SUSTAINING GONDWANA ISSUE 3 ● AUGUST 2007
Working Paper Series
ISSUE 3 ● AUGUST 2007
The theory and practice of
ALCOA FOUNDATION’S CONSERVATION AND SUSTAINABILITY FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM
ALCOA FOUNDATION’S CONSERVATION AND SUSTAINABILITY
DR ALAN MARSHALL
Working Paper Series
ISSUE 3● AUGUST 2007
BIOMIMICRY IS THE PRACTICE OF MIMICKING NATURE IN ORDER TO IMAGINE AND
DESIGN NEW TECHNOLOGIES. BIOMIMICRY ASSUMES THAT NATURE IS CREATIVE BY
NECESSITY AND THAT OVER EONS OF TIME--SOME 4 BILLION YEARS -- IT HAS EVOLVED
SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS TO MANY OF THE RESOURCE AND POLLUTION PROBLEMS
WE HUMANS ARE GRAPPLING WITH NOW. THUS, NATURE CAN SERVE AS AN
IMPORTANT MENTOR AS WE ADDRESS THESE PROBLEMS. IN THIS PUBLICATION, THE
THEORY BEHIND THE REFINED CONCEPT OF ECOMIMICRY IS EXPLAINED.
THE AIM OF THE PROJECT ON WHICH THIS PUBLICATION IS BASED IS TO INITIATE A
PROGRAMME OF ECOMIMICRY WITHIN THE SOUTH COAST OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA BY
IMAGINATIVELY DRAWING TOGETHER THE KNOWLEDGE OF LOCAL COMMUNITY
MEMBERS. SOME OF THE PRELIMINARY IDEAS FOR ECOMIMICRY-INSPIRED
INNOVATIONS ARE PRESENTED IN ORDER TO PROVIDE A FORETASTE OF THE BOOK
THAT WILL ULTIMATELY BE WRITTEN, WHICH IS PROVISIONALLY TITLED ‘DESIGN
Dr Alan Marshall is interested in science and society. He completed the
first year of his Fellowship at Curtin in 2006, and has taken a one-year
interlude to work at Presou University, near the Slovakian part of the
Carpathian Mountain Range, where he is conducting research and teaching
about ecomimicry. He will return to Curtin University in 2008.
Series Editors: Professor Jonathan Majer & Professor Daniela Stehlik
Innovation has many sources of inspiration. One source is Nature. Before
Leonardo da Vinci was leaving hidden codes in his paintings he was crafting flying
machines based upon observations of birds and bats (Laurenza, Tadei & Zenon
In recent decades there has been an attempted formalization of what we can
call ‘bio-inspired design’; design inspired by living Nature. This formalization has
proceeded from a field called bionics, through a field called biomimetics to a latest
incarnation known as biomimicry. These forms of bio-inspired design may be
chronologised in the following way:
Bionics is a term invented by Jack Steele of the US Air Force in 1960 at a
meeting at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, to describe the
prospective field involving copying, imitating and learning from Nature. Since then the
term in English has become focused upon mimicking human tissues and organs for
biomedical purposes (thus it might be thought contiguous with biomechanical
engineering). There are numerous bionics departments around the world’s schools of
engineering or medicine.
Biomimetics is a term that was coined by American inventor Otto Schmitt to
cover all aspects of bio-inspired design but the way it is applied by practitioners tends
still to be in hardware sciences such as bioengineering and biomaterials. It is also
used by various bio-designers as an enveloping term that would sufficiently cover
bionics, robotics, animatronics and bio-inspired computing. There are a number of
Centers of Biomimetics at universities in the English speaking world, including NYU,
Duke University, Georgia Technical University and the Universities of Bath and
Biomimicry is a catch-all phrase coined by Janine Benyus in the 1990s that
would cover the terms biomimetics and bionics. Benyus has environmental
sympathies that imbue the concept with a Green tinge. So far, no ‘Department of
Biomimicry’ exists but there is a Biomimicry Institute in Montana that offers
workshops and coordinates some biomimicry practice. It might be noted that many
practitioners see biomimicry and biomimetics as synonymous.
This paper seeks to describe yet another incarnation of bio-inspired design,
one that draws upon biomimicry but fashions it anew with the spirit of environmental
conservation and community participation. It might be defined like this:
Ecomimicry is the practice of designing socially responsive and environmental
responsible technologies for a particular locale based upon the characteristics of
animals, plants and ecosystems of that locale.
Whether such a form of bio-inspired design is unique and sustainable, or even
possible or meaningful, is currently under study within the Sustaining Gondwana
initiative. In the autumn of 2006, I began the Ecomimicry Project as a Research
Fellow under the auspices of the Sustaining Gondwana initiative in the Department of
Environmental Biology and the Alcoa Research Centre for Stronger Communities at
Curtin University of Technology.
The Sustaining Gondwana initiative has as its area of study the coastal part of
the Great Southern region of Western Australia. The aim of the Ecomimicry Project is
to draw inspiration from the unique ecology of the Great Southern region of Western
Australia in order to design technologies and practices based upon the local wildlife
and the local landscape. This paper reports on work completed to date.
Ecomimicry as an exercise in innovation and design
Ecomimicry is basically a process of innovation. It involves mimicking local
animals and plants (or their ecological settings) to produce innovations that foster
sustainability. Whilst similar to fields variously known as ‘biomimicry’, ‘biomimetics’
and ‘bionics’, it is more careful to draw strength from the local natural history to give
rise to innovations suitable for local applications. The theory is that the animals and
plants native to a particular landscape are very well adapted to utilising the physical
and biotic environment without inflicting inordinate harm upon it; therefore they serve
as the best inspiration for designing technologies and practices that also fit into the
The obvious question for those involved in innovation and/or design would be
‘why do any of this?’ Designers, for example, have been churning out their products
without the need to copy Nature for many hundreds of years, using tools and
traditions with a greater track record than bio-inspiration has yet to offer. To add a
biological reference to the design process in the manner that biomimicry fans
advocate (see below) may well seem a pointless series of extra steps in the
competitive struggle to quickly and efficiently satisfy the Marketplace or the Public
Even when it comes to designing environmentally-friendly goods and
services, designers have in recent years developed tools and traditions such as
environmental auditing, sustainable design, life-cycle analysis etc, all with a point to
bring some sort of eco-friendliness to designed products and services, without
directly copying Nature.
Proponents of biomimicry feel that the structures and functions and
behaviours of the world’s plants and animals represent solid tools and traditions that
have successfully helped organisms cope with their unique environments for
ecologically significant periods of time. It is not waste of time or effort, biomimicry
adherents would suggest, if we are able to give rise to novel and/or sustainable
Ecomimicry as an environmental exercise
Proponents of biomimicry believe the extant animals and plants of the world
have not only survived through supremely good design but they have largely
managed to integrate themselves into a wider environment without destroying it. If
humans somehow mimic these patterns of ecological integration as we design new
technologies, then we may have a better chance of making the technologies
sustainable. Thus, the process of biomimicry is said to be capable of achieving two
things in tandem:
• It will enable humans to avail themselves of some really novel
• It will provide these really novel technologies in an inherently
Whilst the most popular work on biomimicry, Benyus (1998), comes across
quite strong about the eco-friendly nature of biomimicry, this is not always how the
practice of biomimicry unfolds. For instance, if we take a short trip through some
recent research projects in biomimicry, we find projects devoted to:
• Designing undetectable surveillance cameras based on the
compounds of insect eyes (Duparre & Wippermann 2006; Toko 2005);
• Emulating biological molecules, such as DNA, to create industrial
nanomachines (Bar-Cohen 2006; Lerner 2000; Martin 2006);
• Exploring other planets with spacecraft inspired by insects, spiders
and worms (Ayre 2004; Thakoor 1999);
• Inventing new military technologies based on all kinds animals and
plants (Forbes 2003; Butler 2005); and
• Fashioning new consumer bio-inspired products, from bionic
automobiles (Mercedes Benz 2005) to genetically-engineered fibres
(Teule, Aube, Ellison & Abbott 2004).
Without exploring the possible merits and demerits of such biomimetic
technologies, as listed above for one or other sector of the economy, it is still hard to
see them as any where near environmentally friendly.
None of these projects have pronounced sustainability credentials. Some
probably involve expanded ecological footprints and others a high degree of
environmental risk. It is also noteworthy that the prime funders of large-scale
biomimicry research are tending to be the defense industry, along with various large
corporations. What this suggests is that biomimicry may indeed be a profitable way to
render Nature’s secrets available for human use but it is a tool with as much capacity
for environmental harm as for eco-friendliness.
Given all this, it might be thought that biomimcry is but another form of Green
Wash. After all, doing things as Nature does them, does add a veneer of Green in the
minds of clients and consumers. According to Vincent (2000:1), if you “tell someone
that an idea comes from Nature, you’re halfway toward selling it”.
Benyus, perhaps one of the most eco-sympathetic voices in biomimicry, is also
attempting to publicize the notion of ‘giving thanks’ to organisms that serve to inspire
human innovations (Benyus 1998). She encourages those organizations that have
benefited from mimicking Nature to devote some of their profits to conserving the
piece of Nature that inspired the technology. This approach can be criticized as a
tokenistic, end-of-pipe solution to the systemic problem of wilderness destruction
rather than a systematic re-arrangement of industrial practice.
The purpose of the ecomimicry concept, in regard to all of these points, is to
clearly round out a principle of bio-inspiration, whereby the sustainability factor is
explicit. I propose the ecomimicry label to apply only to those forms of bio-inspiration
which are outwardly environmental.
When judging what is or is not ‘environmental’ as one contemplates
ecomimicry designs, numerous established indicators may be referred to. A number
of biomimicry proponents have advanced some which are potentially relevant, and in
this project the designs produced are stacked up against the principles espoused by
scholars such as Janine Benyus (1998). It is equally possible, though, for other
traditions of environmental evaluation to be relevant, such as Green Accounting and
Technology Design Assessment (see, for example, Dorf 2001).
Ecomimicry as a political exercise
As various commentators have noted, Markets encourage innovation but they
do not necessarily ensure the public interest. Those authorities charged with
ensuring innovation to please the Market might also be said to be serving Market
needs and not those of the Public, by sponsoring commercialisable products rather
than socially and environmentally responsible ones (and measuring their success or
failure in purely commercial terms). Ecomimicry does not preclude the possibility that
Market needs, Government goals, and social needs are always mismatched.
However, in line with many social critiques of technology (Winner 1986), it is wary
that the Markets (or experts working for governments) can provide for the rise of
democratically chosen technologies that suit the needs and desires of people and
their local physical and social context.
A fundamental political tenet of ecomimicry, and one that harks back to the
principles of localism, might be that the design of technology needs to have
community input in someway. When it comes to the implementation of a major new
technology for instance, I believe that the local community should be consulted about
the process from the very beginning and then included in the actual decision-making
and design process.
Usually, the first possibility for the public to react to a technological innovation
is when they are forced to adjust to its introduction by a private or public service
provider. By this time, the technology has been decided upon, researched,
developed, and mass produced. The technology will be bound to create winners and
losers of various community members, altering their work or personal lives or
challenging their values in some way or another. Most of the winners from a
technological project would like us to be philosophical about technological change,
accepting it as inevitable and suggesting that it offers new opportunities for all. The
losers, however, would steadfastly class the change as disruptive, divisive or
demeaning. Realizing the impossibility of community members to approve or veto
most technological decisions, ecomimicry would encourage far earlier involvement
with technological innovations to the point where people become the designers of
what they perceive to be their own technological needs. In this way, even if their
designs will not be built, they will gain social and ecological tools that help them learn
about their environment and they will engage in deconstructing the necessity and
assumptions of current technologies before going on to develop skills in envisaging
technologies. In this way, they will be far less likely to be the passive losers in any
Ecomimicry would also encourage a broadening of the concept of innovation
beyond commerciality and mass-produced goods. A difference between ecomimicry
and biomimcry thus lies in their different positions regarding the ‘Market’. Biomimicry
proponents would work to identify a ‘target market’, whereas ecomimicry proponents
would comprise the target market itself. As well as this, ecomimicry allows space for
community members to use design as a playground for exploring alternative futures,
for taking control of technology, and for arresting innovation and design from being
made to conform to profit-motives. By contrast biomimicry:
• May or may not involve eco-friendly technological design;
• Is invented and regulated by experts; and
• Works within the mass market without much democratic input.
Ecomimicry, on the other hand, will operate to be:
• Inherently sustainable from an environmental and social point of view;
• Encouraging of decentralization and localism;
• Democratic when it comes to decision-making over technological
• Understood by all, not just by the experts; and
• Will be sensitive to the need to disperse power rather than to
concentrate it (for the benefit of local people and their environment).
One of the parallel fields in this regard is the appropriate technology movement
(Dorf & Hunter 1978; Hazeltine & Bull 2002) which seeks to utilise local human
knowledge to solve local development needs rather than importing dependence-
creating solutions from elsewhere. All these suggestions work within the social
dimension of design and can be woven into the practice of bio-inspired design in
order to synergistically get the most out of human communities as well as biotic
The introduction of the label ‘ecomimicry’, does not, of course, have to be an
interpreted launch of a grand new philosophy and practice of technology, it may
merely act as a categorization system that delineates between practices of mimicking
Nature that aren’t particularly socially and environmentally responsible (biomimicry)
and practices of mimicking Nature that aim to be environmentally-sensitive and
socially just (ecomimicry). Within the Great Southern, for instance, a number of
established projects might already qualify as being ecomimicry, such as:
• The Gondwana Link project, which seeks to restore the degraded
landscape of South West Western Australia so that it mimics the diversity
and scale of the pre-European landscape (Recher 2004);
• Ongoing research with regards to agro-forestry systems that mimic
natural vegetation systems (Lefroy, Hobbs, O'Connor & Pate 1999);
• Permaculture farms in the South West of Australia such as the
Rosneath Eco-Village; and
• Ian Weir’s eco-architectural perspectives South Coast.
Ecomimicry as a philosophical exercise
One might believe imitation to be the greatest compliment. If so, then are we
complimenting Nature when we seek to emulate her? In one way, biomimicry
proponents are paying homage to the ingenuity of Nature; admitting that Nature has
solved some generic physical problems better than human designers have. At the
same time, though, the practice of biomimicry seems to show deep disrespect to
Nature; stealing ideas from Nature” (Vincent 2002) in a manner that borders on
biopiracy (Shiva 1997). If Nature has four billion years of research and development
waiting to be tapped into, as the biomimics like to sloganeer, then do they not
instantaneously objectify the members of the ecological community into mere
resources rather than regarding them as subjects worthy of interaction, care and
Ecomimicry, though, would strive to not only learn from Nature, but also to
respect the intrinsic values of animal and plant species within the process of design.
Thus, if the design is not environmentally-friendly and endangers the existence of
non-human species, it would not be referred to as ecomimicry.
Nature is a big thing, of course; both physically and conceptually. There are
many levels within it that may serve as a basis for bio-inspiration; from the molecular
level, through the organismal level to the ecosystem and biosphere levels. There is
also a lot going on in Nature: birth, death, sex, cooperation, competition, parasitism,
predation, scavenging, nurturing and care, movement and mechanics, cycling and
recycling, growth and decay etc. Some of these processes appear quite amazing
and wonderful to us humans, some of it wasteful and cruel. Philosophical reflection
upon the great diversity of processes in Nature might lead one to regard it as so
riddled with self-contradictory diversity that it is impossible to extract any general
principles from it. For all the examples we may give where Nature seems dynamic
and regenerative, for instance, there are plenty of examples that show it to be
sluggish and degenerative.
Despite the amazing diversity of nature, Benyus (1998) believes it is important
for biomimics to take account of certain basic laws of Nature when they engage in
the practice of biomimicry. For her, there are nine such basic laws:
• Nature runs on sunlight;
• Nature uses only the energy it needs;
• Nature fits form to function;
• Nature recycles everything (finding a use for all wastes);
• Nature rewards cooperation;
• Nature banks on diversity;
• Nature demands local expertise;
• Nature curbs excesses from within; and
• Nature taps the power of limits.
If ecomimicry is sympathetic to the idea of respecting natural laws, then it still
would be prudent to reflect upon the fact that critics from a positivist slant (whereby it
is held that true knowledge about Nature is obtainable if you use the correct
approach) would surely like to point out that all these basic laws of Nature are broken
by Nature herself. For instance, with regards to the seventh law above, there are
generalist organisms that rove around wildly different geographic regions with no
great adaptations to local situations, yet they still thrive. Similarly with regard to the
first law, some organisms deep in the ocean feed within ecosystems totally removed
from the impact of solar radiation. From this point of view, there may be a problem in
practicing biomimicry based on any ‘basic law of Nature’, since what is or isn’t a
‘basic law of Nature’ is entirely contestable. Nature, at least biological Nature, is just
too diverse to be generalizable into laws.
Critics from a constructionist slant (whereby the secrets of Nature are believed
to be constructed by humans rather than revealed by them) would suggest that these
‘Laws of Nature’ have been projected on to Nature by Benyus because she feels they
reflect worthy or workable goals and values (from both a technical and philosophical
perspective). Other biomimics--in a project to strengthen the focus of biomimicry--
have also engaged in relating what they see as basic ‘laws of Nature’ worth
mimicking; Stach (2004) indicating “self-organisation is the defining principle of
Nature”, for example, and Faludi (2005) and Zhang, Yokoi & Zhao (2006) indicating
that fractal organization and self-assembly are ‘General Principles in Nature’. Various
constructionist reactions to these proffered “laws of Nature” offered by biomimics
• Don’t trust the ‘laws of nature’ espoused by biomimics and ecomimics
since they are filtered through the values and politics of those that
espouse them and so are mere delusions;
• Don’t trust the laws of Nature espoused by biomimics and ecomimics
since they are filtered through the values and politics of those that
espouse them and may well be ideologically distasteful (the ideological
danger of naturalistic mimicking can be observed, for instance, when
proponents of biomimicry, like Rothschild (1990) say that the functioning
of ecosystems prove that liberal capitalism is the natural--and best--form
of human social organisation); or
• Interpret the ‘laws of nature’ espoused by biomimics and ecomimics
with a grain of salt as myths and metaphors that serve some purpose but
judge them by that purpose and by the politics and values they espouse
rather than their claimed authority from Nature. From this perspective,
although we know that the laws of Nature are myths and metaphors, they
might actually work to make the world a better place if the values within
them complement social and ecological welfare.
If you approach bio- or ecomimicry from a positivist slant, believing at least
some of our human knowledge about Nature reflects true reality, then at some point
you are going to have to wrestle with what Nature actually is. In our professional
lives, scientists, technologists, designers and philosophers struggle to codify the term
‘Nature’. Depending on what particular rhetorical struggle we might be engaged with
at any one moment:
• Nature may be everything that is, excluding humans or God;
• Nature may be everything that ever is, including humans and God;
• Nature may be everything that didn’t come about by human artifice.
So human bodies may indeed be natural but the things we make with our
hands and minds (in response to various forces) are artificial.
Mapped on top of this, we also have ideas that Nature may be discrete living
things (bugs, birches, birds and buffalo, for instance) or discrete non-living things
(rocks, rivers, rain etc). Nature may also be indiscrete processes (evolution, self-
generation, self-assembly, homeostasis, natural selection, etc).
Given the diverse categories of things that are natural, and given the diverse
principles that we ascribe to Nature, it is likely we act both in accordance with Nature
and against it at the same moment. Thus, we might be said to be mimicking Nature
when we share resources in a cooperative manner since this is what various parts of
Nature happen to do (penguins form social crèches to take care of their young,
bacteria cooperate symbiotically with trees to provide nitrogen etc). Also, though, we
might be said to be mimicking Nature when we fight and compete for resources
(since parts of Nature are said to be ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’).
Given this, there is ample space for intellectual contest over what Nature is
trying to teach us. Philosophers have often resorted to the ‘is-ought’ problem (Schulz
1997) when reflecting on these tensions (stating that what ‘ought’ to be done does
not logically follow from what ‘is’ in Life or Nature) but biomimicry proponents do not
have this luxury since they are advocating that what ‘is’ in Life or Nature ought to be
mimicked in the technological and industrial world of humans.
If the concept ‘Nature’ is slippery within the field of biomimicry then so is the
concept of ‘mimicry’. Mimicry means imitating something but biomimics admit that
their not really involved in imitation per se but in emulation. Thus what we are doing
is not copying but gaining insights that might be of use. Benyus, would sum it up by
saying that Nature should be regarded as our teacher. By this reckoning, Nature can
guide us toward developing our own solutions.
When contemplating Nature as a teacher, it soon becomes clear that Nature
can be thought of as a teacher in two main ways:
• As a teacher of values and morals (in which case we can be guided by
Nature in what Rolston (1979) says is in an ‘imitative ethical sense’); and
• As a technical advisor (in which we follow nature in what Rolston
(1979) suggests is in a ‘tutorial’ manner).
Most biomimics would probably want to suggest that the technical part is the
main preserve of biomimicry and this might well apply to Janine Benyus as well. For
all her talk of Nature’s wisdom, and the need to respect it, she spends most of her
Biomimicry book remarking upon the need for humans to adopt the amazing
‘technologies of Nature’.
According to a number of workers on the social studies of both Nature
(Mirowski 1994; Horigan 1988; Marshall 2002) and technology (Winner 1986; Mayr
1986; Mitcham 1994), it is nigh on impossible to have:
• stories about Nature without values embedded in them; or
• technologies without values embedded in them.
This means that the practice of biomimicry would have a double-set of values
as it goes about its bio-inspired designs. On this score, also, any biomimicked
product that is said to mimic a certain natural phenomena or object will necessarily
be replete with two (and probably more) sets of values.
Technical advice gleaned from Nature will contain a cocktail of undeclared
values. The exact mix of values for any biomimicked technology will probably be
unique to that technology and require intensive study to identify. Cursory examples
might include the following three suggestions:
Permaculture is a form of biomimicry that mimics natural ecosystems for
agricultural purposes. It is thus a riddled with a whole bunch of values related to
challenging industrial farming, celebrating local resource use, and the promotion of
better eating, communalism and stepping lightly on the environment. The
permaculturalists have a whole litany of philosophical principles that they believe
accompany the practice of permaculture (see Holmgren 2002 and Hemenway 2001)
from preserving natural balance to intergenerational ethics.
Space biomimicry is a field that attempts to learn techniques from animals
and plants that will be useful in space projects (Ayre 2004; Siochi, Anders, Cox,
Jegley, Fox, & Katzberg 2002). The values within such research, of which NASA
and the European Space Agency are key sponsors, imply that space
development and colonisation is a good thing and that public investment in big
science projects (with minimal social return) is a worthy way to spend tax-payer
Industrial Ecology is a form of biomimicry that tries to mimic natural
ecosystems in an industrial setting. The idea is to mimic the processes going on in
Nature, for instance, recycling of waste materials. The values of such an ambitious
project reflect the idea that industrialism can, and ought to be, made more eco-
friendly, and that technical expertise in translating (either figuratively or literally) the
patterns of ecosystems is the way to do this. Since the precise notion of Nature that
industrial ecologists use is a ‘system’, the goal of preserving the ‘system’ rather than
its members (be they species or people) is the implicit result.
Because ecomimicry acknowledges the social background of present
technology far more than biomimicry, it may well be in a better philosophical position
to acknowledge the way values and morals impinge on all designed technologies and
so will be more reflective about the way values infiltrate its own design process.
Ecomimicry as a method of innovation
One of the ways to show the distinctions between biomimicry and ecomimicry
is to layout a summary of the respective methodologies (acknowledging that both of
these can be considered ‘works-in-progress’).
The biomimicry strategy of innovation might be summarised as follows (from
Biomimicry Guild 2007):
• Develop a design brief of the human/market need (in consultation with
• ‘Biologize’ the question; identify nature’s solutions (in consultation with
biologists and specialists in the field);
• Develop ideas and solutions based on the natural models;
• Evaluate according to sustainability criteria (including via Janine
Benyus and the ‘nine Basic Laws of nature”).
This method of innovation is actually quite traditional (except for the fact that
biological inspiration is involved) since it relies on experts and it places great
emphases on a perceived Market need (or regulated Market requirements) rather
than the specialised needs of local areas. The above strategy is also to be
implemented by a new breed of expert; what Benyus calls bio-design experts
(biologists with design training or designers with biological training). None of this is to
say that the above is not effective, it just that it may be more effective in contributing
to status quo product design and to environmental modernisation than to helping
people and saving the environment.
Conversely, the ecomimicry strategy of innovation would be this:
• Invite community members to become involved in design projects
whether they are experts or not;
• Define social, economic and environmental needs of a particular
locale with or through these community members;
• As individuals or in groups, encourage the members to get to know
their local animals and plants and to identify the strategies these animals
and plants have which help them solve problems in their lifeworlds;
• As individuals or in groups, develop ideas and solutions based upon
the natural models and then judge them against both social and
This strategy is at once informed by biomimicry but also breaks out of the
traditional design mode. First of all, it down-plays the all-encompassing significance
of experts; preferring to encourage design from below. A variation would be to
include experts in design, conservation and biology as consultants at the various
stages of the process.
Preliminary Designs of the Ecomimicry Project
The Ecomimicry Project seeks to design ecofriendly technologies based upon
inspirations gleaned from the natural history of the Great Southern. It is an
international project focused upon the unique flora and fauna of the southern
After conducting workshops in the Albany campus of the University of Western
Australia, the Albany office of the Alcoa Research Centre for Stronger Communities
and the Curtin University of Technology main campus in Perth, a series of designs
emerged both from groups and from individuals. By the time the project is finished it
is hoped that many more designs will be developed and finalised. These designs will
be presented in a colour book of some 150-200 pages which has the working title
Design Running Wild. As befitting the discipline of Design, the book will be a
‘Creative Production’ as far as categories of Curtin University Technology outputs are
Recently, as well, the Project has expanded into another study area. The
author has been awarded a fellowship to teach and research ecomimicry at the
Faculty of Humanities and Natural Sciences at the University of Presov in Slovakia.
This fellowship will enable the author to repeat the work done in Western Australia in
the geographical area of the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe during 2007. If
successful, the designs that emerge from this study area will also be included in the
Basically, Design Running Wild will be a ‘design book’, with copious drawings
of design ideas, as well as photographs and information about the animals and plants
which inspired the designs. With the help of the designers, and with assistance from
ecologists and conservationists of the Great Southern and the Carpathian Mountains,
the author of this paper will edit and compose the layout and text of book. The text
will introduce the designs, the animal or plant the design was based upon, and the
reasons why the designs will be of benefit to the people and environment of the
Great Southern or Carpathian Mountains.
It is assumed that the local flora and fauna of the Great Southern or
Carpathian Mountains will serve as the best templates from which to imagine eco-
friendly technologies since it is the local flora and fauna that have adjusted
themselves to fit their specific environments without being overtly destructive.
As well as encouraging ecomimicry projects in other regions of the world, it is
also hoped that the finished book will highlight the unique flora and fauna of the
Great Southern and Carpathian Mountains to conservationists worldwide.
For the remainder of this working paper, a collection of sample pages of
provisional designs (as well as an introduction to ecomimicry) is attached. The layout
is the provisional layout as planned for the final book. The designs, too, are
provisional and much of their technical and theoretical background is still being
developed. At the moment, only Great Southern designs are represented, since the
Carpathian Mountains part of the project has not commenced.
THE ECOMIMICRY PROJECT
Nature is an immense
thing, both conceptually and
spatially. While there may
be some universal
processes that affect all
living things, many animals
and plants have evolved
highly specific solutions to
their local environmental
The Ecomimicry Project is an experiment in innovation.
The hypothesis is that Nature may serve as inspiration for eco-
friendly design. Animals and plants in the natural world have had
to invent all sorts of solutions to the physical and environmental
problems they have faced. Given the great diversity of these
solutions and the millions of years over which they have been
perfected, it is quite probable that there is an abundance of clever
ideas out there just waiting to be tapped into.
An important part of ecomimicry is to consider the flora and
fauna of local settings as the bases of innovations since the local
biota will be best adapted to the local physical limits. If
innovations are to be eco-friendly and sustainable then inspiration
from local species is likely to be most fruitful.
The Ecomimicry Project works creatively with the
knowledge of designers, biologists and conservationists, as well
as interested members of the local community, to draw up
designs and ideas that might foster sustainability in the Great
Southern region. This publication exhibits many of the designs
that emerged in this project. It is a publication that serves as a
manifesto and a prospectus. It is a manifesto for designing
products, technological systems and artworks in an alternative
way and it is a prospectus to offer up the designs for further
collaboration and development.
THE ECOMIMICRY PROJECT
Design Running Wild
LOCAL PROJECT, A GLOBAL
Despite drawing design ideas
from the local ecology, when it
comes to human communities, the
project has both a global element
and a local element. The former
involves worldwide submissions of
bio-inspired designs based on the
wildlife and landscapes of the
Great Southern. The local element
involves gathering together
interested members of the Great
Southern together into a design
workshop to do the same. The
project is also being expanded to
include another study area; the
Carpathian Mountains of Eastern
A Descendent of Biomimicry:
The concept of ecomimicry presented here is
descended from the concept of biomimicry (as developed
by the likes of Janine Benyus1 and Steve Vogel2)
Ecomimicry, though, is more careful to imagine solutions
that serve the local environment and local community rather
than the global marketplace.
The term Ecomimicry alludes to ecofriendliness in
design whilst also suggesting that the interactive ecology of
nature should inspire design ideas rather than just one
organism. This project does not require strict adherence to
the second of these aspects and even the first can be
interpreted in an imaginative way.
1. Janine Benyus, 1998, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,
2. Vogel, Steve, 1988, Life’s Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants,
Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
Cane toads (Bufo marinus) were introduced to Queensland, an eastern
Australian state, in the 1930s to control pest insects in the sugar cane fields.
Since then they have bred excessively and expanded their range westwards to
become a major pest. Soon, it is likely they will make headway into Western
Australia. Cane toads bid their destruction by eating and being eaten. They
predate upon useful insects (like honey bees and dung beetles) and they
themselves get predated upon by Australian vertebrates, an act which more often
than not poisons their attacker. Snakes, lizards, crocodiles, birds and domestic
dogs, have all succumbed to poison as they have attempted to eat cane toads.
The Cephatoad Trap design is based on the features of Cephalotus
follicularis, also known as the Albany Pitcher Plant. The plant is carnivorous,
gaining essential nutrients from ants and other small insects that get trapped in its
pitcher. It works by luring the insects with sweet smelling nectar. The insects
cannot escape due to the smooth walls and jagged lip so they soon drown and
dissolve within the fluid filled pitcher.
The Cephatoad trap works in much the same way except on a larger scale.
The toads are lured to the trap by insects hovering around a light source. If they
venture too near the slippery precipice, they fall into a subterranean pitcher and
dissolve in the natural enzymes contained therein.
The Cephatoad Trap
Designers: Jessica Rodici, Cathy Groso, Rosanna Douglas, Emil Roskoszny
The Denmark Wildlife Museum
Designers: Scott Wong, Valentina Ponomariova, John McSweeney
The Denmark Wildlife Museum aims to educate people about
conservation of the Great Southern’s flora and fauna. The museum, raised
from the ground to avoid disrupting the land, allows people to not only
learn from the displays inside but also by observing nature from the
observation point on the second floor. The roof, shaped like a Eucalyptus
leaf, collects rainwater for washbasins and bathrooms, whilst also housing
solar panels to collect energy for lighting.
The Toadstool Shelter
Designers: CJ De Silva, Samantha Covarr, and Claire Smith
The toadstool is a mythological home to fairies and pixies in both European
and indigenous Australian culture. The designers of the Toadstool Shelter
play with this idea as they developed a concept for shelter that can be erected
for the protection of human bushwalkers in the Great Southern landscape.
The distinct coloration of the Toadstool Shelter derives from the
hydrogel units embedded in the middle layer of the cap which regularly
extends out through the surface. This layer retains water that falls upon it and
can be extracted for drinking by thirsty bushwalkers. Whilst these drawings
detail a semi-permanent structure, the designers also envision a collapsible
variation to be transportable by bushwalkers; one that folds into a pack-sized
Designer: Nuala O’Donnell
Nuala O’Donnell has been inspired by the patterns and
proportions of Banksia seeds as a starting point for these
sculptures in fibre. According to her, the uniqueness of each
seed type is an exercise in recognising the great diversity of form
in Nature. The variations in natural forms are also a record of
responses to disruptions in the growth cycle. Whilst not overtly
visible, the arid environment of parts of the Great Southern is
reflected in the aesthetics of the sculptures.
The Crustacean Helmet
Designers: Young Kyun Ahn, Ross Connolly, Maja Doslo.
The inspiration for the bicycle helmet comes from the
Marron (Cherox tenuimanus), a freshwater crayfish that is native
to the Great Southern region of Western Australia. One of the
main functions of the Marron’s exoskeleton is to protect its
interior organs. The exoskeleton of the Marron is flexible, and
during the spawning period, the female Marron is able to curl her
tail in on itself to protect her eggs. The Crustacean Helmet
reflects this defensive mechanism as it mimics the Marron’s
flexible, interlocking exoskeleton to conform to the wearer’s
head. Its primary purpose is to protect the wearer from head
injuries. When not worn the wearer has the option of securing the
bicycle helmet to the bicycle tyre for defence against theft.
The Maleefowl Nest Swimming Pool Heating
Designers: Rebecca Millar, Lucy Lane and Damien Smith
This design is inspired by the Mallefowl nest. As the organic
matter decays in the nest, heat is generated. The design outlined
above and below involves the use of organic waste to generate heat.
The compost is composed of human and domestic waste collected
over the summer months. Decomposition is gradually activated with
help from the sun.
The pool requires heating only in
the winter so the organic waste is
collected in the summer and
allowed to reach peak heat
production in the winter. As heat
is produced the volume of
The Internal Fire Protection System
Designers: Emily Durkan, Hannah Gosling, Jessie Nguyen
In this fire protection system, inspired by the woody Kwongan
plants of the Great Southern, an internal fabric system is employed to
cool down the wall structures. When heat and smoke are detected in
combination, the grey water stored in a tank in the roof is gradually
released through the wall cavities, causing the intumescent fabric to
swell. This acts as a barrier to fire and heat. The intumescent fabric is
contained within the wall cavity by mesh and damp-proof membrane.
Excess water passes under the house and is pumped back into the
water tank to be re-circulated. The designers believe the system can
be applied to any wall, provided there is a wall cavity.
The Bookleaf Logo
Designer: Norma Lyons
When registering a business name for her desktop-publishing
business, Norma Lyons decided a native plant was apt given many of
the publications had an ecological theme.
Daviesia cordata - the Bookleaf (so named because of the book-
like formation of bracts enclosing its seed-pods) seemed doubly suited;
not just due to the name but because the way its bracts enclosed the
seed-pods was highly metaphorical of the way books enclosed the
seeds of ideas.
The artwork presented above became the logo for the first book of
poetry published by Bookleaf, drawing on the idea that ecomimicry can
create an ecological aesthetics; i.e., that the beauty of nature’s forms
can be mimicked to celebrate both Art and Nature at the same time.
The Biological Mimicry Installation
Designer: Peta Davies
Just before we designers get too
clever and begin to think humans are
the only ones capable of mimicking
Nature, Peta Davies reminds us in her
installation that Nature has been doing
it a lot longer. The phenomenon of
biological mimicry, where one
organism mimics another, is a familiar
biological phenomenon. Above, for
example is a photograph of a pair of
Tawny Frogmouths who mimic the tree
they are perched upon. In Davies’
installation, she twined papier mache
eucalypt leaves to a real eucalypt tree
to mimic the way nature mimics itself.
Designers: Baneen Khadroo, Aisbath Zana Zubair and Mishant Patel
GREAT SOUTHERN WHALES
The Great Southern coastal waters are a favorite migration route for
myriad whale species, from small species such as the Scamperdown whale,
to the largest such as the Blue whale. Two species whose regular and
predictable appearances draw tourists to the area are the Humpback and the
Southern Right whale. The designers of the Whale Boat below believe they
have perfected a vessel to enjoy these whales, one that combines eco-
efficient fuel consumption, subsurface viewing and stability and safety.
The Heliotropic House
Designer: Alan Marshall
The Heliotropic House mimics sun-tracking plants in order to
maximize collection of solar rays. It’s slightly concave, semi-circular roof
is paneled with solar cells and also channeled with grooves to collect
water. The collected solar energy can be used to power the home and
the collected water is stored in tanks for later use.
The Heliotropic House is suitable for urban areas but may reach its
greatest potential away from city services where energy supply and
water services are deemed too expensive.
The Carbon-Slurping R4
Designer: Barry Patterson
A CARBON SINK CAR?
In a technological world that hopes to mimic nature, the
global warming crises may possibly be ameliorated by algae.
Algae come in all shapes and sizes but collectively they are
responsible for fixing carbon at a greater rate than terrestrial
forests. Barry Patterson has designed the R4, a vehicle that has
a series of water filled algal tubes lining the roof. This acts as an
onboard removable biofiltration unit that will actually take in
The carbon-slurping nature of the R4 is only one of its
climate-saving features. The vehicle is powered by four
renewable forms of energy. When parked, wind-blades shaped
like wind-dispersed seeds, are unfurled to convert the Great
Southern breezes into energy that will be stored in a compact
battery. The second mode of energy involves pedal power, not
to propel the vehicle but to create electricity for the battery. The
third energy source is via the regenerative antilock breaking
system that captures energy from deceleration and puts it back
into the battery. The fourth form of power is solar panels
positioned between the algal strips on the roof.
Designer: Jan Nibbelink, Murray Ellis and Abdul Hafiz Mat Husin
Black Tiger Snake Bushwear
HIKING THROUGH THE BUSH
The Great Southern is a noted area of ecotourism. High on
the list of things to do is to go walking in the Bush. The Bush is
not only beautiful though, it is often rugged and inhabited by
dangerous creatures. The designers of the Black Tiger Snake
Bushwear, for instance, have all been either bitten, cut, stung or
injured in some way by various rocks, plants and animals as they
walked through the Western Australian Bush. For this reason,
they designed a complete body suit, similar to that of a wet suit,
which serves as a light and protective garment against a potential
dangerous physical environment. The suit is covered by small
aluminium scales which mimic the scales of the Black Tiger
Snake, being both flexible and strong.
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The author welcomes discussion about the Ecomimicry Project, the book, the
designs, and the designers contained herein.
The author sends thanks to all seminar participants and to the following
individuals for their help in organising and running the seminars and also:
• Elizabeth Karol, Nancy Spanbroek and Natasha Laurent (Department
of Architecture and Interior Architecture), Jonathan Majer, Richard
Harris and William Parkinson (Department of Environmental Biology),
at Curtin University of Technology;
• Randall Jaspar (University of Western Australia Albany Centre)
Working Paper Series
Issue Author/s Title
Issue No. 1
April 2007 Professor Jonathan Majer &
Dr Servio Pontes Ribeiro Alcoa Foundation Participant Contributes
to Fourth Brazilian
Tree Canopy Course, held in the Atlantic
Issue No. 2
April 2007 Professor Daniela Stehlik Whose sea-change? Some reflections on
transformations in the City of Albany,
Issue No. 3
August 2007 Dr Alan Marshall The theory and practice of ecomimicry.
Issue No. 4
August 2007 Dr Amma Buckley Beyond conceptual elegance: Local
participation and the ‘model’ Fitzgerald
All papers can also be found at www.strongercommunities.curtin.edu.au
Working Paper Series
ISSUE 3 ● AUGUST 2007
Sustaining Gondwana is a strategic initiative of Curtin University of Technology that
has been funded by the Alcoa Foundation’s Conservation and Sustainability
Fellowship Program and by the University. Its aim is to research conservation and
sustainability issues along the south coast of Western Australia, from Walpole to just
east of Esperance. The vegetation and fauna of this area is so diverse that it is
considered to be one of the world’s bio-diversity hotspots. The five year program,
which is connected internationally with other Universities and Sustainability
Institutes, was launched in November 2005.
The initiative is co-ordinated by four cabinet members, professors Daniela Stehlik,
Jonathan Majer, Fiona Haslam McKenzie and Dong-ke Zhang. Six postdoctoral
fellows are being appointed to work on issues related to this region, and their
research will be augmented by activities of the cabinet members themselves as well
as their graduate students. It is anticipated that the findings will be published in
journals, conference proceedings and books. However, there is a need to
communicate early findings, data sets and activities of group members in a timely
manner so that stakeholders can benefit from outputs as soon as they become
available. This is the aim of the Sustaining Gondwana Working Papers Series, which
will be produced on an occasional basis over the life of the initiative.
The papers are not subject to peer review, but are edited by cabinet members in
order to maintain standards and accuracy. Contributions from researchers and
practitioners who are active in the region of focus can also be considered for
publication in this series.
ALCOA FOUNDATION’S CONSERVATION AND SUSTAINABILTY PROGRAM
For further information about Sustaining Gondwana or the program Working Paper
Series, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
For the global program see: