Overcome Confusion: Bio-Inspired terminology explained in simple terms

Posted by Julius Launhardt on April 18, 2020
Last updated on October, 23 2020
Categories: 

When talking to people about what we do, it is often difficult to use the right words and definitions. In this post, I will discuss the difference between biomimicry vs biomimetics, bioinspiration, bionics, bio-inspired design, and all the other bio-inspired terminology you might have heard before.

If you are short on time, you can find a summary at the end of the article.

Inspiration from nature has many names

Taking inspiration from nature is a concept as old as humanity itself. From Daedalus building wings of wax in Greek mythology to Da Vinci’s early drawings of helicopters and Otto Lilienthal studying the flight of birds, countless inventors have used their observations from nature to create incredible things.

Many advancements in science and technology would not have been made, if animals or plants had not provided a blueprint or model in the first place.

Throughout history, this approach has had different names. Bioinspiration, biomimicry, biomimetics, and bio-inspired design are some of the most common ones.

The term bionics is also frequently used, however, often leads people to first think of artificial limbs and cyborgs from your favorite comic books.

Bio-Inspired Terminology

In order to communicate the goals of a project between designers, engineers and scientists, it is important to agree on the bio-inspired terminology first. Otherwise, you run the risk of unsatisfactory project results and lost revenue.

There seems to be confusion about the difference between biomimicry vs biomimetics and other common terms more. In part, this is due to the lack of standardization and how terminology is taught around the world.

On the other hand, each word describes (slightly) different approaches and core principles. At the same time, many researchers and companies create their own names for the same thing for branding purposes.

The definitions presented here are taken from research papers and literature and combined with my experience applying bio-inspired design in practice. Based on the example of a gecko, I will show you how they differ.

Nature or biology inspired?

First off, let’s look at the question of why the prefix “bio” is used so frequently instead of “nature“. According to the Cambridge Dictionarybiology is defined as

a branch of knowledge that deals with living organisms and vital processes

It derives from the Greek word βίος (bios) meaning “life“. 

Nature, on the other hand, is described as

All the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the feature, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.

Although many words like bioinspiration or biomimicry seem to suggest that our inspiration purely stems from biology, this is not necessarily the case. Whenever we look to find answers to problems in design, research, and development, anything can be a source for potential solutions. This could lead to the conclusion that nature would be the more fitting prefix.

On the other hand, our first approach is usually to look at living things like animals or plants first, as they are more closely connected to processes humans perform and are exposed to.

Similarly, it can be argued that biology is indeed what we are most interested in and other fields like chemistry or physics fall under different categories.

However, if a researcher started observing animals and subsequently found a chemical process that turned into a successful product, would this disqualify him or her from being considered a true bio-inspired practitioner?

In the end, it can be concluded that both terms are fitting and “bio” has established itself as the prefix of choice primarily out of habit and potentially convenience. As such, this blog uses bio-inspired and nature-inspired interchangeably, for example.

Example: Observing geckos and finding ideas based on their physiology, anatomy and behavior falls under both nature or biology inspiration.

Brown gecko on white table.
Who wouldn’t be inspired by this cool little gecko?

Bioinspiration

  • Getting inspired by nature but the implementation varies

Bioinspiration (sometimes spelled bio-inspiration) is the overall term used when designers, inventors and developers turn to biology and nature in the hopes of observing patterns, forms, features and mechanisms that help in solving problems.

The manner and extent to which such principles from nature are used in the technical domain is not specified. It can refer to looking at geometries in nature, conducting detailed research on a certain species or designing shapes in a more natural way.

It is important to note that bioinspiration does not imply that any specific methodology has been used which is the biggest difference to other terms on this list.

Bioinspiration Example

Taking a walk through a park which leads you to think that more natural and organic shapes would be great for designing the interior of your office building. You notice the gecko and it adds to the overall impression.

Potential Outcome: Your company’s new building resembles more organic structures, similar to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Inside of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The church was designed by famous architect and artist Antoni Gaudi and finished after over 120 years of constructions. All structural elements of the church are inspired by nature such as the pillars resembling tree trunks or pagodas in the shape of flowers.

Biomimetics

  • Mimic biological mechanisms directly in technical devices

The term biomimetics was first introduced by Otto Schmitt in the 1950s. Mimetics is derived from the Greek word μίμησις (mīmēsis) for imitation. As such, biomimetics is the imitation of principles in nature for use in technical applications.

Since the 1970s, the Webster dictionary defines biomimetics as follows:

The study of the formation, structure, or function of biologically produced substances and materials (such as enzymes or silk) and biological mechanisms and processes (such as protein synthesis or photosynthesis) especially for the purpose of synthesizing similar products by artificial mechanisms which mimic natural ones

Although a little lengthy, this definition works out very clearly the goal to copy biological mechanisms as closely as possible. During his doctoral research, Schmitt studied the nerves in squid to imitate nerve propagation in a technical device.

His attempts resulted in the Schmitt trigger, a basic comparator circuit that still holds relevance today.

One aspect often connected to biomimetics is optimization. Translating biological systems and mechanisms should lead to improvements or potentially replacement of existing technical solutions.

While this can be a potential outcome, this definition applies more to bio-inspired design which will be explained below.

Biomimetics example

Example: Observing geckos walk up walls you decide that this would make for a great product on its own. In order to mimic the same behavior, your team first researches the gecko’s skin and finds that it is made up of small hairs on top of scales, as shown in the image below.

So-called Van der Waals forces between molecules lead to the “stickiness” of the skin to any surface. In the second step, you copy the same structure and create a technical version of it. This video shows how NASA did that in the case of gecko skin.

Close-up of scales on gecko skin.
Close up image of gecko skin showing the scales geometry. Van der Waals forces are the cause for the incredible “stickiness” of the skin to almost any surface.

Biomimicry

  • Mimicking nature’s principles with an emphasis on sustainability.

Biomimicry is the arguably most common term used for describing the process of copying directly from nature. The term has been around since the 1980s and was made popular by Janine Benyus in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997.

The author herself describes biomimicry as a

new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems

In contrast to biomimetics, Benyus explicitly emphasizes sustainability as one of the main objectives in the design process. Biomimicry is therefore not only a description of the process but a goal and value proposition in itself.

By copying and translating processes from biology into technical applications, humans can become more connected to their environment. Valuing nature as a “model, measure, and mentor” is therefore the underlying theme. If you are interested in reading the book for yourself, you can get it on amazon here:

Biomimicry Example

You see geckos walk up walls and see how this is a great mechanism nature has created. You would then spend more time in nature to see how geckos blend into their natural environment and how their sticky feet connects to it.

Your team then mimics the behavior similarly to the example shown for biomimetics. Since your goal is to create sustainable innovation, you could look for improvements in the materials, for example by reducing plastic waste.

Gecko walking over desert sand.
In biomimicry, you spend time in nature to observe and find inspiration.

Biomimicry vs Biomimetics

If you search online you will often come across direct comparisons of biomimicry vs biomimetics. Both terms have been used almost synonymously in recent years in order to describe the process of finding inspiration in nature and copying it in technical devices.

While this is not false per se, it does neglect the desire for sustainability that biomimicry promotes. I therefore encourage you to use the terms that fit the goal and scope of the application as they were intended.

Many people also neglect that there is yet a fundamental difference between the above mentioned terms and bio-inspired design, which I will explain in the following.

Bio-Inspired Design

  • Use nature as inspiration for technical products without copying its mechanisms

Bio-inspired design uses a variety of different techniques and methods to develop products that were inspired by but not copied from nature. In contrast to biomimicry and biomimetics, bio-inspired design does not attempt to build artificial versions of natural features.

Instead, they serve as ideas that can be combined with others to come up with new and unique designs.

As mentioned above, biomimetics is often credited with being optimization focused, however, this applies more to bio-inspired design. While biomimetics is concerned with mimicking principles, bio-inspired design tries to combine nature and technical domain when it is useful.

Natural mechanisms often lead to improvements in regard to efficiency or wear and tear. Animals and plants are usually very efficient, as energy in form of food, sunlight exposure or rest is rare. Technology, on the other hand, provides the means for top performances that surpass nature.

Bio-inspired designer, therefore, do not see much value in merely copying processes as it can potentially limit the solutions they can come up with.

Our courses in bio-inspired design show you how you can create incredible products by taking the best of both nature and technology and combining it.

Bio-Inspired Design Example

Example: You are looking for a way to develop new, innovative climbing gear for your next trip to the mountains. As climbing is an act often observed in nature, you look for animals and plants that do so.

Among climbing plants, monkeys and mountain lions, you come across geckos. You analyze their behavior and how they are able to climb almost any surface at any angle or degree as described above.

You think the van der Waals forces that “pull” them towards the surface are a great mechanism. However, you believe it could be improved by using powerful “vacuum”-like sucking knobs to the crampons during your climb. In the end, your final product uses a surface modeled after gecko skin, however, the “knobs” use an electric sucking mechanism to improve the stickiness.

You can find more examples for bio-inspired design on this page.

Two men ice climbing up a wall.
In bio-inspired design, gecko skin may serve as inspiration to develop new climbing gear. The sticky mechanism is not copied but enhanced by technology to make it even more powerful.

Bionics

  • Same concept as bio-inspired design but usually refers to prosthetics

Last but not least, the term bionics was introduced by Jack E. Steele in 1958 as a combination of the words biology and electronics. According to Webster’s dictionary, it is

a science concerned with the application of data about the functioning of biological systems to the solution of engineering problems

Similar to the comparison of biomimicry vs biomimetics, bionics vs bio-inspired design is another question that is raised frequently.

In essence, their common goal is to get inspired by biological systems and apply those principles to the technical problems without mimicking them directly.

While bionics was originally a term for the technical domain, engineers and designers prefer bio-inspired design in order to distinguish themselves from the medical field. Here, bionics often refers to advanced prosthetics.

In popular culture, bionics is often used in connection with cyborgs like the Terminator in comic books. In today’s research and literature, it has almost completely been replaced by bio-inspired design in any publications.

However, it is not wrong to use it if you prefer it over the alternatives.

Bionics Example

For the purpose of using the more common understanding of term, we will connect bionics to the field of advanced prosthetics. The approach is similar to the bio-inspired design example given above.

However, instead of new climbing gear, the sticky gecko approach is applied to prosthetic legs to give them better grip on slippery surfaces. This way, they can be used to walk on ice, for example.

Engineer attaching prosthetic arm on patient.
The term bionics is often used for prosthetics and cyborgs with humanoid features.

Summary

The following table summarizes the terms explained above:

BionspirationGetting inspired by nature, implementation varies
BiomimeticsMimic biological mechanisms directly in technical devices
BiomimicryMimicking nature’s principles with an emphasis on sustainability.
Bio-Inspired DesignUse nature as inspiration for technical products without copying its mechanisms
BionicsSame concept as bio-inspired design but usually refers to prosthetics
Summary of the bio-inspired terminology explained in this post. Click on each word to jump to the corresponding section in the text.

Biomimicry vs biomimetics, bionics, or bio-inspired design, there are many ways nature can enhance technology. I hope you now have a better understanding of the bio-inspired terminology used in literature, research, and design and know what they stand for.

In the future, I will expand this post by other terms. If you have any questions or comments, post them in the comments below!

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