The first post in this series profiles Claire Janisch, the founder of Biomimicry South Africa, one of 31 regional biomimicry networks across the globe. Currently, BiomimicrySA is working on, among other exciting projects, an effort to create a biomimicry-based water treatment system in informal settlements in the Western Cape. Read on to learn about Claire’s biomimicry “aha” moment, and how it propelled her to where she is today.
Tell us about how you first learned about biomimicry. What was your biomimicry “aha” moment?
A colleague showed a few slides about what we are learning from snakes, spiders and shells in a presentation in 2007. I was intrigued and went onto the biomimicry website to learn more and sign up for emails. I decided I wanted to study it and the next email from the institute advertised an immersion workshop in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. I signed up for that. My aha moment was in the rainforest watching how everyone on the workshop transformed as they explored the genius of nature and realised how powerful biomimicry was for shifting perspectives – both hearts and minds – in the way we relate to nature and in the way we begin to see a new possibility for our future. A deeper “aha” was in how biomimicry addresses so much more than just the design of a new product or process- the opportunity to rethink and redesign systems is what struck me most.
What is your current job and how do you incorporate biomimicry into your work or life?
I founded and currently head up BiomimicrySA. It is pretty much all I do from consulting to presentations to education/training and research.
How did you get to where you are today? What paths led you to biomimicry?
After graduating from a chemical engineering undergrad degree I was struck by what a mess is made in manufacturing almost everything. I completed an MSc. in chemical engineering in the field of clean tech (process engineering) hoping to find out if we could clean up the mess we made. It took me on a long journey working on some of the worst examples of the most toxic industries and hazardous waste management, into life cycle assessment and design, in almost every area from industry to agriculture, urban design, etc. It seemed that everything we make or design caused more destruction than benefit. After spending 6 months living and working on organic, biodynamic and permaculture farms I wanted to find out if nature could inform industrial systems as well. The journey described above in finding out about biomimicry lead me to Peru biomimicry workshop in 2007. In Peru Dayna told me about the 2 year Biomimicry Pro course she was setting up. In 2008 I was signed up and on the BPro cours. In 2009 I helped bring Janine Benyus to South Africa. In 2010 I started BiomimicrySA officially. In 2011-2013 I was a co-facilitator for the next BPro cohort. BiomimicrySA has been growing since then.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to enter the field of biomimicry or hoping to incorporate it into their work?
I often have people ask me how they can work for me or where they can find a job in biomimicry. I said I didn’t ask that question. I knew biomimicry was so important that I decided to just do it and create opportunities to work with it where I was rather than waiting for someone to give me an opportunity. My advice is decide on what you most want to do with biomimicry and find out how you can make that happen. Anyone who wants to work with biomimicrySA – we spend time to meet them, find out what they’re interested in and encourage them to initiate their ideas as projects for themselves and if we can support them or join them we do. We don’t employ anyone. Each project pays for itself. We basically follow Life’s Principles – modular, bottom up, self organising.
How are you making an impact?
If you do a Google analytics search on the term biomimicry – South Africa comes up as the region with the highest search rating. It’s an indication that we’re having an impact in growing the meme here. We have some large projects in South Africa around water treatment that are yet to be implemented and hopefully will have an important impact for communities and ecosystems when implemented. The design of these systems was in the top 10 of Europe’s GreenTech awards. The school based education initiatives are having an impact in terms of results shown where the number of kids taking Life Sciences as a subject is increasing significantly etc.
What do you need next to do what you want to do in the world?
It would help enormously if we just had help on the administrative side of what we do everyday. We do almost all the technical, educational and administrative components – just three of us and we aren’t really administratively talented. We also have so much demand for biomimicry education at school and tertiary level and don’t have the capacity to engage with so many universities and too many schools. We’re creating a potential response to this demand but would need support to roll it out.
If you could have any biomimetic super power, what would it be and why?
To make all materials used by humans using life-friendly chemistry at ambient temperatures and upcycle all of them into greater value while continually creating conditions conducive to life.