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Crowdsourcing Nature’s Design Solutions: Biomimicry Global Design Challenges

Submitted by: Erin Connelly

Posted: Apr 28, 2015 – 06:00 AM EST

Series: Innovation – More Than Just Social

Tags: innovation, biomimicry


is is the most recent article in our series on Innovation – More Than Just Social. For more articles, go to

Students at the German University of Cairo in Egypt noticed a big problem. Canals created to irrigate farms in their hometown were often infected with bacteria, trash, and worms. Inspired by the way that camels digest food, the students designed a new way of moving and filtering the water so that the dirty, stagnant canals could be transformed into a clean source of water for crops.

A year later and over 5,000 miles away, a team from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, realized that, if cargo ships were designed in a way that mimicked the methods that cuttlefish use to maintain buoyancy and stability, it would eliminate a huge problem of the current system—the spread of invasive species through ballast water.

These two innovations, developed as part of the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Global Design Challenges, are a small sampling of a movement whose drumbeat is getting louder each day. In the face of unprecedented ecological losses and frightening predictions for the future of our planet, big thinkers are realizing that the ultimate R&D laboratory is, in fact, all around us. 

Biomimicry—an innovation approach that taps into nature’s designs and process in order to solve human-scale problems—is poised to radically reshape the way we innovate and live. Creative problem solvers flock to biomimicry, in part because it just makes sense. Through billions of years of evolution, organisms in nature have already figured out how to process waste, irrigate, create energy, stay warm, cool off, and more, in ways that contribute to the health of the planet rather than detract from it.

But how do we, as biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus asks, “make the act of asking nature’s advice a part of everyday inventing”? The key to reinventing our world will lie in our ability to both teach and empower innovators to take a biomimetic approach, while ensuring that their innovations can move beyond the research and development phase and become viable solutions in the marketplace.

The Biomimicry Institute, in partnership with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, is on a mission to do just that, through open innovation challenges, a global network of biomimicry practitioners and mentors, and an online database of nature’s strategies called AskNature. Every year, hundreds of students and practitioners from around the world enter our Biomimicry Design Challenges, even though many of them have had no formal training in nature-inspired design. This year, with the launch of our food systems-focused design challenge, we are mobilizing thousands of professionals and students to focus their design inspiration on one of the most pressing issues of our time—our broken food chain. 

Through this challenge, we work to shepherd the best ideas from the design concept phase through proof-of-concept, prototyping, and commercialization. Here’s how it works. First, engineers, biologists, architects, designers, scientists, and students from around the world are mobilized to focus on one major challenge. In the case of the food systems challenge, we are encouraging challenge participants to think broadly, looking for solutions to issues like food waste, soil health, distribution, water and energy use, agricultural practices, and more. Next, we provide them with educational resources, including AskNature (, our online portal of biological inspiration, and connect them to biomimicry and industry mentors who help shape and direct their innovations. At the end of the design concept round, a panel of judges picks the most viable designs to move on to an invitation-only prototype round, where innovators are paired with business incubator and impact investor partners. There is only one winner of the Ray C, Anderson Foundation’s $100,000 “Ray of Hope” grand prize, but all finalists will get the resources they need to take their solutions to the next level.

The result (and our ultimate goal) is a steady stream of market-ready innovations, inspired by nature and poised to revolutionize industry as we know it. By pairing nature’s wisdom with the power of an open innovation platform that harnesses the collective brainpower of thousands of eco-minded entrepreneurs from across the globe, we can amplify solutions to some of the biggest issues facing our planet today.

is is the most recent article in our series on Innovation – More Than Just Social. For more articles, go to

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