Manufacturing of the Future by the Biomimicry Innovation Lab

What is biomimicry?

Richard’s ambition was based on his will to solve problems while improving and helping the planet. For this, he turned to biomimicry. But, what is biomimicry?

Biomimicry is a “super discipline” to shape the future. It gathers mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering design and even art, all of this mixed together. At the beginning, the Innovation Lab was aimed at discovering how nature solves problems in manufacturing all around the world, how academia and industry have been developing new ways to design, create processes and materials for the future and how it can shape the world for the next ten years and predict the future. Early civilizations, for instance, learned from nature.

“Our mission is to inspire and share how the natural world can deliver unique solutions by radically reducing the need for resources.”

Biomimicry Innovation Lab does consultancy, research and analytics, focusing on systems and processes and specializing in project for clients related to cities, manufacturing and food systems. Research is one of the key activities. Academics look into trends and into investment.

History of biomimicry

Biomimicry has been tested in different places in the world, Richard gives the example of a smart cities project, in Africa, located in Ghana. In the UK, much research is dedicated to developing products towards industry.

The Schmitt trigger was quoted as a famous example: of a comparator circuit invented from the study of the American scientist Otto H. Schmitt on neural impulse propagation in squid nerves.

About manufacturing, they have been interested in industries that make products from raw materials by the use of manual labor or machinery, which is usually carried out systematically through the division of labor. “But it is not just how we make things, it is also: where the materials are coming from. How they work? What design of software.  What is the easiest or the most effective way to solve problems?”

Looking for innovation in Nature

Dr Rupert Soar, one of the advisors of Richard, once said “innovators look around for fresh ideas, with advances in technology we are able to understand the natural world like never before”. For that, there is a need for more and more research centers, MIT labs, technology, nano-skills, high-record systems, human-body research, etc.  What is created today is linked to industry, manufacturing process that makes individual materials. But modern technology has to be inspired by nature or what we are made of.

“Look at your hands, look at your skin, and compare to the room you’re in, the materials, the windows. Lots of material in the home are single-use. Nature does not do that, everything is about multifunctionality because resources are hard to find so it needs to find resources that can easily be used in a multifunctional manner.

Simply put, biomimicry is all about how nature makes things, by using gravity, genetics and more. Green chemistry has been explored a lot in some cities like London and Boston. It is important to prove that nature can help at creating new technologies. It is not just about the physical factory. Even for business there is an added value as biomimicry seeks to create the exact same thing but by using less (e.g. bones/materials) and reducing the cost of advanced manufacturing.

The Future of Biomimicry: Make the World more Sustainable

Nowadays debates about recycling and plastic impact have become very important. How can we use fewer materials or less chemicals but keep it strong? Biomimicry points to one idea: looking to our trees. The main question here is how can we make biomaterials which do not degrade?

One of the key concepts would be exploring how far we can go and if we can replicate what nature does by observing nature-built self-organization. Robots, IoT and smart buildings which will be everywhere have to be adaptive to changes like nature . Moreover, advanced manufacturing is built on materials, structures and shapes. Ideally, we would shift to using more biomaterials. We need to move on to the next level combining computer and natural processes.

Combining nature and technology

Termites are continually adapting their processes working on the fungi found in their mounds. They work by changing the pressure, temperatures of the gases within the mounds to get it to the right humidity allowing them to function properly and even to regulate the fungus they eat. This is a potential model for the future.

Finally, biomimicry goes together with the principles of the circular economy, recycling and reuse. Natural ecosystems (plants, plankton, etc.) must be combined with human skills to build up an eco-friendly society. Fortunately, more and more companies are going in this direction. The ecosystem is a large community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in a particular area. The living and physical components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Ecosystems are of any size, but usually they are in particular places (interest for local level). Humans have to pay more attention to forests, trees, different materials, the edges between different habitats. How each element could be used and be part of our manufacturing processes? “Not everything will be relevant or possible for us, concludes Richard, but we have a fascinating world and we should look at new environments and sustainable solutions.”

Richard’s favorite quote by Don Campbell goes “If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. If you want to make major changes, change the way you see things.”


Biomimicry is source of innovation. How to connect biomimicry and sustainability?

How can we make sure that we are reducing the environmental impact? We have to reduce the cost of manufacturing; cleaning costs are so much higher. We need to focus on sustainability aspects.

There is a limit to biomimicry for bio-based materials which need some improvements, is there the idea to reduce this based on innovation through biomimicry?

The potential reduces this part. Chemists have to look more to the natural world. The solution is an ecosystem approach via biomimicry.

Is Biomimicry  used by corporates such as Airbus, as you mentioned, or more startups or Research Organizations?

There is a lot of research. There is no market for it. In industry, big corporates can deal with it if they have a big R&D department. Innovation is art, biomimicry is art. It is easy to create. Governments can use it too in their Research centers.

Do you feel that there are some sectors where biomimicry makes more sense than manufacturing?

Manufacturing and construction are the two biggest polluters, there is a mass of energy lost, full waste (e.g.: construction waste of materials) and we have to tackle it. We can use other materials or different manufacturing techniques.

What about medical devices? For Covid-19 solutions, biomimicry can be used?

There is actually a huge project of the lab which works on post-Covid scenarios, food, infrastructure… In place for Covid, we have been inspired by shark skin technology since sharks are slow moving animals but they do not generally have a lot of bacteria on them. Their skin has been observed and copied for many uses. We have thought of it for medical devices, to reduce the spread or the growth of bacteria.


Biography of the Speaker

This keynote was held by Richard James MacCowan, founder and Creative Director at Biomimicry UK, which is a non-profit startup dedicated to research and development with international collaborators via the Design Society and the ISO Standards in Biomimicry. The goal of this session was to discover bio-inspired innovations and to know more about biomimicry’s potential, especially to solve some of the current and future challenges faced by the manufacturing sector.

Richard is an award-winning designer and has worked around the world in cities, manufacturing, food systems and product design. He has dedicated a significant amount of time to research projects with academics and to develop new tools for the Design Society, new challenges, industry solutions and sustainable construction works. With his rich background, he asked himself how to interconnect all these ideas for a sustainable future. After the global economic recession 12 years ago, he thought of exploring interconnectivity between cities, systems, ecosystems and biological systems.

World Energy Investment 2020: Tracking and Accelerating Clean Technologies

One of the main challenges within the innovation sector is to manage our World Energy Investment. The International Energy Agency observes the developments in world energy investment and tries to bring an expert point of view to its urgent topics. Dr. Simon Bennett, technology analyst, came to explain the issues that he considers the most essential to our society.

What is the International Energy Agency (IEA)?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an intergovernmental agency providing authoritative analysis, data, policy recommendations, and real-world solutions to help countries provide secure and sustainable energy for all. Created in 1974, the IEA originally helped co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in the supply of oil. Nowadays, oil security remains a key aspect of its work. In addition, the IEA advocates policies enhancing the reliability, affordability and sustainability of energy – taking an all-fuels, all-technology approach that included renewables, oil, gas and coal supply and demand, energy efficiency, clean energy technologies, electricity systems and markets, access to energy, demand-side management, and much more.

IEA is well known for the World Energy Outlook. Simon Bennett explains that they have started the modelling for this year’s outlook, and it has already revealed a number of uncertainties and challenges relating to the crisis arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The major developments in the modelling over the last decade include outcomes of technology innovation, such as the costs of renewable energy coming down, as well as policy developments. This modelling helps IEA generate different scenarios that can be used by governments and investors to understand how energy futures might unfold.

The History of the World Energy Investment

To understand world energy investment, Dr. Simon Bennett suggests first to look back in time as “it’s good to remind ourselves where we have come from.

In 1919, societies relied mainly on two resources, wood and coal. Oil was not really in the picture as it was mainly used for lighting. In 1950, there was a rise in motor car use which raised the demand for oil, while petrochemicals were still under development. Coal continued to provide electricity but wood went down. This trend really accelerated up to 1974, which is when the IEA was formed in the time of the first oil crisis. At the same time, natural gas started to show its worth as well, especially from the aviation sector’s gas turbines which led onto more large-scale power generation. But we had to wait until the year 2000, just 20 years ago, before we started to notice the introduction of modern renewables like wind and solar.

If you look then at 2018, the breakdown of our sources of energy is quite similar compared to the time of the oil crisis, with only an increase in renewables which don’t have a big impact. But the most impressive observation is the massive increase in the amount of energy use, over a century. Global energy use is ten times higher than in 1919, the global economy is 20 times bigger and the world population grew from 2 billion to 7 billion.

Future World Energy Investment depends on investments in innovation

According to the IEA’s projection, this trend is going to continue to grow under governments’ stated policies and without additional policy change it is unlikely that the world will meet the climate challenge. This increase in energy demand also affects other critical policy goals: energy security, but also air pollution, and full access to energy for the developing world. There is a large number of challenges, and new technologies can help to meet them.

There is a need for innovation across the energy sector and for cost reduction. This is not just about brand-new technologies. It is a gradual improvement of the technologies we already have to squeeze out the energy needs that we have. There has been tremendous progress, especially leading to improvements in energy efficiency.

World Energy Investment by sector and region

Energy investments do not happen in a vacuum. If they did then many models would prefer to invest in nuclear power because the costs per unit of energy can be low despite the large upfront capital cost and political challenges. But anticipating how investments can unfold in future requires an understanding of how new technologies fit with economic, social and political contexts.

In aviation, there is a need to produce sustainable biofuels that would not have a negative impact while having the right attributes to fulfil energy needs. This requires innovation in the biotech sector, but also in crop production and crop processing. Also, if we want to bring more electric power to airplanes, we need batteries that have higher specific energy densities and lighter airplanes. The innovation needed to deliver these technologies varies considerably between these sectors, and the contexts in different regions is not the same.

World Energy Investment: Reducing the cost

The IEA has been looking at indicators like small unit scale technologies that can be modular and mass produced, and for which you might go through multiple generations of designs in the time it takes to deploy one generation of a large-scale engineering solution. In solar PV, the price lowered considerably when it started to be mass produced. Unsurprisingly the amount of energy produced by those means have gone up. Policies that supported the private market to invest in PV created the business case for investors to take risks in larger and larger factories over the past 50 years.

If you can bundle up smaller projects in order to attract funding, the business model is different and you can reduce the cost of capital. In time we could have something that allows us to reward people for charging their car at the right time of the day and create value for all these small decisions in aggregate. Governments can address some of the barriers and encourage companies to try and find the best business models, compete with others, and work with companies, governments, investors to get the best solutions to customers. In this way, regulation can support innovation by pressing companies to move towards sustainability and efficiency.

Innovation: who should lead the way?

Innovation is an inherently uncertain process. A small company could be the next Tesla. But they could also be absorbed by a large group and create a better future. It is hard to know where the next step is going to come from. Currently, a lot of investment is going into start-ups from the energy sector, including companies that hope to store energy in the form of hydrogen. This investment activity shows where people perceive the next big opportunity to be. This is coming a lot from the transport and the digital industry.

In this field of innovation, it can be necessary and actually productive to compress time, and instead of thinking “how long will it take”, reverse the situation and ask how long do we have?

Today, digital technologies tend to have much more turnover, so we might see some true breakthroughs that we didn’t expect.

Covid-19: what does the crisis hold for clean technologies?

Covid-19 raises a lot of questions. Clean energy investment has remained at 40% of total energy investment in the past few years. This share will likely increase in 2020, but it is not necessarily a good sign as the share of clean energies is only increasing because the absolute amount of investment in fossil fuels is going down. The uncertainty brought on by the crisis carries a lot of risks and this has displaced fossil fuels where clean energy technologies have remained somewhat more resilient. All eyes are on the way governments respond to the Covid-19 challenge.

In a disrupted world, could we actually replace fossil fuels faster with the help of technology? A lot of governments are announcing that they want to invest in green recovery plans, this sounds a little bit like after the economic crisis, except that this time, they have more experience. In response to Covid-19, R&D spending is likely to suffer without additional stimulus. Companies are signalling commitment to clean energy goals and R&D can be expected to be much less affected than capital expenditures, but corporate R&D is likely to be cut nonetheless.

Governmental action & World Energy Investment

Governments make the market rules that shape all of the investments. They set the agenda and they can change the incentives. Particularly in innovation they have long helped to correct for market failures by investing in Universities and Research Centres but their actions to stimulate innovation can take many other forms.

The IEA has published their “sustainable recovery plan”, which looks at sectors that could absorb capital and create jobs. Energy efficiency and construction manufacturing could get 9 million additional jobs in the energy sector to displace all the 5 million jobs that we think are at risk.

Hydrogen-based technologies: what role for them in the future energy scenarios according to the IEA?

Something that is surprising everybody is the scale of interest and investment in hydrogen, just compared to 5 or 10 years ago. But it continues to face uncertainties, especially in the current context. Everybody looks at Hydrogen as a really sustainable source of energy, but for now it is a source of emissions. To what extent is it a real solution? And who are the competitors going to be? We do see resilient investment in hydrogen though. Signals from countries like Germany, Australia and the European Union this year. But the speed of deployment and the speed with which hydrogen production contributes to sustainability remain uncertain. Good energy policy can incentivise innovation and more sustainable values chains.


About the speaker

Dr. Simon Bennett is Technology Analyst at the International Energy Agency. After working as a researcher for various structures, including the European Commission, he is now acting within the IEA. With a strong background of a decade of international experience working on technical and policy aspects of energy, he now co-leads work on energy technology innovation policy and investment. His position makes him responsible for tracking investment in demand side topics and new technologies. During this Impact Week, he came to give a talk highlighting his work and the related challenges we have in the next 50 years.