Biomimicry in South Africa

Biomimicry in South Africa

Claire Janisch is a Biomimicry professional and sustainability and innovation advisor. She works in the areas of strategy, technology and education, and is the leading trainer and consultant for Biomimicry in South Africa, where she founded and currently heads up BiomimicrySA. Claire was selected in the Mail & Guardian’s 200 young South Africans in 2009, 2010 & 2011, and was finalist in the Most Influential Women in Business & Government awards in 2012.


Hi Claire, it is a pleasure to have you here to explore together the world of biomimicry. As an introductory question, might you tell us more about the path that led you to found Biomimicry South Africa?

I studied chemical engineering and anyone who works in the circular economy will know that you want to look at the evidence of the mess of what a linear economy generates. The worst messes come from people who practice chemical engineering, because we do mass chemical factories, oil refineries, plastics, chemicals, fertilizers; we make the things in our linear economy that cause the biggest mess. While studying, I deeply questioned what I was doing.  I was told by the people in my field that chemical engineers were some of the most intelligent people in the world, and yet I thought they were doing some of the stupidest things I've ever seen in my life, because of the mess we were making with hazardous chemicals.

Then I went on to study a master's in chemical engineering to try and figure out if there's a way to make stuff without making a mess. And essentially I went on a ten-year process in industrial ecology, cleaner technologies, cleaner production, waste minimisation, and I had to deal with some of the most hazardous industries and waste in Africa. It got to a certain point where I just got a huge question emerging for me, which was: is there anything in the world that knows how to make stuff that is highly functional and useful without making a mess?

That led me to the field of biomimicry, because I found that spider-webs make a material tougher than steel and yet it’s made with a totally life-friendly chemistry, with low-energy and leaves no waste. Similarly, termites produce amazing air conditioning systems and yet they leave no waste. As I started looking into it, I realized that actually the natural world had all the answers I was looking for. So, I signed up for the Biomimicry Professional training in 2008 and was trained in biology, engineering design and business at the same time, while working on real challenges. We also visited six different ecosystems around the world with some of the best biologists to help us translate what we discovered into new ideas.

They trained Biomimicry Professionals to be leaders in bringing biomimicry to the world and, since I am based in South Africa, I had to figure out how to bring it to South Africa. This is why, after graduating, I founded Biomimicry South Africa.

Which activities and projects does this organization engage in?  And, which goals does it have?

Initially, we've been working on educating people, letting them know that there is a whole field of biomimicry.  Then, we have moved more into helping real projects emerge on the ground. We are not just teaching biomimicry, we actually make biomimicry happen in South Africa as well. Connecting is also one of our goals. We connect people to nature, designers to the world of biology as a source of inspiration, and engineers to biology as a science that they need to understand. And then, we connect networks of interdisciplinary groups who can work together.

Our education goal is teaching and helping people learn about mimicry, whether it's young kids at school or professionals. We either do it with them in their real-world working space or we take them out into nature on expeditions to help them view and value the natural world in a different way. And the last part of our goals is called ‘do’. We say: connect, learn and do! That means doing biomimicry; really ensuring that a world that is fully integrated and well adapted to our larger planet is happening, and happening in a way that is locally attuned to what South Africa needs.

Taking full advantage of your knowledge and experience, I would like you to introduce biomimicry to those readers who may not be familiar with this concept. What is biomimicry? In which sense it is a new way to view and value nature?

Biomimicry is a practice—so that the more you do it the better you get at it—of learning from nature. In biology you learn about nature, and our species tend to spend a lot of time learning about nature, while biomimicry turns the lens around and says: what can I learn from the natural world? And the reason we're learning from it is in order to emulate it. We don’t use the word ‘copy’, because copy just means you don’t really understand it, whereas emulate is a word of copying with respect and with understanding. So, in summary, is the practice of learning from nature in order to emulate it.

There are many different reasons why we would do that. What a person is going to design depends on their own ethics and their own worldview; many people originally were using it in in the army to make better weapons or better aircraft. There was no deeper aspirations towards a better world like learning from nature for a circular economy.  But it has evolved recently into a field—lead by the global biomimicry network—which is deliberately copying nature in order to generate sustainable, circular and resilient designs, because those are the things emerging in society that we need to do. And, if you look closely, nature is really circular, sustainable and resilient. So, we find effective answers there.

There are different layers of biomimicry. One is existing biomimicry technologies; you could go and purchase something that already exists and apply it. For instance, you could build a building using a large number of biomimicry innovations. This is the surface level of biomimicry practice. Then there is a next level, which is the biomimicry tools that we use, and a methodology that has been developed over the last few decades. Here, there are two approaches: either you go from biology to design, or you go from design to biology.

From biology to design?

When you go from biology to design, you've seen something amazing in nature and you think ‘oh wow, what if we could do that in the human world?’ So you might see the best example of biomimicry is Velcro, which is that substance that replaces zips because it sticks things together. Velcro was invented when a person saw how a seed stuck to his dog’s fur, and after having investigated closely with a microscope what was happening, he saw these little hooks and he decided to create a material that did that. He invented something out of plastic that copies nature.  So again not a circular result, but he saw something and said: what if we did that? Nowadays we ask the question: wow, how does that forest constantly grow and develop without creating any waste? How does the forest constantly cycle materials in regenerative cycles? And then we go to investigate that; this is from biology to design.

And what about the other way?

The other way you can do biomimicry is from design to biology. For example, you could say I have a big challenge in my community, we don’t have a lot of water—like the City of Cape Town is running out of water—and then you could ask: how does nature manage water?  How could we do it more effectively? And you could come up with endless lists of less centralized, more distributed and more effective ways of keeping the water cycle in place.

Here you’re asking nature for advice, while in the other approach you see nature and then figure out how you could invent something from what you’ve seen. Everybody can do it; I mean seriously anyone. I teach kids to do it, and even though they are not really grappling with the world’s biggest problems, they are starting to recognize that nature has extraordinary technologies and capabilities. At the surface level, you could be inspired by something, like ‘wow, what if I did that?’, but at the deep level, it becomes a real practical science where you have to properly understand the mechanisms, study them in depth and then effectively translate them into principles that can be mimicked. So, biomimicry is any level from ‘wow!’ to the how - all the way down to in-depth science.

That's a very nice introduction, which provides a first broad picture of what biomimicry is. Before going to the practical challenges that biomimicry could help to solve, you mentioned that you teach biomimicry to adults and kids. What kind of reaction do you get from kids?

It will depend on age groups. When with very young kids, we just show them the cool things about nature, about tough materials, bird flight inspiring airplanes, etc.…it’s just ‘wow, wow, wow’ as opposed to ‘how?’. I distinguish between the ‘wow’ and the ‘how’; ‘wow’ is how things begin. When we get to older kids, grade ten upwards, we definitely focus on showing them the how and that it is a potential to solve many of the world’s challenges. The kids love it, because they know that the world they are entering into is in trouble and that a lot of people don’t know what the answers are. To give them examples from the natural world that already exist and are already proven, and that it’s a matter of reverse engineering existing proven systems, is very hopeful for them.

I think that a lot of the issues that they discuss at home are quite depressing and nobody really has a hopeful vision. They know what they must not do—must reduce their carbon footprint and recycle—but they don’t really know what they can do, what they are moving towards and what are their end goals to achieve. I give them examples, like imagine a solar panel. A solar panel is beautiful; it’s renewable energy and it’s a great movement away from fossil fuels. But we still make solar panels from toxic chemicals, we still use a lot of fossil fuels to make them—which produces carbon—and they still end up in a landfill when their life is over, and that could cause toxic bleaching as well. So, we still haven’t thought about the whole system.

But, look at a leaf. A leaf breaths in carbon, it turns that carbon into a life-friendly polymer, which is like plastic, it breaths out oxygen balancing the cocktail of gasses to sustain life, and it’s driven by evapotranspiration in the whole photosynthesis process which contributes to the rain cycle. And when its life is over, it ends up becoming compost on the soil.

What we show them in one little example is what you just see as a leaf and take for granted is, in fact, some of the most advanced modern technologies in terms of extraordinary photosynthesis, 3D printing, and life-friendly polymers, but it is also an answer to how you can make materials that contribute to the system. So, that’s the kind of work we do; always sharing stories like the leaf so that they can see the differences and recognize what else is possible.

Indeed, going to the practical side of what else is possible, which challenges can biomimicry be applied and provide a contribution to?

I can say probably almost every challenge that you can think of you can apply biomimicry to. If you are looking to solve a challenge at the systems level, with solutions that are sustainable and circular, big challenges that we care about in the circular economy, the answers are there. And you can look at it from the level of one product—one leaf—or of the entire system, the entire forest. If you want to know how to manage the balance and integration between water, energy and food, all of that is already figured out in nature. For almost any single challenge that is highly complex and that has to deal with rapid growth, complexity and constant change, there is an answer to it in the natural world.

The key finding is that nature is always circular and always distributed. If we want to develop a solution to many of our big challenges, our water systems need to be circular and distributed, our energy systems need to be renewable, circular and distributed, our waste water system needs to be circular and distributed. We take these deep principles and deep patterns we find in the natural world—which we have distilled in biomimicry into about twenty-six deep patterns—and we apply them to the design of everything. You would most likely find out that that solution would be really effective in terms of being not only sustainable but also adaptable, resilient, and circular.

We have done biomimicry projects in South Africa at an urban scale, because trying to do biomimicry and to replace a part into a broken system doesn't work as well as if you work at the systems level. We have worked in both informal settlements’ and formal large cities’ design, but informal spaces are actually a lot easier to apply biomimicry to. Because if you imagine what an informal settlement is, it’s a group of humans that are self-organized—which is how nature works—to turn waste materials, into value, which is houses. And that emerges into a community that wasn’t designed by a master planner.

The biggest critical issue with that is that they have no formal infrastructure like sewers, so there is no way to treat their waste and wastewater. So, we looked at how nature would deal with this situation and applied that to a design of an informal settlement’s infrastructure in a community in the Western Cape. It was about working with the community to understand how they could own and manage their own informal infrastructure, and combining that with experienced biomimics like Dr John Todd. We ended up using plants to treat the wastewater, in a combination of modular systems (as nature’s systems are modular) that are really adaptable to the system and able to be implemented around living spaces. There is a video in our website that you could watch; it emerged that the community could do the work because it was not high-level engineering, it was quite low-skilled processes. The result is that they have cleaner communities to live in, we have wastewater issues being dealt with, and the communities can manage their own infrastructure. They even go to other communities to show how they can manage their own infrastructure and turn their wastewater into value for the community as well.

Sounds like quite an impressive project, and what about the design of formal cities?

We have done some larger city projects as well, which was how do we design resilient cities. We have done this for Durban and my colleagues are working on a proposal for Cape Town now that is in the last few phases. The city of Durban, which is one of the 100 Resilient Cities sponsored by The Rockefeller Institute, has a big issue with water as well, and they're about to do a huge amount of development in the last remaining green space in Durban. If they develop that last green space, thousands of hectares, it would cause such a huge pressure on the city in terms of water infrastructure. So we had to look to the natural world and say: what if the city provided its own ecosystem services? What if every part of the built environment that was added to that city was capturing and cleaning and managing its own water? What if some of the natural wetland systems that they were going to design over and build onto, what if we left them there and they became part of the storm-water infrastructure, and helped not only to provide the services of storm-water management but also other values, like cooling and carbon sequestration?

It's quite a complex project, with so many layers, but the end result is that the city would provide ecosystem services and the standards for how to manage storm-water, how to sequester carbon, and others would be actually derived from ecological performance standards.  Instead of covering over the green space, what if the built environment—or the grey space—actually functioned like the green space so that it actually contributed to its own needs? What normally happens is that a city tends to suck all of its water needs from the green space, which was the catchment area. What if the city actually captured all of its own water and then after using it, it cleaned it, just like the natural environment does? That’s the big philosophy behind it, but we had to break that down into real principles, real standards and a good design at the local level.

And that is the tricky part, obviously. What I find interesting is the contribution of biomimicry for the design of systems and not only specific products; as you said, the entire forest and not only a single leaf. The way nature manages its own complexity as a guide to manage the complexity of a socio-economic system…is this a message coming out?

Biomimicry can be done at different levels. You have to understand that at a large-scale you also need to design an economy that is circular and regenerative. That’s the first layer, then you have to go down into each layer from that; how to design cities, for instance. One of the concept designs we worked on, which didn’t actually get implemented, was a design for Nigeria, for another huge area of city that was going to be built. We said: what if you designed the city around the flow of materials, rather than designing a city and then trying to manage the flow of materials afterwards? Allow circular material flow first, then mobility and accessibility and, at the last level, put the built environment on top of that. Rather than trying to do the normal process of: making grids, laying out roads, pipes, etc. and think of circularity afterwards. It looks amazing when you look at the final video for what we designed, it looks like the natural world; these little cells that emerge together and work together.

But there's another layer to biomimicry that really contributes to the circular economy. The circular economy talks about two cycles: the technical cycle and the biological cycle. If you look at how nature does the biological cycle, it always upcycles everything. There is a beautiful example from The Blue Economy, written by Gunter Pauli, that you can take cardboard waste and horse manure and you could combine those two wastes into food for worms, and then those worms could be fed to fish, like sturgeon, to produce caviar. So, you could take two waste products that would usually be a problem and you've got the worms producing compost, you've got caviar and you’ve got fish; all from waste materials.

Wow, from cardboard and horse manure to caviar…

How does nature constantly turn what we consider waste into greater and greater value, not into decreasing value? That's the cardboard to caviar story. But the other major step is that nature doesn't have a technical cycle and a biological cycle, they are all biological cycles. We are starting to make new materials that copy nature—like I said the spider-web is tougher than steel—there are companies like Bolt Threads and Spiber that are making great advances in mimicking spider web materials. The Harvard Wyss Institutes is combining shrimp shell waste and spider silk into a super tough and lightweight, biodegradable material they call Shrilk, that if ended up in the ocean would be food for the creatures in the ocean.   If you think about your teeth and a sea-shell, they are tough and lightweight materials, and they last, for a while but not forever. There are already people mimicking sea-shell recipe and structure to make artificial ceramics, but ceramics that aren't heated up to 2,000 degrees Celsius but are just composites of proteins and copper carbonate that could be made at very low temperatures. So there are a lot of material recipes in nature that are life-friendly and highly-functional that we could actually replace our plastics, ceramics and metals with.

Through this, we're looking into how to take the technical cycle and actually turn it into a biological cycle as well, because all the functions that our technical equipment provides us are also provided in nature. Making it one cycle I think is going to be most inspiring. Where I think biomimicry is going to have the biggest impact is that the systems worldview is going to be different, and the materials that we make things out of will be so much different that a circular economy will be natural. We will understand that we can make things in a way that is always circular.

It’s becoming clear now that biomimicry has the potential to be a pervasive practice in our society, and be applied at so many different levels, from the nano to the macro.

Even the way that you want to match the materials that we want to cycle to the places that are going to cycle them, there are a lot of natural algorithms such as ants distribution and swarm intelligence that can be applied to distributed system logistics. Even at the next layer up, how do we actually connect the people who are making their waste to the people who are cycling that waste back up? The equivalent of a platform like AirBnB or Uber, which match users to the provider. We could do the same at the next level, for the way in which we manage waste. There are just so many layers to it, but the big impacts are going to be the way we think about it at a systems level and the materials that we use.

What about the concrete impact in South Africa? You already mentioned water and waste management, and city design.

Yes, turning waste into value. I mean, there are huge amounts of unemployment in South Africa, and we have huge amounts of waste, and all of our organic waste is not even turned into compost, so what if that organic waste is turned into more and more high value materials? What's interesting about the natural world is that you can't do that on a very large scale; nature doesn’t have these huge compost heaps that are centralized, it has to constantly distribute locally attuned compost systems which generate value and more opportunities at a local level. Scale is achieved through networks.

Similarly, how do you create lots of smaller opportunities for employment and then you network them together to get the scale, rather than making centralized systems? And that's why I think biomimicry would work really well for Africa, because we have a lot of people who need work and we can make these local distributed networks to scale it. You know, there's not one huge leaf on a tree, there are lots of smaller leaves all working together for the tree. How do we take that way of thinking and generate opportunities for Africa in the circular economy that are more distributed, and not these big centralized systems that only benefit a few and create huge inequalities in Africa and large amounts of waste at the same time.

Interesting, any example?

One project I'm working on at the moment is the South African oceans economy; how do we create a regenerative oceans economy? The focus is typically on generating economic value from things like oil and gas and large aquaculture with centralised, linear economy thinking. We are looking instead at what are the distributed and regenerative opportunities for South Africa? And there are so many opportunities to really regenerate our oceans at the same time as generating a lot of value and a lot of opportunities for jobs. The way nature does the circular economy distributed, there is no unemployment in the natural world and there is always value being created, there is not any waste neither of species nor things.

How can biomimicry and the circular economy contribute to Africa’s development path?

Africa has got a history that is not too far away from nature. For many years we lived closely to nature, with a rich indigenous knowledge base, as we only recently got disconnected from the natural world. So, we have a lot of potential to still tap into that wisdom and that natural way of being.

As I do a lot of talks about exponential technologies and the 4th Industrial Revolution, with 3D printing, Internet of Things and all these cool technologies, I show people that every single one of those is in fact biomimicry. I mean nature grows objects cell by cell, which is 3D printing. The Internet of Things is similar to your nervous system or mycelium networks; how do we copy nature’s super-sensors? Blockchain is the same as distributed systems in nature. Robotics copies human or other species capabilities. Drones mimic dragonflies and birds. So the most advanced technologies are in fact copying nature. With our close connection to nature, we could have a strong role to play in future technologies. Not just mimicking the technological genius, but the wisdom of nature as well.

In this respect, what do you think are the challenges to getting really good at it? Not in the technical knowledge, but looking at the systemic and widespread implementation of biomimicry practices, which are the challenges on the way?

The interesting thing is that we have done most of our projects for water systems and waste water, two things in South Africa that we are really failing at: water supply and waste water management. And, what’s interesting is that when people from the rest of the world come to biomimicry South Africa, they ask us: how did you get so far with governments? Because most of them are not getting far with governments, they are getting far with business. And I tell them that it’s only where our government is failing. A new idea can only emerge when people realize that old ideas are not working anymore.  And now we have the opportunity to bring this way of thinking to solve big challenges, because they recognize they don’t know how to solve them.

If Europe and US had informal settlements just popping up everywhere and just couldn't meet the needs of them, and water would be polluted everywhere and nobody could clean it up, then you would be in the same situation as South Africa and you would have to think how to solve this differently. And if someone came up to you with a solution that was low-tech, employed people, was able to deal with the context, not expensive, didn’t create problems, and even sequestered carbon, you would go for it. And that’s where South Africa is. So, I think where South Africa is failing is where we have the biggest opportunities. Because people are only willing to look for new potentials when they recognize that the existing systems are not working.

Is the policy climate in South Africa supportive towards this kind of innovation?

It is in terms of, for example, the project that we did in the informal settlement, which was part of the Western Cape 110% Green Innovation. They want to establish Cape Town as a green innovation centre, so they wanted innovation to come from this and they opened up this space to be innovative.  We have got a lot of organizations that push towards innovation in Africa and South Africa, and there is a lot of space to innovate.

In terms of policy I don’t think it's the easiest, but as I said where policies are failing they need help and therefore they look. If the policy was working, they wouldn’t look for alternatives. We had to design new standards for the one project we did in Durban and it takes a while for those standards to be approved but they were open to the fact that they needed a new storm-water standard. I think we have been lucky to work in those spaces, because they were looking. If I try to just go to any city and do it, it wouldn’t work as well.

Like with the 100 resilient cities project and 110% Green innovation, we go where the soil is ripe for biomimicry; we are not trying to push down doors where people are not interested. Another big project we have in the country is working with a coal mining company, which recognizes that there isn’t probably going to be a future for coal, and they have to think differently. We go where people are willing to change and recognize that there is need for new ways of doing stuff.

One last question to conclude, concerning the global biomimicry network as a source of collaboration between Africa and Europe. How can the two continents mutually benefit from their respective experiences in different contexts?

The result for a lot of people who practice biomimicry is that it changes the way you think. In the European biomimicry network, they are doing a lot of the same training as we are doing in South Africa but with different challenges to solve; some are the same, many of them are different. By applying the methodology there, applying it here and in many different places, different solutions emerge for different contexts always. By the time you have done biomimicry, it changes the way in which you think about any challenge; you start to recognize there's a circular, sustainable and systems-thinking solution for whatever you are doing. In any situation, you're just going to ask: what is the core function I'm trying to achieve and what's the context that I'm working in? And if I can ask nature how does nature achieve that same function in a similar context, I'll be able to find a solution. So, they might be coming up with this amazing light-weighting of aircraft in the aircraft manufacturing system, with solar roadways that are replacing existing roads, with artificial photosynthesis or ways to turn waste material back into value by using advanced biotechnologies.

They might push the technology boundaries in Europe, but they're doing the same processes as we're doing; it's just different contexts that they are working in. If I have an informal settlement, I am going to come up with a different solution than for a formal settlement, because they are different contexts. But it’s the same process you are following every single time: what am I trying to do, which context am I in, how does nature do the same thing in the same context?  In general, in Europe they are pushing the boundaries of technology that we can apply, and in South Africa we are looking at making really locally relevant solutions that copy nature.

Thank you Claire, it was an inspiring and stimulating introduction to biomimicry and to its potential for solving some of the greatest problems in South Africa and globally. It looks like time is ripe to unleash the full potential of biomimicry!


December 2018


For an overview of projects by Biomimicry SA:

Abuja Smart City (Nigeria):