Making a Living with BID (Norbert Hoeller)

© Kheng Guan Toh -

A number of participants in the Turning Ideas into Reality conference call hosted by Emer Natalio described the challenges of trying to apply their biomimicry skills in the real world.  During the March 2nd BID Community conference call, Ernst-Jan Mul and Mike Westdijk shared their experiences in the Netherlands.  Both had based their Masters' thesis on biomimicry and worked closely with design firms.  In spite of his design firm’s interest in biomimicry, Mike found that time and financial constraints imposed by clients made it difficult to justify biomimicry.  Ernst-Jan had similar issues and decided to become a free-lance designer in January 2010 so that he could maintain his focus on bio-inspired design.

Both Mike and Janet have found that biomimicry can help people break out of their routine, challenge traditional ways of thinking and try new approaches.  They get excited about biomimicry and generate unexpected ideas, but turning these ideas into reality is often difficult for a wide range of reasons including:

  • awareness of the fundamental concepts of biomimicry,
  • framing and communicating these concepts in an understandable way without oversimplifying them,
  • convincing companies to consider sustainable design and at the same time adopt a new design approach and implementation processes,
  • becoming lost in the possibilities of biomimicry and losing track of the needs of the business,
  • insufficient resources (time, expertise, money) to complete the task.

Ernst-Jan has been able to find companies who are already aware of biomimicry or sustainability.  Rather than spending a lot of time explaining the concepts, he emphasizes his skills and track record at solving similar problems, selling the process rather than a specific outcome.  Depending on the background and interests of the company, he leads with either sustainability or biomimicry.  Finding the right person in the organization who understands the concepts and can be an internal advocate is essential.

Ernst-Jan has tried to integrate biomimicry into the standard problem analysis and design approach, enhancing the process instead of introducing something new.  The process should be familiar to designers even if the inputs and selection criteria are different.  He has developed a personal portfolio of case studies relevant to the corporate world. 

Many designers struggle with finding good biological examples that relate to the functional description of a problem and then turning those examples into relevant solutions.  In addition to encouraging the search for specific solutions in nature, Mike believes biomimicry can help us think about problems in new and deeper ways by providing designers with novel metaphors.  The Life's Principles capture some of these metaphors, helping designers understand the different "rules of the game" in nature and allowing them to see problems from a different perspective.  The Life's Principles can also assist designers in generating a divergent set of ideas in a structured fashion that converges on a more sustainable system. 

The March 15th conference call explored how Life’s Principles could be used as an idea generation tool.  While working on his Masters' thesis at a design company, Mike used six of the principles to generate novel ideas for solving a problem.  Each principle was applied in turn, using examples from nature to make the principle tangible for designers.  A brainstorming session was then used to identify how the best ideas could be combined into a general solution concept. 

Ernst-Jan's environmental scan and connection diagram tools help operationalize two of the Life's Principles: "locally attuned and responsive" and "leveraging interdependence".  The tools are novel but compatible with the way designers think, guiding them to understand how their product or service fits within the relevant economic, social and environmental systems.  By visually representing the product’s relationship with the environment, the tools help designers deal with more complex problems, create opportunities by identifying synergy, and increase product performance by accessing untapped resources.  They also emphasize the importance of designing solutions that are imbedded within the larger environment rather than being viewed in isolation.

A number of participants expressed an interest in applying biomimicry to real problems.  We discussed whether the 2011 International Algae Competition that Janet had discovered could provide an opportunity to practice skills, evaluate tools and methods, and at the same time demonstrate the value of biomimicry by delivering a competitive solution.  Although the competition has a flavor of bio-utilization, the first track provides opportunities to design a biomimetic system around the function being delivered by algae.  A core team has been formed – their progress can be followed in the Algae Competition forums.

Image Credits:


Casey Wong graduated from the OCAD biomimetics program and is a Toronto industrial designer working on a rooftop greenhouse project involving biomimicry and nanotechnology.  He is also interested in self-erecting structures.



 Ernst-Jan Mul graduated in 2009 with an MSc in Integrated Product Design from the Delft University of Technology.  Combining his interest in research, sustainability, biology and technology, he translated the sustainability paradigm of biomimicry into a structured design strategy.  He works as a freelance bio-inspired designer since January 2010.


Heather Luna is a freelance consultant around education for sustainability. She works with the UK Higher Education Academy and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.



Janet Kubler teaches biology at California State University Northridge with a particular interest in biology from a functional perspective.  She took the Biologist at the Design Table (BaDT) course in 2004. 




 Karen Verbeek has a biology and industrial design background and attended the Costa Rica Biomimicry Workshop.  She is currently focusing on education in the Greater Toronto Area and building a biomimicry network. 



 Mike Westdijk is an industrial designer from the Netherlands who is interested in using biomimicry to design products that are better integrated into the systems (economic, social and environmental) in which the products are imbedded.



Lisa Schmidtke works as a Certified Biomimicry Professional at Clark Nexsen, an architecture and engineering firm in Norfolk (Virginia), and has been given the mission to integrate biomimicry into the firm’s practice.  She studied architecture and interior design as an undergrad and is 1 of 15 graduates of the first Two-Year Certificate Program offered by the Biomimicry Institute.

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