mind, I want to share what it has taught me. Here is my summary of the book:

The first fact that shapes the rest of the book: people are bipolar. Yes, you too!
Let’s face it. We all have our rational side that most of times is fighting with our emotional side. Our rational side should win, but our emotional side can be so strong… I really am Bipolar, what now ? No worries, a good balance keeps us going.

The book is divided in three main parts:
– Direct the Rider (How to do the rational thing)
– Motivate the Elephant (Why to do it, speak to the emotional side)
– Shape the Path (How  you get where you want).

The Heaths start with identifying three main obstacles, which make change difficult:
1. What you see as a “People Problem” is actually a “Situation Problem”.
E.g. People will eat more when their plate is bigger. They will eat less when their plates look fuller on a smaller plate.  Although the result is peopling eat less; you didn’t change them, but you changed the situation.

2. Resistance if often a lack of clarity.
E.g. Our company needs to make more profit vs. In 18 months we will get a 10% increase in revenue, by optimizing our energy and waste usage.
In both cases people want to make the change, but they need clear direction to get to a goal.

3. Laziness if often exhaustion.
Refuel a desire for change by asking “why is it important, better, helpful to make a change?”

Knowing what is making change difficult is one thing, but actually making change happen after removing these obstacles is something else. Here is an outline of how you can reach yourself/others and make the essential push.

1. Direct the Rider

  • Follow bright spots: Can you find a successful example in which a similar change worked? What can you learn from the people that made the change?
  • Point the destination: Provide clarity. Set up SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant & Timely.
  • Script the critical moves: How will you get to your goal; what do you need; which steps do you need to take? Take SMALL steps. Instead of putting “Go to the dentist” on your to-do list, start with “Find the phone number of a good dentist.”  Keep it simple – beware of identifying too many options of critical moves because this could result in decision paralysis.

2. Motivate the Elephant

  • Find the feeling: Show why this change is really needed, either by showing the bad that will happen if nothing is done, or showing how things can get better if change does happen.
  • Grow the people: Cultivate a sense of identity. If you make people believe they are innovators, they will act like innovators.
  • Shrink the change: Little steps towards your goal will get the snowball rolling.

3. Shape the Path

  • Build habits: Habits are actions that don’t require a lot of energy (you know you have to brush your teeth twice a day, so you just do it after breakfast and before bedtime). By creating visible and specific action triggers you will create new habits, e.g. keep your gym clothes beside your bed, so that when you wake up you need less courage to go running
  • Tweak the environment: Make the bad thing impossible. Don’t buy chocolate. You have to be in park before you can turn off your car.
  • Rally the herd: Behavior is contagious.

Next time I don’t seem to know how to move forward, I will reflect deeply on the real problem to find an effective way of solving it through change!

Same-change-switchLet me try it on you:
You think, well yeah, sounds like an interesting book, I might read it one day.
Trust me, it really is a good read, and will help you down the road (I’m motivating your elephant!).
Well, you’re just in time to ask for it as a Christmas present, perfect (scripting critical moves!).
You will definitely like it, I promise, it was #1 bestseller chosen by Wall Street Journal and   New York Times (for 47 weeks) and was in top 10 best books by The Globe and Mail, Inc.  Magazine & Washington Post (Rallying your herd!).


reciprocityReciprocity is a cooperative interchange of benefits. There are three types of reciprocity: direct, indirect, and generalized.  The image to the right from helps distinguish them.  Direct reciprocity is a tit-for-tat exchange of benefits by two actors.  Indirect reciprocity occurs when an altruist is rewarded by third parties for behaving generously towards others.  Generalized reciprocity is an anonymous, “pay it forward” model.

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Recommended Reading: The Starfish and the Spider

StarfishAndTheSpider300Just finished a great book by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom titled The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.  Thanks to Sally Parker of GLBio for the recommendation.  I’d suggest anyone interested in social science applications of biomimicry, namely biomimetic business development, give it a read.  A free preview (intro and chapter 1) is available online.

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Janine Benyus visits UAkron

Incredible!  Only one month into our 5-year Biomimicry PhD within the Integrated Biosciences program at UAkron and the three of us have already had the honor of meeting our idol, Janine Benyus, author of the best-selling book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The 1997 book spurred the development of biomimicry as a widely recognized term and research paradigm. In response to overwhelming interest in the subject following the book’s publication, Benyus and her business partners founded the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting company, and the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit which promotes biomimicry education.  In 2010, the two organizations were integrated into a hybrid social enterprise branded Biomimicry 3.8.  The CEO of Biomimicry 3.8, Chris Allen, joined Janine Benyus on her University of Akron visit.

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