5 Questions in 5 Minutes: Bryony Schwan


We find it fascinating to learn why people do what they do and think what they think. This month, we sought out the perspective of someone with an approach to innovation that differs from that of most cleantech engineers and scientists. We had a chat with Bryony Schwan, Executive Director of the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute.


Why do you do what you do?

I work in the field of biomimicry because I believe biomimicry is one of the most hopeful and inspiring solutions we have for sustainability. For a long time I worked on chemicals policy, in the advocacy arena, and I spent my time trying to get change via legislation and regulation, but it was always 10 steps forward and 8 steps backward. We were always having to drag people along. With biomimicry, it’s the opposite; it’s so inspiring that people want to get engaged and are excited to use it as a tool to create change.


What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Two things:

1. Biomimicry creates such a sense of hope. When people hear about biomimicry, the first thing so many people say is “it’s so inspiring and hopeful.” People feel overwhelmed by our sustainability challenges and by issues like climate change. They feel a sense of hopelessness about how we’ll ever tackle these challenges. Then they get introduced to biomimicry and have a sense of hope. It’s refreshing and new for a lot of people.

2. Biomimicry reconnects people with nature. We are nature; we humans are part of nature. Through our industrial world we’ve created an artificial sense of separation from the natural environment. Biomimicry reconnects people at a very deep level. It brings people back to a very fundamental space.

In your experience, what’s the one thing that most often gets in the way of great marketing?

Well, biomimicry is a complex idea and it’s hard to communicate it in a sound bite. It also gets back to this lack of a connection to nature. Many people don’t even know where their food comes from. Some kids don’t know where milk comes from. We’ve become so disconnected that it’s hard for people to imagine how nature would provide the kinds of answers we need. When you tell people nature has already solved many of the problems we humans have, they have a hard time imaging how nature could solve technological challenges, for example. So you have to use case studies. Look at locusts, for example. How can millions of insects fly together and not crash into each other? They have “anti-collision technology” in their brains that car companies are now using. Others are looking at swarm technology for computer science. In our minds we have simplified nature; we don’t understand or appreciate the complexities of nature. Yet every organism out there has so many brilliant strategies that can be useful to us.

What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a marketer/advocate?

To meet people where they are. Everybody comes to an issue from a different perspective and you have to understand where your audience is in order to be able to communicate with them at a heart level. You can’t use the same voice for everybody. You have to understand what it is that most connects with them at an emotional level, and that’s where you have to communicate with them.

If you could wave your wand and make any product or service in the world a smashing overnight success, what would it be?

I have two answers.

One is a product: the PaxFan, designed by Jay Harman, a marine biologist, entrepreneur and engineer. He looked at the ubiquitous spiral shape you see in nature and he has designed fans and propellers based on this logarithmic spiral that, depending upon their application, reduce energy consumption from 30% to 70%. One-third of the world’s energy is used to drive fans and propellers. They’re in computers, cars, refrigerators, ships – they’re used everywhere. So this design, if implemented, could save a lot of energy.

The second thing I’d like to see succeed overnight is not a product, but a process. I wish every time a designer sat down to design, the first question they’d ask is “How does nature do it?”

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