Are Ethos and (Re)connect Essential to Biomimicry? (Philip Ling, Danielle Davelaar)

© Yang MingQi - Fotolia.comThe Biomimicry Specialist Certification Program offered by the Biomimicry 3.8 (B3.8) organization provides a holistic experience of the three essential elements of biomimicry: ethos, (re)connect and emulate.  The case studies used for illustration typically aligned primarily with emulation of nature, without elaborating on ethos and (re)connect characteristics.  Sometimes ethos and (re)connect had clearly never been considered in the project or product.  We prepared a survey to get a better feel for what the broader audience of biomimics thought and to encourage discussion.  Did our colleague practitioners see ethos and (re)connect as core to biomimicry, essential to its practice or … not so much?

Context and perspective

Biomimicry is an emerging, fast growing, interdisciplinary field, catalyzing change and sustainable innovation.  As in natural pioneering communities, similar approaches are also burgeoning (biomimetics, bionics, bio-inspired, eco-design, eco-engineering and others), creating confusion and competition in the bio-innovation arena (Figure 1).  Common to all these approaches is drawing inspiration and learning from nature.  What differentiates biomimicry - on paper - is its meme, where ethos, (re)connect and emulate are stated core values, with the goal of “creating conditions conducive to life”.  Is biomimicry - in practice - playing out this way?

Figure 1: A word cloud impression of the field of bio-inspired innovation

         Figure 1: A word cloud impression of the field of bio-inspired innovation


Meaning of ethos, (re)connect and emulate

Ethos, (re)connect and emulate are basic concepts used by the B 3.8 organization to introduce the biomimicry meme and brand and to describe their particular approach.  According to the Biomimicry 3.8 Resource Handbook, the ethos element forms the essence of our ethics, our intentions, and our underlying philosophy for why we practice biomimicry.  The (re)connect element is about regaining the understanding and recognition that two “separate” identities (i.e. humans and nature) are actually deeply intertwined.  Emulate is the action of biomimicry: t brings in the principles, patterns, and strategies found in nature to inform design.  Designing with nature is being proactive in achieving the vision of humans fitting in on earth.  Though emulate is only one of the three essential elements of biomimicry, it is the one most people have heard about and usually associate with “doing biomimicry”.


Survey Questions and Responses

In order to assess how consistently and successfully the elements of ethos and (re)connect are being integrated into current biomimicry practice, we conducted a survey among 119 graduates and candidate graduates of the Biomimicry 3.8’s Specialist and Professional programs.  In total 24 survey responses were received (20%).

The survey posed in total 30 questions in the following five categories:

  1. Tell us about you and biomimicry
  2. How do you emphasize the three essential elements: emulate, ethos and (re)connect?
  3. Communicating what biomimicry is
  4. Addressing ethos and (re)connect in Case Studies and Life’s Principles
  5. Future developments

What follows is an abstract of the survey results.

Category 1 - Please tell us about you and biomimicry

Most of the respondents identified their roles as biomimicry educators, trainers and consultants. 70% of the respondents affirmed to dedicate at least 70% of their daily professional life to biomimicry.  The group that took the survey could therefore be considered as active biomimicry practitioners.

Category 2 - How do you weigh the importance of the Essential Elements (EE´s):  yourself personally, professionally when spreading biomimicry, what is your audience’s perception, biomimicry as perceived by the outside world?

Biomimicry in practice often differs from the way we idealize biomimicry in our personal sphere.  Figure 2 shows that the respondents held all three essential elements highly, both personally and professionally.  When presenting the essential elements practitioners responded that their audiences favored emulate most strongly, but were generally receptive above average to all three essential elements.

Figure 2:  Summary of the importance of the biomimicry Essential Elements (EE´s)

             Figure 2:  Summary of the importance of the biomimicry Essential Elements (EE´s)

When asked to assess the outside world’s perception of the importance of the essential elements to biomimicry (and Biomimicry 3.8), 90% of the respondents agreed that they were perceived as moderately important.

Category 3 - Tell us about your focus and challenges when communicating biomimicry as a practitioner

Respondents felt that while they had a strong alignment with the essential elements and gave a fairly good score to B 3.8 for describing what biomimicry is (both green bars in Figure 3), they did not feel able to or comfortable in communicating this effectively and integrally with most of their audiences.  They did so only in about 30% of all cases (white bar in Figure 3).   In 70% of the cases, respondents indicated they use Life’s Principles as their primary tool to communicate biomimicry.  It therefore appears that audiences are more receptive to the full biomimicry story than practitioners give them credit, which is important for practitioners to know, and should help to build that internal comfort level.

Figure 3: Perception of and comfort level with the biomimicry Essential Elements (EE´s)

            Figure 3: Perception of and comfort level with the biomimicry Essential Elements (EE´s)

The difficulty in communicating the essential elements is reflected in the fact that a great majority of respondents (78%, yellow bar in Figure 3) expressed the need for a more unified and consistent message from B 3.8, in particular to reach those audiences that are less receptive to ethos and (re)connect. 

When asked where to best address the essential elements in biomimicry training, 22% responded that they should be integrated with the Life’s Principles and 26% answered that they should be part of the “Biomimicry Thinking” wheel.  The other 52% said they should be addressed separately, were happy with the current approach, or did not know.

We also questioned the surveyed practitioners on the kind of challenges they faced as they spread the word about biomimicry.  Typical difficulties and challenges were reported to be:

  • Slow to commit to following the biomimicry path.
  • Defining the value proposition for biomimicry and using a consultant.
  • Long timeline for the development of a solution.
  • Does biomimicry really translate into durable products?
  • Biomimicry is risky – it has a short track record.
  • Can it be commercialized affordably?
  • Biomimicry consultants are generalists and lack knowledge to face technical discussions with experts inside business product development.
  • Where to start the transformation of a business that is disconnected from nature.
  • How to engage different professions.
  • Weak hands-on practice, end-to-end case studies.
  • Applying “Biomimicry Thinking” to non-product challenges.
  • Building a team of biomimicry specialists for a project.
  • Conveying the need for using a systemic approach.
  • Really understanding the biology.
  • Showing the science behind biomimicry.
  • Communicating the ethos of biomimicry.
  • Emulate is easy to talk about because it is concrete, reconnect and ethos are “soft”.

Category 4 - How well do Biomimicry Case Studies highlight all three Essential Elements?

A majority of respondents (62%) felt that current case studies were mostly emulation-focused, and did not highlight all three essential elements effectively and integrally.  A minority (38%) was fairly satisfied with the way case studies illustrate biomimicry thinking and approach (see Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Case studies alignment with biomimicry Essential Elements

                    Figure 4:  Case studies alignment with biomimicry Essential Elements

When sharing a case study, 40% of the surveyed practitioners try to find and highlight all three essential elements while 30% said they mostly focused on the emulation element only.  Among the rest (30 %) practice varied.  Some did not address ethos and (re)connect at all.  Others mentioned that most case studies have all three essential elements in them implicitly, so they are always being addressed.  These results bring to light a lack of clarity and a need for support in the interpretation of case studies material.  Another item that surfaced was that case studies tend to pay attention to the natural model and the resulting product, without showing how the biomimicry thinking process was used to get to the successful outcome.  Also noted was that the same handful of case studies get used repeatedly.

Respondents named several case studies where they felt all three elements were recognizable:  Calera Cement (, Eden Project (, Biolytix (, Eastgate Center (,_Harare_), Biomatrica ( and Living Machines (  Links have been provided so you can read up and compare your interpretation.

Category 5 - The future of biomimicry: without ethos & (re)connect the biomimicry brand will get diluted.

Our expectation was that most of our colleagues would agree with the above statement given that ethos and (re)connect are explicitly part of the Biomimicry meme.  But from the response, it became clear that more than half were either not sure (21%) or thought differently (21%), or fully disagreed (12%).

Among those who did not support our statement, some felt that ethos and (re)connect were not a must but rather were something extra that improves biomimicry outcomes.  Others responded that the three essential elements were interconnected building blocks of biomimicry practice and did not need to be separately visible in every project.  It was also argued that by seeking and referencing natural models, all three essential elements were automatically addressed.  Still others contended that as biomimicry goes mainstream, acceptance of ethos and (re)connect aspects will increase until they are fully embraced.


Survey’s main conclusions

The Biomimicry practitioners surveyed indicated that their personal weighing of the importance of the three essential elements is high.  In the few instances that ethos, (re)connect and emulate are integral to a presentation, they are well received.  However, when presenting biomimicry and in general when spreading the word, most practitioners focus primarily on the emulate component as well as Life’s Principles, feeling that their audiences can best relate to these concepts.  The results of the survey indicate that B 3.8 practitioners see ethos and (re)connect as important rather than essential elements of biomimicry practice.  Many nuanced feelings and gradations between extreme views were expressed.

Practitioners said they were facing many challenges when communicating biomimicry and felt the need for a unified message to deliver with respect to the biomimicry meme as a whole, including illustrative case studies.


Reflections & Thanks

We consider this survey and the related issues around defining and communicating the biomimicry meme and developing a practical approach as an ongoing, living debate that will expand and evolve as the field matures.

The authors see the danger that “using nature as a model” may result in designs and products that still feed the prevailing industrial processes and consumer consumption patterns, creating the illusion of progress and sustainability while business-as-usual and the downward spiral of world ecosystems degradation continue.  Having a set of metrics, perhaps based on Life´s Principles, would help to set the bar.

Our hope is that the combined core values of ethos, (re) connect, and emulate, espoused by biomimicry, play a meaningful role in the burgeoning global sustainability movement.  Our view is that bio-inspired activity should include reconnecting people with nature, respecting and restoring nature, discovering that nature is amazing and rediscovering that we are not outside of, but very intrinsically part of nature.  We feel that only in this way will we be able to realize the social, environmental and economical bio-inspired innovation needed to create a healthy fit for humanity within the natural context on this planet.  Our survival depends on it.

We wish to thank all those who participated in the survey, or contributed to the “Ethos and (Re)connect” session at the June 2012 7th Annual Biomimicry Education Summit and first Global Biomimicry Conference at the University of Massachusetts Boston where these results were first presented. You are cordially invited to add your voice the discussion by taking the survey yourself at this link: Biomimicry Practitioner Survey.


Biomimicry Resource Handbook, A seed bank of knowledge and best practices (2013).

Image Credits:


Philip Ling is a licensed professional engineer (electrical), LEED accredited professional, and Certified Biomimicry Specialist who is active in the fields of energy efficiency and power quality.  In 1996, he co-founded Powersmiths, a Toronto company focused on helping organizations advance towards their sustainability goals.




Danielle Davelaar is a Water and Sustainability Professional, and Certified Biomimicry Specialist. She has been working as an independent advisor and researcher for the past 30 years, tackling multidisciplinary sustainability challenges at the interface between the natural and the human world, and connecting fields like philosophy, ecology, management and technology.



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reposted from LinkedIn

What a fantastic study, Danielle and Philip! This is very helpful information and affirms many of the patterns I've gleaned from related one-on-one conversations over the past few years.

I vividly remember the opening activity of the first B3.8 workshop I participated in a number of years ago, in which participants were asked to gather into three camps: Group A was for folks who resonated most with the ethos seed, Group B was for folks who resonated most with the reconnect seed, and Group C was for folks who resonated most with the emulate seed. I was at a loss for where to go; there was no group for "all of the above." These lines of division didn't make sense to me; I couldn't choose.

I think there's a lot of value in recognizing the different reasons people get excited about biomimicry, and the "three seeds" approach is a great way to distill a few of the entry-points to the conversation.

However, the visual model has always seemed a bit flawed when used to describe (or understand how to embrace) biomimicry's holistic value proposition. The three seeds are all displayed as equals, when in reality they are very different kinds of ideas and play out very differently in how we practice and share biomimicry.

The Resource Handbook's description actually lays out the differences very clearly: "the ethos element [is] why we practice biomimicry," "the reconnect element is about regaining [an] understanding," and "emulate is the action." Ethos is a reason. Reconnect is a foundational approach. Emulate is an explicit set of activities.

These ideas actually map out very well to Simon Sinek's Golden Circle: according to B3.8's definition, "Ethos" represents one of the reasons WHY people practice biomimicry and is WHY biomimicry has resonated so strongly with the sustainability movement, while other similar disciplines have not. "Reconnect" is a foundational HOW of biomimicry. "Emulate" is a WHAT; it's the most immediately palpable activity and is the face of biomimicry.

Changing out various elements of this Golden Circle exposes concepts activities that biomimicry often gets clustered with. For instance, consider a circle that still has "emulate" as the WHAT, but replace the WHY with "to push the boundaries of what humans have done before" and you wind up with many of the other bio-x disciplines (bionics, biomimetics, etc). Conversely, a circle that keeps "ethos" as the WHY and "reconnect" as a HOW, but replaces the WHAT with "appreciate and protect," and you get biophilia and the conservation movement.

For me, this has all boiled down to a pretty simple understanding: a good share of WHAT we do as biomimicry practitioners—consciously emulating successful biological adaptations—is virtually the same as what all bio-inspired innovators are doing; WHY we do it and HOW we communicate about it is what makes the concept of "biomimicry" so unique and urgent.

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