Biomimicry: Janine Benyus is Honored by TIME – part 2
Living Green
Meredith Medland Sasseen

Episode 27 - Biomimicry: Janine Benyus is Honored by TIME – part 2

Janine Benyus, honored as one of TIME International's Heroes of the Environment for her innovative work in biomimicry discusses why treating nature as model and mentor will change your daily life.

In part two of this two part series you’ll learn about the Biomimicry Guild and Biomimicry Institute in Montana. Janine shares about educational courses Costa and Peru that are designed to teach individual how to apply biomimicry to sustainable architecture and design. To illustrate the history and theory of biomimicry she discusses case studies from her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  

This is a very personal interview that is evocative, sensitive and warm. You’ll enjoy listening to her the whole way through as she calls in from her home in Montana.  You’ll be surprised how sustainability challenges are being addressed with bio-inspired solutions.



Woman 1: This program is brought to you by

Woman 2: This is Part 2 of a two part podcast. If you'd like Part 1, you'll find it at

Meredith Medland: Welcome to “Living Green”. My name is Meredith Medland. Today, our guest is Janine Benyus. Janine is a science writer, innovation consultant, conservationist, and one of the most important voices in a new way of designers and engineers inspired by nature.

By the end of our show today, we will learn how to increase our awe and respect for the natural world, learning importance of creating standard for life’s best ideas and codes of conduct by using nature. We’ll learn how biomimicry can lead to habitat conservations.

Today, our show is about the genius of the natural world.

Janine Benyus: What they're looking for are phenomenal ideas, strategies, designs that could help us solve real, worthy challenges in the world that are hiding right now in the biological literature and we want to daylight those. The kind of information that we're looking for is functional. How does this organism create color without toxic chemicals? How does this work? What we eventually will do, we’ll publish these hundreds, but behind that, there’ll be thousands of great ideas.

To get the content for that, we need to reach out and build a community of people who are actually want to build this thing, in the same way that Wikipedia did--a $10 million fund--and have that fund then produce $0.5 million annually that we will give to grassroots organizations doing the very, very best work on the ground.

Meredith Medland: Janine, if you could create three outcomes, three specific measurable outcomes for you within the next three months, what would they be?

Janine Benyus: Oh, wow! Next three months, I think that’s a good time frame.

Meredith Medland: It is, this is a big change for you.

Janine Benyus: Yes, yes.

Meredith Medland: Let's really acknowledge the environmental hero awards from Time Magazine. What it's like, what's the publicity like? This is changing the whole landscape for you, I would imagine.

Janine Benyus: Yes. The publicity has been quite great actually because what's happened is that a lot of people have come forth and said, “How can I help?” Thankfully, we're in a position now where we've created the structure that will allow people to the surface area, that people can actually interact with this and actually start to move this forward to the next level. One of the things that we're working on that’s really going to ramp up in the next three months is a project called “Nature’s 100 Best.”

Meredith Medland: “Nature’s 100 Best”?

Janine Benyus: “Nature’s 100 Best”, and what we're doing right now we've got, at the Guild, four people who are--imagine this world of biologists--it’s a job for a biologist. They're crawling (?) through the natural history literature. They are reading all of David Attenborough’s books, who was one of the heroes I got to meet.

Meredith Medland: Yes. Let's make our listeners know that he was one of the other heroes [++].

Janine Benyus: Yes, he was.

Meredith Medland: It's a big deal he was there.

Janine Benyus: Yes. And anyway, looking through journals and what they're looking for are phenomenal ideas, strategies, designs, that could help us solve real worthy challenges in the world that are hiding right now in the biological literature. We want to daylight those and we want to say, “Look, here are a hundred ideas that could change the landscape of energy, food, water purification, poverty. Here are some ideas that should be mimicked and that have not yet been mimicked.”

So, it’s an invitation, and we are gathering thousands of these ideas. This is where the exciting things within the next three months is that we've just launched a volunteer network.

Meredith Medland: Fantastic!

Janine Benyus: Yes!

Meredith Medland: Oh, great.

Janine Benyus: And really, literally it's brand new. So we have a way for people to use Google Spreadsheet to put their ideas that they’ve heard. I know when an organism, that owls can fly silently, and here’s how they do it, and wouldn’t this be great to stop wind sound--a noise, wind noise--on trains, anything that they have read in the natural history literature. So that’s something that you can find out about through the Institute.

I'm just hoping that here we are, there's four of us, and I can imagine in the next three months, the volunteer corps swelling to thousands of people. When everybody knows something amazing about an organism. So, we're gathering those ideas. That’s one of the things.

Meredith Medland: This is one outcome that sounds an awful like a vision you had to create a biological peace corps so people could volunteer in inventory biodiversity for two years at a time.

Janine Benyus: But you know, that I wrote about in the book. Al Gore was one of the heroes and I share a page with him in the Time Magazine.

Meredith Medland: Isn’t that exciting? [++].

Janine Benyus: Yes, that’s really exciting, and I think that would be an idea he might actually be interested in. We've got a big job ahead of us to interview the flora and fauna of this planet, and E.O. Wilson is doing a phenomenal job in starting this “Encyclopedia of Life” and a Web page for every organism on earth.

What we're trying to do is, say, “OK, the kind of information that we're looking for is functional. How does this organism create color without toxic chemicals? How does this work?” What we eventually will do, we’ll publish hundreds but behind that, there’ll be thousands of great ideas. What we're doing is we're creating a giant portal on the Web that will be open sourced. We're actually putting on the Wiser Earth platform.

Meredith Medland: Oh, you are!

Janine Benyus: Yes!

Meredith Medland: I see! [++].

Janine Benyus: Yes, we're working with Paul on that and we're using that software platform, which will be open sourced.

Meredith Medland: So, that’s Wiser

Janine Benyus: and there will be a biomimicry portal on that.

Meredith Medland: Fantastic!

Janine Benyus: What you’ll be able to do is, say, you want to learn more about communication or cooperation. You could type in your “How does nature cooperate?” and up would come all the articles about mutualism in the natural world. Things that you might not necessarily come across if you don’t have subscriptions to biological and ecological magazines. But there are fascinating things about mutualism in coral reef habitats for instance. So, it's all kinds of functions.

But first, to get the content for that, we need to reach out and build a community of people who actually want to build this thing, in the same way that Wikipedia did. This is a way I think to help us catalog the life’s genius in a place where anybody--for free, and this is important as well—that anyone, whether you're sitting in a favela outside Rio. If you can get to an Internet connection and you have an idea and you want to learn from nature, that you can access both information but even more importantly, you can learn who the experts are, who are working, the biologists who are studying these organisms.

Hopefully, that’s going to amplify what it is we try to do which is we try to hook up a biologist who knows how a mussel glues itself underwater to the people who are trying like Colombia forest products who has created a plywood now that has a glue that mimics that underwater glue and no longer has formaldehyde in it.

Meredith Medland: Wow.

Janine Benyus: If we can make thousands of matches like that, that’s what to come out of this. So, the first step for this, while we're building the platform, doing the software, we need lots of help on this. We need people who can draw, we need people who can illustrate. If you want to talk about how sea squirts move water and pump water so beautifully without any motors involved, we need somebody to draw that. We need 3D modelers. We need lots of volunteers on that project, and the first step is to get our ideas starting to flow into this Google Spreadsheet.

Meredith Medland: Now, is there an email address they can email or is this on the site where your volunteer sign?

Janine Benyus: Yes. It's on the Biomimicry Institute’s site.

Meredith Medland: Excellent. So, the second outcome is lots of volunteers…

Janine Benyus: Lots of volunteers!

Meredith Medland: …signing up, getting together. What’s the third thing that if we're speaking three months from now and we look back and you've had all these amazing media coverage--ABC, CBS, every major news networks, magazines, Time Magazine--what does all this publicity do? What's the outcome number three?

Janine Benyus: I would love it, can I have two?

Meredith Medland: Of course! You are more than welcome to. Yes, yes, yes.

Janine Benyus: Oh, my gosh! I would hope that the Innovations for Conservation Program’s fund actually starts to fill--there's a lot of investment going on right now. The Silicon Valley, the investors who are investing in infotech and biotech, they're now saying “quintech”. That’s the new category, and if they could begin to start moving some of their funding towards these small and really promising companies who are coming up with biomimicked products. Then as a part of their investing, they naturally say, “I'm going to give the commission on this to Innovation for Conservation”.

I'd love to see the business model for Innovation for Conservation starts to take shape. That fund, if we could in the next three months, fund the first project for Innovation for Conservation and show that virtuous circle of humbly asking an organism for help, learning and emulating what we learned, and then saying, “Thank you” and show that in a real way so that it becomes just a part of doing business, I'd be very, very happy. So I'd say, the first project-funded [++]

Meredith Medland: From which would [++] what are we talking about?

Janine Benyus: Well, ongoing conservation takes quite a bit of money. What we're looking to do is raise a $10 million fund and have that fund then produce $0.5 million annually that we will give through grassroots organizations doing the very, very best work on the ground to preserve whatever habitat we're talking about. We would love to build that fund over 10 years, but if we could get an infusion of money into that fund--we're thinking organically growing but, perhaps, we don’t have time for that. Maybe it's time for some people to just step up and fill that fund now so that we can start giving out the money.

Meredith Medland: Well, you have certainly stepped up to the plate and put yourself forward with biomimicry, I just want to thank you for that. Now, you have one more outcome. I think you said you wanted two. I heard that was the [++].

Janine Benyus: Yes. The other thing that we're working on is there are principles, you talk about these Codes of Conduct.

Meredith Medland: Yes.

Janine Benyus: And, life’s principles are not, right now, in design guidelines like ISO 1400, I don’t know if you know about this, but there are protocols that companies have to follow. They're just like safety protocols, like the Underwriters Lab sort of this thing. There are environmental protocols now, the design guidelines. But nature’s principles, which is a pretty high bar, they're not yet incorporated into these design guidelines. What I'd like to do is to see that happen, in the next three months, the first area I'd like to see that happening is building.

Meredith Medland: Perfect.

Janine Benyus: What we’d like to do is there's a Living Building Challenge that’s happening right now. It's being developed by the Cascadia Organization, It’s part of the Green Building Council, the Cascadia Chapter. What they're trying to do is set up standards for buildings that really make buildings more lifelike. One of the things that we’d like to do is to take our list to life’s principles that we teach--there's about 25 different principles that we teach--and to somehow put that into a Living Building Guideline.

The more we get back to the actual biology and we set standards that match the ecological performance of the ecosystems that we're building in, I think those should be the level of what is acceptable. If we're going to into an area and build, our building should sequester at least as much carbon as the surrounding ecosystem does. It should purify at least as much water as the riparian area right next door does. It should build at least as much soil as the meadow next door’s building. So you take your ecological performance standards for your building from the area itself.

There's a gentleman named Jason McLellan who is working on this. Jason and I are cooking up a workshop where we try to get even more--his has many of life’s principles in his building challenged right now--and we're mimic that even more lifelike.

Meredith Medland: It sounds like this is going to be a very different world three months from now. I'm convinced that at the rate things are changing, it all keeps changing better and better from here.

Janine Benyus: That’s been the unfolding path since I asked myself that question of “Who’s trying to emulate life’s great ideas?” Since everything has seem to--you know that feeling when you're in the flow and that you're doing something that is supported?

Meredith Medland: Yes.

Janine Benyus: You know that feeling when the doors open.

Meredith Medland: I do. That’s what happened with our show.

Janine Benyus: Really?

Meredith Medland: Yes, we went from a very small audience to Top 100 in June in iTunes and the audience has been growing, and it's absolutely amazing!

Janine Benyus: Wow!

Meredith Medland: I feel so privileged to have you on the show. So, thank you.

Janine Benyus: You're welcome. That you're doing the right thing at the right time and are the right person to do it, and it needs doing. I guess, the one thing that I realized in reading all the environmental horrors that we all read about everyday, I said, “OK, I've got to make sure that every single minute, I'm working on only what’s worth doing.”

That’s something I learn to when I look out here as Montana shops [++] from fall to winter. The organisms out here are only doing what is worth doing. They know that winter’s coming. They know they need to store more in their roots, and they need to get their seeds planted. The squirrels are really, really busy. They know what's worth doing. If anything, it's just been a path I've been on that I ask myself, “Is this a worthy challenge that I'm spending the time of my life doing?” If it's not, I move a little until I feel that it is. It’s nothing that these other intelligent organisms are not doing, they're teaching me everyday.

Meredith Medland: Good stuff! Thank you so much.

Janine Benyus: You're welcome.

Meredith Medland: That wraps up this delightful conversation. I want to let our listeners know that I believe it's about $2,500 to $3,500 to study what you or what some of your teachers either when you're going to Peru this Friday for a week and you have trips in Costa Rica and in Peru, they're on your website. So, if someone is interested in learning more about life’s principles and getting right in there, right into biomimicry, that’s an option. Is there any other schooling or training that you'd like plug or people can look at on your site real quickly before we go?

Janine Benyus: Sure. If you're a biologist, we do a training for biologists at the Design Table, and this is where we actually train the people that we then hire to do this work and that’s this summer in Montana. Yes, on the Rocky Mountain front.

Meredith Medland: Fantastic!

Janine Benyus: If anybody out there is listening and they're part of a company and you want to get in to the listening and emulating mode, come to and we would be happy to see if we can green not just your products but the whole company, that’s the important thing. When we say green, we mean it looks and functions as closely as possible to the rest of the organisms that we share the planet with.

Meredith Medland: Thank you so much for reminding about how beautiful the world is today. It's been a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you.

Janine Benyus: Thanks, Meredith.

Meredith Medland: Thanks. For text and transcripts of this show and other shows on the Personal Life Media Network, please visit You can email me at [email protected] or you can also go to and see my blog. Thanks so much and we’ll be looking forward to speaking with you next week. Thanks for “Living Green”.

Woman 1: Find more great shows like this on

Woman 2: And now, please enjoy this entertaining clip, “Recyclable Comedy” from our sponsor, Plenty Magazine.

Man 1: You want to look special for that special night. [++] a few of your cleansing experience so the antibacterial soap with the chemical triclosan . Triclosan is, well, technically, it's a pesticide. It stores in your body fat and might cause cancer, and it washes your troubles away. Then dry off with a little talcum which may or may not contain these pesticides, it's not really regulated. Roll on antiperspirant which might contain aluminum still suspected of causing Alzheimer’s. Dab yourself with a little perfume essence and something called phthalates which are in most fragrances and air fresheners. They cause reproductive problems and hormone disruptions. Finally, a dab of lipstick with lead. Chemicals, they make your night.

Man 2: For more “Recyclable Comedy”, go to