In her seminal book—Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature—she described an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. Since the book’s 1997 release, Janine Benyus has evolved the practice of biomimicry, consulting with many leading global businesses and conducting seminars about what we can learn from nature. She has personally introduced millions to biomimicry through two TED talks, hundreds of conference keynotes, and a dozen documentaries. She has received multiple awards including The Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development 2013, Time Magazine’s Hero for the Planet Award 2008, and the United Nations Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Technology 2009. Her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Newsweek, Esquire, The Economist, Time, Wired, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Nature and more. In 2010, BusinessWeek named Janine one of the World’s Most Influential Designers. FuturArc Editor-in-Chief, Dr Nirmal Kishnani, caught up with Benyus at an Interface event in Thailand, where she was a key player in the carpet company’s launch of the next phase of its sustainability vision.
NK: Let’s start with your journey, how it all began.
JB: It began in a childhood of deep observation of the natural world, not knowing what science was but making notes on everything—how cocoons become butterflies, where the rabbits were last year and where they are this year—tangibly seeing that an ecosystem is a habitat, a home. My home was part of a suburban development in New Jersey. There was a meadow nearby and I knew it intimately. One day, I saw stakes with orange flags all through my meadow. I found cigarette butts and boot tracks. If I had flown over, I would have seen the beginning of Phase II construction of the development. I watched the entire meadow get bulldozed to make room for asphalt and lawns. It was devastating. All the rabbits were running towards me; it was like watching war, like watching ISIS destroy temples. I thought the only way for these guys with the boots to not do this would be if they read nature books that describe how life works. That was my logic at age 12 and it really hasn’t changed. I started to write books for people who hadn’t had the opportunity to fall in love with the natural world, and my books basically said “Look at this, this is amazing.” It’s still what I do. I’m a biologist who works with designers to make products and processes that work as elegantly as those in the natural world. I also work with built world clients who create habitats. I know that a sustainable world already exists. Our work now is to stop seeing the natural world as scenery, recreational sports arena, laboratory or commodity. We need to begin to see it as model, measure and mentor, as an operating manual for how to be an earthling. What I learnt from a childhood of deep observation was that if you watch long enough, patterns arise. You start to see similarities. There are design principles in the natural world and they have to do with place. I have a very deep understanding that context matters. Plants and animals are the embodied wisdom of living well in place.
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