Circular Economy + Biomimicry


Today, one is seven people do not have enough to eat while ⅓ of all food produced is wasted (CGIAR). How will we feed nine billion in 2050 without degrading our life-support system? This is the overarching question of the Disruptive Innovations Festival - Biomimicry Challenge 2014. More precisely, the challenge is to use biomimicry to radically improve one aspect (e.g. production, packaging, recovery) of the food system to fit within a circular economy. In this post I will explain the concepts of circular economy and biomimicry and why I think these concepts can be used as important guiding principles for sustainable development.

Looking to Nature for answers
Human-made systems such as markets or cities differ in their current structures and functions from natural system such as ecosystems in several aspects, but one critical. Natural systems are circular while human-made systems are built linear. The linear ‘take, make, waste’ model relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, and is therefore unfit to operate in our increasingly resource scarce world. Improving resource efficiency will not alter the finite nature of resources stocks and often leads to rebound effects (i.e. responses offset the beneficial effects). Furthermore, while nature recycles everything, human systems generate large amounts of waste and pollution that are non-biodegradable. This is mainly because human systems aims at maximizing one goal: profits. Compared to ecosystems which are optimised for the whole. Thus, a change of the entire business models is necessary for a circular economy to appear. 

Circular Economy

The circular economy concept refers to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; that aims to rely on renewable energy, minimises and eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and eradicates waste through careful design. The concept goes beyond the mechanics of production and consumption of goods and services, by adopting designs inspired by natural systems. For example, by optimising systems rather than components, designing reusable products and managing material flows so that they can re-enter the biosphere safely. This shift towards offering quality and “functional services” instead of throw-away products has direct implications for business models. For a circular economy to be possible, business models have to focus on generating more durable products, biodegradable materials, facilitate disassembly and collaborate with other actors in the supply chain. Circular economy pioneer Walter Stahel explains: “The linear model turned services into products that can be sold, but this throughput approach is a wasteful one. (…) In the past, reuse and service-life extension were often strategies in situations of scarcity or poverty and led to products of inferior quality. Today, they are signs of good resource husbandry and smart management.” (Interview, London Nov. 2012)

Circular Economy Principles
- Design out waste: recycle, use non-toxic and biodegradable materials etc.
- Build resilience through diversity: modularity, redundancy, adaptability and diversity helps maintain resilience in the face of shocks and stresses.
- Work towards using energy from renewable resources: any company should start by looking into the energy involved in the production process
- Think in systems: a holistic viewpoint is crucial and helps in finding leverage points
- Think in cascades: value creation lies in the opportunity to extract additional value from products and materials by cascading them through other applications

Figure 1. Systems Diagram of Circular Economy Model
flow map circular economy
Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Innovators and designers have long been fascinated by nature and this has been reflected in their work for decades. A growing trend in recent years, however, is to study not only the design but also the ecological functions found in nature and incorporate them into industrial, product and city design. This new trend is called biomimicry. The term Biomimicry was coined by Janine Benyus in her book, Biomimicry - Innovation inspired by Nature (1997). Biomimicry is the application of biological methods, systems and design principles to the study and design of built systems and modern technology, often in an attempt to optimize resource use (Encyclopedia of Earth). Being “inspired by nature” reaches a broader meaning when studying the way biological organisms and systems do things such as: capture and conserve solar energy, collect and store water, produce non-toxic colors and optimize use of resources. The idea of biomimicry as an innovation guide for sustainable design solutions is best captured by Nature’s life principles:

Use waste as a resource 
Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat 
Gather and use energy efficiently 
Optimize rather than maximize 
Use materials sparingly 
Don’t foul their local environment 
Don’t deplete resources 
Remain in balance with the biosphere 
Run on information 
Use local materials

Figure 2. Form, processes and networks in nature depends on scale

Source (L-R): Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA; Wikimedia user Hagainativ, CC-BY-SA; Ireen Trummer, CC-BY-SA

Innovative design solutions based on biomimicry include examples such as velcro (Burdock burs), the bullet train (Kingfisher), drag-reducing materials (Sharks), fog-collecting bottles (Amibian Beetle), seawater desalination (biological membranes), car model (Box fish), electricity network (Bee hives) and many more (For more examples see: Ask Nature).

Meeting tomorrows challenges

The circular economy concept focuses on turning old industrial revolution business models into modern circular, zero waste generating companies fit for tomorrows society. People who don't care much for the environmental reasons to shift to a circular economy should understand that whether they like it or not, natural resources are only going to become more expensive. Pioneers are likely to grab a larger market share of the new economy, while unsustainable businesses will see higher costs and loss of brand value. For businesses, communities and individuals who seek to find inspiration for new innovative design solutions Biomimicy offers a great toolkit of how to study and understand natures design principles. This is free R&D that has evolved over 3.8 billion years. Not using it to solve some of our most pressing problems, e.g. food security, would be foolish. Most importantly, local contexts matter and thinking in terms of systems helps in finding leverage points for improvements that benefits the whole value chain. There are only two ways of using resources, in a smart way or a dumb way. In nature, species that don't adapt to a changing environment go extinct. Being flexible and adapting to our increasingly resource scarce world is a win-win situation for people and planet and I hope to have convinced some of my readers to check out these two important concepts.


Out of the ashes into the fire

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