Biomimicry vs. biophilia: A primer | GreenBiz (2024)

This story first appeared on the blog of Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability consulting and strategic planning firm.

You know you’ve crossed a special threshold in sustainable design when one of your biggest pet peeves is people confusing biophilia and biomimicry. I’m going to put my greeny geekiness on full display by dedicating a whole blog post to straightening out this common confusion.

It’s easy to mix up these two terms — biomimicry and biophilia are similar in many ways. They sound similar, they were both born out of the environmental movement and they both relate to nature. However, they define different concepts with different aims. Understanding how they differ and what issues they solve is key to unlocking the breadth of solutions nature has to offer — from sustainable, innovative designs to improved human health and wellbeing.

So what's the difference?

In a nutshell, biomimicry is the "mimicry," or more accurately, the emulation of life’s engineering. In contrast, biophilia describes humans' connection with nature and biophilic design is replicating experiences of nature in design to reinforce that connection. Biomimicry is an innovation method to achieve better performance; biophilic design is an evidence-based design method to improve health and wellbeing. Biomimicry is more heavily used in technology and product development circles; biophilia applies more directly to interior design, architecture and urban design.

Biomimicry is an innovation method to achieve better performance; biophilic design is an evidence-based design method to improve health and wellbeing.

Essentially, these two concepts draw upon nature in different ways. Biomimicry recognizes the innovation potential of life’s tested-and-true "technologies." Biophilia recognizes the health benefits of mankind’s biological connectedness with nature. Together, they show the diversity of inspiration we can derive from nature. Still confused? Let’s dig a little deeper into each concept.


noun | bio·mim·ic·ry | \¦bī-ō-¦mi-mi-krē\

Biomimicry vs. biophilia: A primer | GreenBiz (1)

Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of natural forms, patterns and processes to solve technological challenges. It leverages nearly 4 billion years of nature’s evolutionary problem-solving to create high-performance and generally more sustainable designs and technologies. It is, in essence, an alternative method to innovating where the first step is to understand how nature overcomes similar challenges to the design or engineering challenge encountered and then to apply that knowledge.

Biomimicry is one of several terms — along with biomorphism and bioutilization — that falls under the umbrella of what Terrapin calls bioinspired innovation. Biomimicry and other forms of bioinspired innovation can be used to tackle challenges at many scales and across industries (see the interactive infographic in Tapping into Nature to explore over 100 bioinspired technologies and their associated industries).

One of my favorite examples of biomimicry is Blue Planet’s carbon-positive cement and building materials. Blue Planet’s technology mimics corals’ ability to use dissolved CO2 in ocean water to build their hard calcium carbonate skeletons, a process called biomineralization. Blue Planet’s process starts by extracting CO2 from flue gas (the stream emitted from coal plants and other combustion sources) and combines it with a source of calcium to create cement, aggregate, pigments and roofing tiles. This low-energy chemical process sequesters carbon in a durable form rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. By emulating how natural organisms use CO2 as a resource, Blue Planet has created a unique carbon capture solution.


noun | bio·phil·ia | \ˌbī-ō-ˈfi-lē-ə, -ˈfēl-yə\

Biophilia, although most commonly known as the title of a Björk album, is garnering a lot of interest from the design community. Biophilia, which translates to "love of life," signifies humans’ innate biological and emotional need to connect with nature. Biophilic design endeavors to forge this connection by leveraging or inserting instances of nature, natural patterns or spatial conditions into the built environment.

Biophilic design sounds great to nature-lovers such as myself who crave hiking through natural landscapes or visiting the local aquarium. But what’s the significance of biophilia to the rest of the population who would prefer a spa weekend to a camping trip? Research in environmental psychology and neuroscience continues to demonstrate that certain elements and conditions in nature have significant benefits to our health and wellbeing. Biophilic elements have been shown to reduce stress, improve cognitive performance and support positive emotions and mood. Biophilic design applies the science in order to create healthful spaces in a variety of environments, from schools and workplaces to hotels and urban streetscapes.

Because it’s difficult and unnecessary to plant a forest in your office, Terrapin instead works with the 14 patterns of biophilic design to create targeted instances of nature in spaces. Each pattern refers to a specific natural element that has been shown to have beneficial health effects. Some patterns are intuitive, such as Visual Connection with Nature, which can be achieved by having indoor plants or water features. Others are less obvious, such as Prospect, which refers to spatial conditions where one can survey a space or has a view across an expanse. The Cookfox office (PDF) is a great example of a space that demonstrates both patterns.

Some similarities

Now, some of you familiar with these fields may argue that the difference between biomimicry and biophilia is not always clear-cut. Biomimicry and biophilia do overlap. Most commonly, biomimicry and biophilic design come together in biomorphism, or the mimicry of natural forms. Take, for instance, the striking Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall by Achim Menges at the ICD Universität Stuttgart, which derives its lightweight form and paneled construction from the sea urchin’s shell morphology of interlocking bony plates. It is certainly biomimetic because its structural characteristics were inspired by the sea urchin. It is also biophilic because it possesses characteristics of Pattern 8: Biomorphic Forms & Patterns.

If the design does not adhere to biological principles that imbue it with superior performance, we do not consider it true biomimicry.

However, not all biomorphic designs are necessarily biomimetic or biophilic. If the design does not adhere to biological principles that imbue it with superior performance, we do not consider it true biomimicry. Likewise, not all biomorphic forms are biophilic. If a biomorphic form mimics creatures such as snakes or spiders that are perceived by humans as dangerous, they can elicit a fear response — a reaction termed "biophobia."

Such designs do not support positive health benefits, and therefore we do not consider them biophilic. In ambiguous cases, what is considered biomimicry or biophilia can become a matter of opinion. Ultimately, what truly matters is whether the design, technology or product achieves the desired outcomes, such as high-performance, sustainability or positive effects on health and wellbeing. Using these terms of biomimicry and biophilia gives us a common language and accepted methodologies that consistently yield effective designs.

Rooted in the same philosophy

In addition to some similar outcomes, biophilia and biomimicry are also both founded upon a deep appreciation of nature. Each concept recognizes that nature provides us with an untapped source of solutions to our most dire issues. Biomimetic technologies such as Blue Planet provide solutions to reverse climate change. Biophilic design counters the adverse health effects of urban environments, a critical issue in light of rapid urbanization.

More deeply, these concepts represent a collective reaction against the ill effects of the industrial age and our perceived dominion over nature. Biomimicry, biophilia and other offshoots of the sustainability and green building movement herald a paradigm shift in our relationship with nature. We have begun to realize that our current mode of living is unsustainable and that we deeply depend on the health of natural ecosystems and the planet to survive and thrive. The early successes of biomimicry and biophilia demonstrate how working with nature is the next logical step toward establishing restorative systems that help us create a more prosperous future.

Do you know the difference between biophilia and biomimicry? Take the quiz at the original Terrapin Bright Green story here.

Biomimicry vs. biophilia: A primer | GreenBiz (2024)


Biomimicry vs. biophilia: A primer | GreenBiz? ›

So what's the difference? In a nutshell, biomimicry

Biomimetics or biomimicry is the emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. › wiki › Biomimetics
is the "mimicry," or more accurately, the emulation of life's engineering. In contrast, biophilia describes humans' connection with nature and biophilic design is replicating experiences of nature in design to reinforce that connection.

What are the three types of biomimicry? ›

What are the 3 types of Biomimicry?
  • Copying form and shape.
  • Copying a process.
  • Mimicking at an ecosystem's level.

What is the difference between biophilic and biomorphic? ›

Biomorphism looks at nature as an inspiration for unconventional forms. Biophilia concerns how nature or natural elements make us feel, what impacts are the greatest in terms of physical and psychological wellbeing. These are the differences.

What is the difference between biophilia and biophilic design? ›

Biophilia is the innate connection between human beings and other living things, whereas Biophilic Design is how designers play on this idea and bring natural elements into a space to help make it more attractive and resonant with the senses.

What is biomimetic vs biomorphic? ›

Biomorphism refers to designs that visually resemble elements from life (they “look like” nature), whereas biomimetic designs focus on function (they “work like” nature). Biomorphic designs can be very beautiful and beneficial, in part because humans have a natural affinity for nature and natural forms.

What is the difference between biomimicry and bio inspiration? ›

Going beyond what Nature provides usually entails a number of transitions, (1) from biomimicry, which involves solely superficial imitation of the biological systems, (2) to biomimetics, which attempts to copy and recreate the structure- function relations observed in living entities, and finally (3) to bioinspiration, ...

What is the most famous example of biomimicry? ›

Perhaps the most famous example of biomimicry is Velcro. In 1941, engineer George de Mestral was walking his dog when he noticed burrs (like the ones pictured below) sticking to both of them. When he studied the burrs under magnification he found their clinging property was the result of hundreds of tiny hooks.

Are biophilia and biomimicry the same? ›

So what's the difference? In a nutshell, biomimicry is the "mimicry," or more accurately, the emulation of life's engineering. In contrast, biophilia describes humans' connection with nature and biophilic design is replicating experiences of nature in design to reinforce that connection.

What is the opposite of biophilic? ›

Most kids love animals – Wilson says that's instinctive. We like to think of biophilia as finding the joy in nature – 'affiliating with other forms of life' sounds a tad creepy. The opposite, biophobia, is the fear of nature.

What are the three pillars of biophilic design? ›

Biophilic design can be organized into three categories – Nature in the Space, Natural Analogues, and Nature of the Space – providing a framework for understanding and enabling thoughtful incorporation of a rich diversity of strategies into the built environment.

What is not biophilic design? ›

Aspects that are unrelated or offer limited sustained benefits to people, such as desert or deep-sea habitats, microorganisms, alien species, extinct species, or obscure elements, are not considered integral to biophilic design.

What are the disadvantages of biophilic design? ›

Cons: Cost: Incorporating biophilic design into a workspace can be expensive. The cost of materials, design, and construction can be prohibitive for some businesses. Maintenance: Natural elements in the workplace require maintenance, including watering plants and cleaning up leaves and debris.

What is an example of biophilia? ›

The Barbican Centre is one of the earliest and most famous examples of biophilic architecture. Opened in the 1980s as an estate in London, it's renowned for its striking, brutalist design. The bleak style of the Barbican is juxtaposed with the use of natural and artificial lakes and extensive wildlife.

What is biomimicry in simple words? ›

/ˌbaɪ.oʊˈmɪm.ɪ.kri/ the practice of making technological and industrial design copy natural processes: The idea behind biomimicry is that nature has already solved the challenges that we are trying to solve. biomimicry products such as Velcro™ SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases.

What does biomimicry not involve? ›

And it is a science of applying nature-inspired design into our products and engineering. It is not used in relationships.

How many types of biomimicry are there? ›

According to Zhang, biomimicry can be achieved at different levels, including, (1) imitating the form or function of nature, (2) imitating natural processes and (3) imitating natural systems; where the first is seen as the most common approach.

Can you provide three examples of biomimicry? ›

Examples Of Biomimicry

The aerodynamics of the famous Japanese Bullet train was inspired by the shape of a bird's beak. The first flying machine heavier than the air from the Wright brothers, in 1903, was inspired by flying pigeons. Architecture is inspired by termite mounds to design passive cooling structures.

What is biomimicry with examples? ›

Biomimicry is learning from and then emulating nature's forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs. Spider webs, for example, represent nature's ability to deter collisions.

What are the levels of biomimicry? ›

Biomimicry can work on three levels: the organism, its behaviors, and the ecosystem.

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