New York Paves the Way for Nature-Inspired Innovation

Local research programs in biomimicry poised to have far-reaching impacts on the built environment

The conscious emulation of natural principles in design, biomimicry, has become a popular topic, and for good reason. It provides a captivating and common-sense framework through which a wide audience can understand how principles of natural life can inform more resilient and less wasteful design.

You may have heard of the Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. This commercial building was designed to mimic the ventilation strategies of a termite mound. The passively ventilated building requires a very low energy input to maintain its comfortable air temperature, and it doesn’t rely at all on mechanical air conditioning. But for each glamorous example of successful market application, there are dozens of smaller companies and research labs trying to innovate nature-inspired technologies. Many of these technologies are poised to impact the built environment in a big way.

Courtesy Rob Janisch

New York State is focused on biomimicry. It hosts a burgeoning high-tech sector in the Albany area and downstate, in New York City. An Ithaca-based company, Novomer, is mimicking the ability of a coral reef to sequester carbon. They are revolutionizing the manufacture of polymers by allowing traditional chemical feedstocks to be combined with carbon dioxide or monoxide to cheaply synthesize chemicals and materials, as well as sequester harmful gases out of the air we breathe. This process could reduce the chemical inputs, and therefore the chemical wastes, to polymer manufacturing industry.

Then there are the teams of researches at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at the University of Albany, who are world-class experts in nano-scale biomimicry. A lab headed by Dr. Nathaniel Cady, a specialist in anti-fouling materials that function like shark-skin and other natural surfaces, hopes to apply their findings to materials we come in contact with everyday. Anti-fouling materials prevent the growth of bacteria and other microbes; they have serious implications for surfaces in densely populated urban environments, such as subways that support millions of riders every day, or high traffic hospitals where contagion is a very real concern, by greatly reducing the need for harsh cleansers that are known to increase resistance to antibiotics.

Courtesy Albert kok

Other biomimetic buildings-related research in New York could change the way we think about building ventilation altogether. The prevailing interpretation of termite mounds-based ventilation, which inspired the Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe, was based on an incorrect assumption of how these mounds function. Initially, termite-inspired building enthusiasts believed that the mounds are ventilated by what is known as the stack effect. But Dr. Scott Turner, a biologist at the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), shows us that termite mounds function much more like mammalian lungs, using vibrations in the air and in their building materials, to guarantee ventilation without disrupting delicate humidity and temperature levels deep within the nest. Dr. Turner has spent the last decade studying the actual ventilation strategies of the termite mound to open up a new realm of cutting edge building practices to the industry.

Photo credit Jon Connell, Courtesy of the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute

New York’s state government is more attuned than most regulatory bodies to this innovation trend and its impacts on the built environment. In fact, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has funded a 5-year program, spearheaded by our organization, the Manhattan-based Terrapin Bright Green and Montana-based Biomimicry 3.8, that offers consulting services to companies throughout the state to help them incorporate biomimicry as an innovation tool into their product and process innovation. This biomimicry consulting team has worked with dozens of companies throughout the state, helping to brainstorm nature-inspired R&D ideas, pairing companies and researchers with shared interests, and steering these teams towards sources of funding. This unique NYSERDA program is gearing up to become an independent organization, called the New York Biomimicry Innovators Group (NY-BIG), that will continue to serve as a central resource for companies, researchers and funding sources interested in biomimicry.

New York State’s focus on nature-inspired innovation has real potential to improve the way our built environment is designed and constructed, and could serve as a model to other hotbeds of creativity around the country.

Learn more about the “Genius of Place” at the Biomimicry Education Summit and Global Conference in Boston, MA, June 21-23.


Namita Kallianpurkar is a research analyst at Terrapin Bright Green and consults with companies to apply biomimicry to the innovation and evolution of clean energy technologies.

Chris Garvin is a partner at Terrapin Bright Green and an accomplished practitioner and active voice in the biomimicry and sustainable design communities. He will be a plenary speaker at the Biomimicry Summit and Global Conference in Boston on June 21st.

Recent Programs