Glossary of Terms
This glossary includes common words and phrases that the Biomimicry Institute often uses when talking about and teaching biomimicry. Most are true to definition, and some have a variation that is specific to their application in biomimicry. Not all of these terms have been used in this Toolbox, but you may encounter them elsewhere as you continue to study biomimicry.
Abiotic: Not associated with or derived from living organisms. Abiotic factors in an environment include sunlight, temperature, wind patterns, and precipitation, for example. Opposite of “biotic.”
Adaptation: A feature of an organism that results from natural selection and by which the organism becomes better fitted to survive and reproduce in its environment.
Analogous: Similar in function and/or appearance but not in origin or development.
Bio-assistance: Sometimes confused with biomimicry, bio-assistance refers to domesticating an organism to accomplish a function, such as using bacteria to purify water. Bio-assistance is not biomimicry, but it can be well-adapted if it is done naturally, not through transgenic or genetic engineering.
Biodiversity: The variety of life and its processes; includes the variety of living organisms, the genetic differences among them, and the communities and ecosystems in which they occur.
Biological: Of or relating to biology or living organisms.
Biologize [a question]: To take a human need or function and rephrase it so that an answer may be found in biology, e.g., “How can I make the fabric red?” becomes, “How does nature create color?”
Biomimicry: The conscious emulation of life’s genius. Learning from and then emulating biological forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.
Biomimicry Taxonomy: A function-based organization scheme cataloging how organisms meet different challenges. Information on AskNature.org is organized by this taxonomy.
Biomorphic: Sometimes confused with biomimicry, biomorphic describes anything resembling or suggesting the forms of living organisms.
Biophilic / Biophilia: Sometimes confused with biomimicry, biophilia is a term popularized by E.O. Wilson to describe the extent to which humans need connection with nature and other forms of life. Biophilic design emphasizes using natural materials, forms, living things, air, sun, and water in a design.
Biotic: Associated with or derived from living organisms. The biotic factors in an environment include the organisms themselves as well as factors such as predation, competition for food resources, and symbiotic relationships.
Bio-utilization: Sometimes confused with biomimicry, bio-utilization entails acquiring or harvesting a product or producer, such as gathering medicinal plants to obtain the medications they produce, or growing algae to make biofuels. Bio-utilization is not biomimicry, but it can be well-adapted if the harvest is sustainable and does no harm to the environment.
Challenge: A specifc issue or need that an organism faces. Also, a specific issue or need that humans must address in their designs.
Champion adaptor: A species whose strategies make it particularly adept at surviving in a given habitat.
Chimera: In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a creature composed of body parts from many other creatures. In biomimicry, we talk of a Chimera approach as a combination of different biomimetic designs into one application.
Co-evolution: Evolution involving successive changes in two or more ecologically interdependent species (e.g., an orchid and its hummingbird pollinator) that affect their interactions.
Context: The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs; the setting or environment; the conditions in which a strategy is used. See also “operating conditions.”
Convergent evolution: The independent evolution of structural or functional similarity in two or more organisms of widely different, unrelated ancestry.
Creating conditions conducive to life: Establishing practices and strategies so that the existence of other species, communities, and systems is not threatened but rather enhanced. A goal of biomimetic design.
Cross-pollination: The transfer of pollen from one fower to another. Cross-pollination is also used metaphorically to refer to the transfer and sharing of ideas and information that results in new ways of thinking and acting.
Design (noun): The way something has been made; the way the parts of somethingare formed and arranged for a particular use, effect, etc. verb: To plan and make decisions about (something that is being built or created); to create the plans, drawings, etc., that show how (something) will be made. Note: The word “design” implies intent and forethought in both its noun and verb uses. For this reason the Institute refrains from using “design” to refer to nature and to biological strategies, except in poetic usage. Biological strategies are not “designed,” rather they are a result of evolutionary processes.
Design brief: A document that defnes the problem that must be solved, provides context, and outlines the goals or outcomes expected from the design process.
Designer: A broad term used to refer to anyone responsible for conceiving of, creating, and/or implementing ideas that affect human cultural, social, technological, scientifc, or fnancial systems at any scale.
Design strategy: In the biomimicry methodology, design principle refers to a biological strategy that has been abstracted and restated in non-biological terms such that it can be applied to a design solution. (Also sometimes called “design principle”.)
Ecosystem services: Benefts people and other organisms obtain from ecosystems, such as food and clean drinking water, decomposition of wastes, raw materials, crop pollination, climate stabilization, and cultural and recreational benefts.
Emergent: In biomimicry, emergent refers to a strategy, property, or relationship that arises as a natural or logical consequence to an action or environmental condition.
Emulate: To mimic patterns or principles rather than directly copy them.
Evolution: Any cumulative genetic change in a population of organisms from generation to generation.
Feedback loop: The fow of information within a system in which outputs infuence new inputs according to a set of rules or conditions. A key driver of system behavior.
Food web: The complex network of interactions among species observed in nature that represent food relationships such as herbivory and predation.
Form: Morphology or shape, whether at the macro scale, micro scale, or nano scale. If we mimic the bumps on the surface of a leaf, for example, that’s mimicking form.
Function: The outcome or role of a characteristic, mechanism, or process; what an adaptation does for an organism or what a design does for its users. (e.g., acquiring water, accommodating growth, managing disturbance)
Green chemistry: The utilization of a set of principles that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture, and application of chemical processes.
Habitat: The natural environment or place where an organism, population, or species lives.
Heat, beat, and treat: The way that humans have tended to create products, …and using toxic or inefficient chemical processes.
Interdependent: Relationships between or among two or more organisms on which they are dependent in order to survive or thrive.
Interdisciplinary: Involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines. (Also multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary)
Leverage point: Places in a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. For more information, see Donella Meadows’ essay “Leverage Points: Places To Intervene in a System.”
Life: The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
Life’s Principles: A list of persistent patterns exhibited by organisms and living systems which contribute to life’s ability to survive and thrive. The prototype for these principles was first drafted by Janine Benyus in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The current version is published by Biomimicry 3.8 (formerly the Biomimicry Guild). See also “Nature’s Unifying Patterns.”
Modular: Construction or design with standardized parts or units that allow for flexibility, variety in use, and/or expansion.
Natural selection: The process by which only the organisms best adapted to their environment succeed; a key mechanism of evolution.
Nature: The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth. Note: Sometimes ‘nature’ is used poetically as a synonym for “life;” however, technically ‘nature’ includes both living and non-living elements.
Nature as model, measure, mentor: Three ways that biomimicry values nature. Model – applying, imitating or taking inspiration from nature’s designs and processes in order to solve human problems; Measure – using an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations; and Mentor – valuing nature for what we can learn from it and not what we can extract from it.
Nature’s unifying patterns: A simplified list of patterns exhibited by living systems that have profound implications for what and how humans design. The list was created for use in the Biomimicry Institute’s design challenge competitions.
Niche: The position or functional role of a species within a community; dependent on the organism’s structural adaptations, physiological responses, and behavior.
Niche differentiation: The process by which natural selection drives an organism to associate with a new niche in order to avoid direct competition.
Optimize: Plan or carry out a design that makes the most efficient use of energy and materials.
Organism: An individual plant, animal, or other life form.
Pattern: A reoccurring form, strategy, or principle. Often an indicator of especially effective solutions.
Principle: A fundamental quality or attribute determining the nature of something; a primary element, force, or law which produces or determines particular results.
Process: A series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. Mimicking a biological process means mimicking how something is made or the series of steps taken to achieve a particular end.
Recycle: to treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse.
Regenerate: Restore to a better, higher, or more worthy state than the existing one.
Regenerative: Of, relating to, or marked by regeneration; tending to regenerate.
Resilient: Able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
Self-organize: A process by which order arises from interactions between the components of an initially disordered system; often governed by simple rules and feedback loops (e.g. focking formation by birds).
Strategy: A characteristic, mechanism, or process; “how” a function is accomplished.
Sustainability: Creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulflling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations. Sustainability is based on the principle that everything we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on the natural environment.
Symbiosis: An intimate relationship between two or more organisms of different species. Symbiotic relationship take three forms: mutualistic (in which each organism benefits from the relationship), commensal (in which one organism benefits from the relationship but the other organism neither benefits nor is harmed), or parasitic (in which one organism benefits at the expense of the other).
System: An interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something (a function).
Taxonomy: A system of classification.