Dat Tien Dinh, IE Business School Runner-up in the 2021 CoBS student CSR article competition, looks at how nature and biomimicry can help the circular economy change the world – for the better.
Please close your eyes for thirty seconds and imagine you are standing in a small village surrounded by a picturesque forest. If you are lucky enough, then you will see turtles basking near a blue stream or a family of wild boars ambling together while walking in the forest. The forest and these animals are part of my community and a remark for my childhood. One day, the night-blooming jessamine, the banyan tree, and many other natural elements of my youth are destroyed and replaced by emotionless high-rise buildings, shut-in gates, and silent hallways. In the best-case scenario, the wild boar and the turtles would get moving deep into the forest, but the typical situation for them is to end up in some restaurant nearby. My community shrugs off the heavy, jungly blanket of the past into a fledgling young city. Many of my villagers salute the changes now that they have a better life, with ample opportunities to break the cycle of poverty; however, all of us agree that the sacrifice is too hurtful and, more grimly, irreversible. To comfort our loss, one of the urban designers once said:” Human intelligence and demand have surpassed what Mother Nature can provide; hence, it is time for our mature children to break free from the Mother.”
Twelve thousand years into civilization, humankind remains only a rebellious and immature teenager who is too confident with our achievements and heartless toward our Earthen family (Mother Nature, fellow animals, and plants). In the context of solving the conundrum of economic development and environmental protection, I consider myself a creative problem solver and a dedicated investigator for optimal solutions. In the mists of an unsustainable future, I see the light at the end of the tunnel, this time with Circular Economy and Biomimicry. As a guiding principle, a circular economy is a systemic approach aiming to decouple growth from finite resource consumption gradually. Biomimicry is the skill, the mindset, and a collaborated discipline between biologists and engineers to mimic nature to create environmentally-friendly innovations and solutions. Under the Biomimicry’s perspective, all sustainable solutions should reduce the exploitation rate of nature and adopt environmentally friendly practices into all aspects of economics, businesses, and daily living. Organizations of both private and public sectors have their roles in leveraging their innovation capacities from learning from nature and nature the values and loves of their community toward a sustainable world.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY: AN ECONOMY LIKE A REDWOOD FOREST
Let’s start with an example of Circular Economy from mother nature. Within a redwood forest, many plants need extensive sunlight to grow, not to mention the backing from their parent trees and other family members. The redwood trees utilize the sunlight to rapidly bring on strong bark and trunk to avoid high winds and large animals. The cost of growth is these trees only have a shallow root system. However, redwood roots are all intricately intertwined, which empowers them to resist fierce forces such as floods or strong winds. A dying tree would even give back nutrition to smaller, burgeoning plants (Benyus 250). Learned from nature, businesses and government organizations must build up a society with a high recycling rate and reusing materials. Some good practices are: improving the easiness to recycle, developing more durable products, and encouraging the sharing economy.
In biological terms, species like redwood trees are called K-selected. Species K-selected provide long caring time on average, share the resources with their offspring, and teach them various survival skills. Our economies must follow these principles. For example, a company that produces mass but low-quality products should concentrate on the product’s durability and encourage sharing between customers. The keywords are: Product-as-a-Service (PaaS). Through this practice, customers share the product between themselves, while producers put tremendous care into their products’ durability. For example, Uber allows car owners to share their vehicles when they are not using them. Uber’s customers then also benefit from not spending a large sum of money to own a car of their own, thus reducing demand for car manufacture. Less production means less stress on nature for raw, virgin materials.
MANAGING RESOURCES:NATURE’S WAY
Implementing a Circular Economy is not an easy feat, but nature has offered us guidance. Since the appearance of the first living organism, the Earth has mastered resource management to ensure life continuity. The first principle it abides by is to recycle, first and foremost with resource loops, such as carbon cycles and nitro cycles – “all waste is food” (Benyus 255). Waste and corpses of animals provide nutrition for the plants to grow and other animals to feed on. The interconnectedness of the food web thus sustains the Earth for billions of years.
Second, the best predator in nature does not eliminate its prey (Benyus 296). This principle translates into (1) not consuming non-renewable resources higher than the rate of finding substitutions and (2) not draining renewable resources faster than their regenerative rate. For example, nature fits shape to function effectively, such as how the hierarchical structure of a lotus leaf’s surface creates a water-proof property. The better our design can simplify the production processes and build multifunctional structures, the fewer devices and equipment we need. These multifunctional materials show better recyclability and create efficiency and sustainability in production and consumption. For example, most traditional batteries utilize metal oxides as electrode-active materials, while these materials are not renewable resources. One research initiative is to develop an organic battery based on radical organic polymers. Preliminary research of this material has shown an edge over traditional batteries. The benefits are high recyclability, safety, adaptability to the wet fabrication process, and extraction of starting material from less limited resources (Anastas and Zimmerman 2013).
THE PRINCIPLES: INTERDEPENDENCE IN INDEPENDENCE
Economists and sociologists believe the economic interactions between individuals and entities create complex and ever-changing systems; hence, it is impossible to control the economic system worldwide. However, an ecosystem also hosts numerous communities where thousands of species interact every second. Just as in a human economy, they hunt for food, fight for land, plants transforming solar energy into chemical and biological ones, and countless other activities. Notwithstanding the dynamics, some principles remain immutable to ensure the sustainability of the community. There is always collaboration and diversification within and between species. They tend to find their non-competing niches to allow for resource distribution. For example, nocturnal animals and diurnal animals do not hunt in conflict. Other species cooperate. Lichen is made up of algae and fungi, for instance, where the former harvest solar energy and the latter provide a safe support structure (Benyus 258). Competition only occurs when resources are limited and all the niches are colonized. Currently, there is much pre-competitive cooperation, for example, in the Vehicle Recycling Partnership between Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, which creates “common labeling and material standards, which will allow them to reuse each other parts” (Benyus 259-260). This partnership for recycling is essential to the circular economy and can be a model for future collaborations among businesses.
Interdependence between businesses can work to the environment’s advantage, but does it have the same effect between nations? It is irrefutable that international trade between countries provides occupations, wealth, and innovation worldwide. International trade can also increase the availability of resources worldwide and allow countries to specialize and diversify their economy. However, because the resources are easy to transfer worldwide, humans overlook optimizing local resources. The availability of resources via international trade has promoted consumerism, thus exacerbating resource exploitation. Moreover, in 2016, the transportation of resources accounted for over 24% of CO2 emissions worldwide (Wang, Shiying, and Mengpin 2019). There is a must for local government to promote and utilize local goods, such as local cuisine and well-rounded local services. The self-reliance movement will guide humans toward optimizing local resources and minimizing environmental impacts from transportation (Benyus 276).
BIOMIMICRY: FROM KINGFISHER BEAD TO BULLET TRAIN
Composed of many stakeholders, our economy caters to diverse, conflicting wants and needs: consumers for a convenient life, businesses to maximize profits, scientists for inventions and technologies. Regardless of their positions and roles in our society and economy, Biomimicry can help steer humanity into a sustainable world thanks to its principles. Biomimicry’s principles can guide humans into sustainable consumption and production and bring into service nature’s knowledge to develop profitable and sustainable innovations.
One case study is the Shinkansen, a bullet train in Japan. According to Sunni Robertson of the San Diego Zoo, a center for biomimicry research and education, Japan in the late ’90s achieved a breakthrough in transportation technology which allowed trains to move at 300 kilometers per hour. However, this bullet train faced sound pollution problems due to the train hitting the cushion of air building up in front of the speeding train. The booming noise disturbed the wildlife and nearby citizens. At that time, Japanese engineers were walking in the park when they saw a kingfisher bird fly at a sonic speed into the water, all in a smooth splash. Amazed, the engineers came to see biologists, and they recognized the miracle lay in the large head and a long, narrow beak. With a simple change in design inspired by nature, the bullet train did away with any boom and saved 10-15% more energy because it was more aerodynamic (Robertson 2012). From Shinkansen’s example, we can see the practical applications of Benyus’ four crucial steps to achieve a biomimetic future.
LEARN WITH A SUSTAINABLE WORLD IN MIND
In the mature stage ecosystem, most species have high-quality offspring because they have a greater caring and mentoring nature. This caring and mentoring can also be applied to humans. To achieve a biomimicry future, educational organizations should play a pioneering role. From primary school, the curriculum must nurture students’ interests and skills in nature observation and appreciation. Schools should popularize field trips to nature, and teachers familiarize students with bio-inspired products. Sustainability should also be a core value in the educational philosophy. Environmental science might be made a credited subject along with an interdisciplinary approach connecting engineering and biology. Lessons can be bio-inspired and project-based, introducing the concept of the Circular Economy and its principles. Educating students at a young age can guide them to value biomimicry and sustainability toward a biomimicry future.
In short, the Earth is our home, and nature is our model, measure, mentor, and also Mother. If society acknowledges that nature is a library full of 4 billion years of knowledge and a great innovation source, they will not cut down the trees and kill the species. If they know that the Circular Economy can create multiple billion-dollar unicorn start-ups and sustainable-profitable business models, they will stop the linear economy’s practices. Currently, the Circular Economy is lacking strategic guidelines and standardization. On the other hand, scholars are still questioning the achievability and desirability of biomimetic products. Although challenges are ahead and you now know the main principles, how would you internalize these concepts into your organizations and communities?
- Visit the biomimicry innovations website Ask Nature
- Download the EU Political report on the circular economy
- Download this article and others in the special issue Global Voice magazine #18
- Discover IE Business School, Madrid
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