The purpose of this paper is to examine the use of biomimicry to inspire sustainable development in economic systems. The research purpose is to explore the link between ecological systems and economic systems to highlight applied environmental solutions. The goal is to propose some driver to develop sustainable business practices inspired on the principles of biomimicry.
This paper provides a theoretical approach that builds the basis for a better understanding of the relationship between nature and sustainable economic decisions. The premise is that in the field of sustainable development, strategies based on “learning from nature” are useful. Furthermore, the concept of biomimicry provides principles and tools specifically aimed at design practice.
The complexity of economic systems has shown that high levels of abstraction are required when conceptualising problems and explanations related with nature-inspired solutions. Stakeholder engagement and transdisciplinary collaboration are required to face long-term environmental challenges. Moreover, the exploratory analysis applied in this paper appeared suitable to compile existing literature.
The study provides some general guidelines and empirical approach through case studies that could help decision makers convert nature-inspired alternatives into valuable strategic business opportunities. Although presented practical cases are framed in the local sphere (i.e. the Basque Country), they can serve as references in other international contexts.
New business models should recognize the positive synchronization between well-managed social, environmental and economic systems.
The proposed ideas deepen the understanding on the sustainable development and the link between ecological and economic systems. In fact, the concept of biomimetic economy has not been dealt with or developed in depth in previous academic works, nor has it been published thoroughly in the field of research.
Tamayo, U. and Vargas, G. (2019), "Biomimetic economy: human ecological-economic systems emulating natural ecological systems", Social Responsibility Journal, Vol. 15 No. 6, pp. 772-785. https://doi.org/10.1108/SRJ-09-2018-0241Download as .RIS
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Traditional economy has shown as an ineffective system for allocating scarce economic resources, having led to unprecedented social tensions and environmental pressures. Evolution of the global economy has been dominated by a linear model of production and consumption and entails significant losses along the value chain, rather than improving resource efficiency (Saavedra et al., 2018). Reduction of natural reserves and the degradation of natural capital are affecting the well-being of economies and societies (Frugoli et al., 2015). Moreover, the tension between resource scarcity and human wants is expected to intensify, having reached the limits of nature’s tolerance (Mehta, 2017). Consequently, growing pressures on natural resources have alerted business leaders and policymakers to the requirement of rethinking supplies and energy use (Rockström and Klum, 2015). In fact, economists have long attempted to understand the dichotomy between the finite quantity of natural resources and apparently unlimited human needs and wants (Morone and Navia, 2016).
As a result, changes in business models are required to face this challenge. With rising concerns over sustainable development, improving resource efficiency has become central for business community, moving the business model away from the deterioration of natural capital, understood as the world’s stocks of natural assets useful for human’s life, to a new paradigm based on natural resource conservation and social welfare. In this regard, the new business model should recognise the positive synchronisation between well-managed social, environmental and economic systems. For quite some time now, nature has been innovating for sustainability, meaning that it offers a range of sustainable solutions. There is therefore a great deal to be learned from biological systems through biomimicry, a useful way of reproducing the physical appearance of ecosystems. Studying ecosystems involves integrating approaches and models from the social, behavioural and economic sciences. The practical approach is therefore demonstrated by means of environmentally highly developed cases. However, further work can help with advancing into the theoretical approach of the recently formed biomimetic economy field, as well as into improved knowledge of the environmental performance of the practical application of specific cases in this area.
The 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established a universal framework for reducing carbon emissions around the world. This landmark agreement has given renewed impetus to global efforts to tackle some of the fundamental challenges inhibiting emission reductions. It is therefore vital to rethink what kind of strategies can accelerate climate adaptation among consumers and the interaction with producers (Chai, 2017).
Bioeconomy, which encompasses all industries and sectors, is based on the values of biological materials (including organic waste), such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries. This new bioscience based on knowledge and innovation involves many technologies such as engineering, chemistry, biology, computer science and nanotechnology. It refers to the sustainable production and conversion of biomass for a range of food, advanced medications, cosmetics and other industrial products, as well as energy, translated into new sources of goods, environmentally and human-friendly, required to restructure the social well-being (Morganti et al., 2016). In fact, it has been predicted that bioeconomy, as a new scientific discipline, will achieve previously unavailable solutions in productivity and sustainable development to obtain a better quality of human life. Bioeconomy must be considered as a framework for policies which can face up to and solve the socially striking challenges of food security, climate change, healthy living and energy efficiency (Morganti et al., 2016).
The first section of the paper highlights the limits of the current economic linear model. This paper tries to find solutions towards a sustainable corporate strategy scenario where a finite natural resource scenario should coexist with a growing increase of human needs and desires. Then, this work remarks not only the importance of the institutional support, but also the cooperation between natural scientists in the contribution to the environmental development. Engineers and social scientists can be useful toward the achievement of sustainable corporate strategies. Later on, the paper highlights the relationships between biology and the economic theory and the bioeconomy, as a useful scientific discipline to reach sustainable solutions. The final section outlines the possibilities of the Biomimetic economy to change the current economic system framework and pursuing sustainable development while emulating ecological systems. Finally, the work finishes with a brief analysis of several advanced biomimetic cases that can serve as a reference.
The end of the linear model of production and consumption
Evolution of the global economy has been dominated by a linear model of production and consumption, whereby goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used and later discarded as waste. Today’s linear economic model, which relies on large quantities of resources and energy, has been at the heart of industrial development and has generated an unprecedented level of growth. Economic analysis and decision resources are particularly appropriate for researchers following sustainable development goals, specifically economic growth subject to environmental and sociological constraints (Zilberman et al., 2018). Consequently, contemporary economies create huge challenges for the natural environment (Buenstorf and Cordes, 2008). In fact, the environment itself has become a force for structural change. The industrial revolution, which shaped development of the 20th century, worked by its own rules, at odds with those of the natural world where resources were viewed as inexhaustible and the ecosystem as an infinite “sink” for waste (Mont, 2002). The environment not only provides amenity values, in addition to being a resource base and a sink for economic activities, it is also a fundamental life-support system (Andersen, 2007).
One fundamental challenge to the creation of long-term global wealth is the series of negative environmental consequences related to the linear model. The reduction in natural reserves and the degradation of natural capital are depleting resources and affecting the well-being of economies and societies. Elements contributing to these environmental pressures include climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation and ocean pollution.
Energy and climate change are inextricably intertwined. In fact, energy is omnipresent in the economy, and energy economics is an applied sub-discipline of economics covering all aspects of supply, demand, pricing, policy and externalities associated with energy production and consumption. The two topics are strongly related since fossil energy is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Therefore, many energy policies are also climate policies (Tyner and Herath, 2018).
Rising pressure on resources associated with price volatility and supply chain risks have therefore alerted business leaders and policymakers to the need to rethink materials and energy use. In fact, the linear consumption-based economic system induces significant loss throughout the entire value chain instead of improving resource efficiency. Moreover, many areas of the world possess few natural deposits of non-renewable resources and are finding themselves obliged to rely on imports. As well as risks to the supply of raw materials themselves, the risk to supply security appears to be increasing.
The current economy is surprisingly wasteful in its model of value creation and a number of factors indicate that the linear model is increasingly being challenged by the context within which it operates and that a deeper change of the economic structure is necessary (Planing, 2018).
The dichotomy between finite natural resources and human needs and desires
Sustainable production and consumption is a topic of current international concern. Environmental management entails market failures or externalities requiring economist working on issues dealing with pollution from energy production and consumption (Tyner and Herath, 2018).
Indeed, several different approaches and concepts have been developed over the past decades to deal with environmental problems. However, a new strategy is called for to stimulate the change in current production and consumption patterns (Mont, 2002).
Most notably, the world population will increase in the next decades. At the same time, large and fast-growing economies such as China and India continue to grow at high rates. This will certainly lead to increased prosperity. One major effect of these two trends will be higher demand for manufactured goods and energy sources and their greater consumption, adding pressure to the global economic system. All of this represents a threat to the planet’s natural resources and a challenge to achieve balanced sustainable development, a balance between consumerism and environmental health, within the threat of climate change and the growing concern of how to manage the increasing amounts of waste produced worldwide.
The production and consumption patterns established in high-income countries would seem to form an economic model which is unable to address these challenges. Hence, a transition from the current modes of consumption and production towards a new and more sustainable economic model seems to be a desirable objective (Morone and Navia, 2016). In this context, the green economy has been recognised as a potential source of employment and a contributor to economic recovery, representing both a challenge and an opportunity for the labour market and environmental conservation.
Given this situation, the evolution from a linear take–produce–consume–discard material flow system to a green and regenerative model could play a central role in paving the way for transition to a more sustainable economic system, owing to the fact that it facilitates less resource-intensive lifestyles. In fact, green economy implies not only accurate economic, social and environmental development but also an improvement in quality of life, through education and training in line with labour market demands and human knowledge (Morganti et al., 2016).
According to the Europe 2020 strategy, a sustainable, more competitive and greener economy is regarded as key to today’s requirements without compromising the needs of future generations. The new green growth will be based on a low-carbon, climate-resilient and resource-efficient economy, minimising waste and pollution and protecting-restoring the Earth’s ecosystem. In addition, a green economy can create new jobs, thereby helping to solve the EU problem of youth unemployment and the preservation of natural resources by using waste material from animal and plant biomass (Morganti et al., 2016).
Economists have long attempted to understand the dichotomy between the finite quantity of natural resources and apparently unlimited human needs and wants, but modern societies have proved to be unable to address the shortage of natural resources in a satisfactory way. In fact, the tension between resource scarcity and human wants is expected to intensify, having reached the limits of nature’s tolerance (Benyus, 1997).
Relationships between biology and economic theory
Many biological resources are renewable and can be harvested for economic purposes with no or limited impact, as long as the harvest does not exceed the annual yield. More problems arise in the case of exhaustible resources (e.g. fossil fuels and metals), where the physical stock, by definition, will be gradually depleted as the resources are extracted and brought into the economic system. Resource depletion depends crucially on the respective magnitudes of harvest and yield. In living systems, biodiversity is essential to surviving environmental changes while diversity is a key driver of versatility and resilience.
In general, the literature on sustainability has focussed mainly on environmental issues, whereas, more recently, a circular economy has been proposed as one of the latest concepts for addressing both the environmental and socio-economic aspects (Witjes and Lozano, 2016).
The environment provides a resource base, which functions as an input for the economy. As a result, the bioeconomy can use new knowledge of life sciences to produce a wide range of products from the living organisms and the waste they generate and is a major component of sustainable development (Zilberman et al., 2018). At present, bioeconomy, towards a circular economy based on a zero-waste programme and the use of bionanotechnology, is regarded as the solution for climate change, resource scarcity, conservation of biological diversity, safeguarding nutrition, energy transitions, post-fossil chemistry, while preserving a sustainable growth and competition (Morganti et al., 2016).
Regarding economic sciences, research in industrial ecology suggests human ecological-economic systems which fit in with natural ecological systems (Kibert, Sendzimir and Guy,) , to preserve the well-being, resiliency and adaptability of both systems (Hoeller et al., 2007) . With that purpose, many businesses today struggle to improve their environmental sustainability.
Some authors refer to the concept of the ecosystem to try and explain the origin and nature of environmental problems (Grimm et al., 2008). This is a relatively new approach, which views changes in ecosystems as being associated with “natural” factors (geological framework, climate, species, water processes and other biological and geophysical factors) and human activities (production processes, consumption of resources, waste production, etc.). Studying ecosystems involves integrating approaches and models from social, behavioural and economic sciences and is the strategic key for sustainable development (Grimm et al., 2008). The major attributes of ecosystems that can be translated into applications for the business world are expediency, functional redundancy, keystone species, waste management and resource efficiency (materials and energy).
Currently, many economies continue to be heavily dependent upon fossil fuels. Not only does this represent a major challenge in the context of reducing carbon emissions but it also means that many economies lack the necessary diversity in their power generation to be resilient to unanticipated future developments in global energy markets. To address this problem, several solutions for the built environment and human institutions must be found to harmoniously handle their relationship with the environment in a way that allows mutual prosperity (Costanza et al., 1997; Daily and Daily) . The framework of Natural Capitalism builds on the theory of natural-resource-based view by accentuating the great economic value of ecosystem services that is left out of nearly all business and economic decisions (Lovins, Lovins and Hawken). Natural capitalism asserts that to make economic models complete and improve relationship with the natural world, society must maintain and enhance natural world and social capital (Fogarty et al., 2013).
Biomimetic economy: economic systems emulating ecological systems
Society needs to shift from aiming to increase the prediction, control and manipulation of nature as a source of natural resources, as a traditional point of view, to transdisciplinary cooperation in the process of learning how to participate appropriately and sustainably with nature (Wahl).
Strategies based on “learning from nature” offer opportunities to design a different goal-driven manner. In fact, planet Earth has created a fantastic network of plants, animals and microbes and has been patiently perfecting their processes for a very long time, since the first bacteria came into existence. Collectively, organisms have managed to turn land and sea into life-friendly cycles, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet or mortgaging their future. As a result, the natural system could be taken as the better model to balance human existence with nature (Benyus, 1997).
These strategies provide routes and principles aimed at developing designs that are in natural balance with their environment (de Pauw et al., 2015). Nature-inspired design strategies, despite having been a long-standing source of inspiration for design activities, have recently, under pressure from sustainability concerns, earned a role as part of a standard set of approaches for dealing with design problems. Nature provides an important model for finding solutions to the ecological crisis (Coelho et al., 2013). Society must therefore become more adept at recognising what nature does and copy it. In nature, evolution drives innovation (and innovation drives evolution) by means of a cycle that can be explained with the following three steps (Ratner, 2013):
problems, needs or opportunities appear in response to continuously and/or suddenly changing circumstances;
multiple possible solutions are spontaneously and simultaneously explored; and
appropriate solutions are selected.
New and more pressing problems, needs or opportunities can occur at any stage. Any existing design embodies a history of successful response to changing circumstances. Thus, in nature, the emergence of problems and the generation of solutions arise side-by-side, allowing a continuous response. In traditional approaches, solutions follow problems sequentially and therefore often discontinuously (Ratner, 2013). This approach is based on the premise that nature has been innovating for sustainability for 3.8 billion years through the processes of evolution, and there is much to be learned from biological systems about both innovation and sustainable development (Mead). Summing up, nature offers a palette of ready-made solutions, waiting for the right problem or need to be expressed (Benyus, 1997; Ratner, 2013).
That is what is called biomimicry (bio, meaning life in Greek and mimesis, meaning to copy and emulate). Biomimicry has the potential to inspire progressive social change and help to develop a shared vision for the future of environmental challenges, rebuilding human association with nature (Taylor Buck, 2017). Biomimicry is a process of asking nature the right question, to capitalise on the diversity and optimisation of solutions that have evolved over time. (Ratner, 2013). In biomimicry, nature’s tried-and-tested principles to solve technical problems are recognised, adopted and adapted (Yen et al., 2011), seeking to copy physical features of organisms and ecosystems in an effort to capture the unique, inherent efficiency that results from millions of years of evolution (Fogarty et al., 2013).
Biomimicry extracts design principles from nature to apply in economic contexts improving resource efficiency and materials use. Thus, it is useful to face human challenges, stimulating product design innovation (McGregor, 2013). Therefore, this has meant an increase in interest in this matter (Taylor Buck, 2017). Nevertheless, studies on the application of biomimicry in sustainable product design are scarce (de Pauw et al., 2015). Consequently, the rise of interest in biomimicry in recent years has provided a fertile ground for product, process, service and institutional innovation (Lurie-Luke, 2014).
Biomimicry is increasingly used to guide design in areas as diverse as engineering (Bhushan, 2009), architecture (Gruber, 2011; Knippers and Speck, 2012), industrial design (Goel et al., 2014; Volstad and Boks, 2012), urbanism (Barker, 2016; Taylor Buck, 2017), material science (Fratzl, 2007; Mehmet Sarikaya), sociology (Weidemann et al., 2016), pedagogy (Armstrong, Santulli and Langella), among others.
Genetic diversity is the basis of evolutionary change (Nevo, 1988). In both, nature and economic systems, everything evolves over time and does not remain unaltered. Development in nature is achieved by means of diversity and differentiation (growth, stabilisation, decay and renewal) (Jacobs, 2010). Similarly, successful economies in nature expand, whereby energy and material flows through millions of conduits (i.e. organisms) working at every single step. In economic systems, diverse models also expand in a rich environment created by the diverse use and reuse of received goods and services (Church et al., 2014). This process allows local economies to develop diversity, creating a cycle of local economic diversity, meaning that dependent settlements have a path to economic independence (Church et al., 2014).
Biomimetic economic cases in the regional context of the Basque Country
Some authors have related the concept of the ecosystem with sustainable development in the effort to explain the origin and nature of environmental problems (Grimm et al., 2008), a concept which could be extended to the developed region. Studying regions as ecosystems involves integrating approaches and models from social, behavioural, and economic sciences, and is the strategic key for sustainable development. It is necessary to address the different environmental problems that affect a geographical context holistically, taking into account the main agents of change, the eco-innovations proposed to resolve such problems and the factors that catalyse implementation (Tamayo-Orbegozo et al., 2017).
There are an increasing number of engagements and advances at slight and regional scale related to the bioeconomy and bioenergy in particular. All of these actions generate a lively policy background for the bioeconomy in Europe (McCormick and Kautto, 2013). The identification of factors influencing the development of the bio-based economy acts as the basis for setting guidelines and objectives as well as strategies and actions to realise the transition towards a more sustainable economy (Langeveld et al., 2010).
Below a practical approach and holistic view is explained, providing empirical evidence from a set of environmentally advanced cases in the Basque Country (Spain), a European region which implements advanced environmental policies and instruments. The Basque region, one of the most prosperous within Spain, has managed to and encourage the creation of eco-innovative framework that are improving Basque competitiveness in a more sustainable scenario.
The Basque Country can therefore be considered as a suitable context for testing a number of initiatives in this area, with their reflections serving as a guide for other regions in the transition towards healthier and more sustainable scenarios, linking environment and innovation with economic and social development. In the Basque Country, the creation of eco-innovative companies has been encouraged, thereby improving Basque competitiveness and contributing to more sustainable development.
In this regional context, three biomimetic economic cases are presented. Those biomimetic economic cases are considered as such, since they have a direct correlation with the so-called life’s principles according to Biomimicry 3.8 (Baumeister, 2014). As stated by Biomimicry 3.8, life’s principles are design lessons from nature, are schematic representation of global strategies used by most species for surviving and thriving on Earth when subject to very similar operating conditions. Living beings optimise and integrate these strategies to create conditions conducive to life. By learning from these design lessons, it will be possible to model innovative approaches, compare designs and initiatives against these sustainable benchmarks, it will be possible to be guided by the genius of nature using these principles as aspiration ideals in society. Biological models can inspire technological and economic solutions lined up with these principles, when used as ideation stimulus (Kennedy, 2017).
Case 1 – Neiker-Tecnalia.
This R&D institution develops innovative challenges in bioeconomy and new sustainable products and services, related with animal and plant health and alternative crops. One of the projects involves a biomimetic approach considering microalgae. On the one hand, the project developed innovative and healthy functional food products enriched in microalgae, rich in bioactive compounds (i.e. nutrients). Microalgae are one of the most promising sources of novel foods and functional food products, and can be used to improve the nutritional value of foods, due to their well-balanced composition and physical-chemical characteristics (Navarro et al., 2016). The commercial target food subsectors are dry pasta, sauces, fresh meat products, sausages and restructured fish. On the other hand, the project pursues the production of microalgae in organic effluents with energetic and decontaminating applications. The aim is to identify and evaluate cleaning methodologies of digestates (a liquid and dense residue very rich in organic and mineral matter) from biogas plants (Pivato et al., 2016) including microalgae strains capable of growing in organic effluents and nutrient precipitation. The idea is to assess its potential biogas production capacity and establish the most appropriate operating parameters.
The life’s principle used in this project is “Use life-friendly chemistry”, in other words to use chemistry that supports life processes. From this perspective, what researchers of Neiker-Tecnalia have done regarding microalgae enriched food products is to build renewable chemical units selectively with a small subset of elements, and to assemble relatively few organic elements in chemically well-designed ways, as nature does.
Case 2 – Innobasque.
This private, science and technology non-profit organisation is a member of the Southern Europe Cleantech Hub Initiative encompassing public authorities, civil society, companies and stakeholders on eco-innovation. Innobasque is also helping to roll out the Basque Strategy for Advanced Manufacturing. One of the main projects involves the circular textile management focussed on textile industry waste. Textile sector is based on the model of take–produce–consume–dispose, and it is not compatible with the strain on finite resources. Consequently, this sector has a huge impact on the environment, which means that the industry needs to be steered towards new models (Ballie and Woods, 2018). The main objective of the project is to explore opportunities and business models in the recycling of post-consumer textiles collected in the Basque Country, for subsequent incorporation into other value chains of local industries. Revolutionising the textile industry requires a high degree of non-technological innovation and behavioural change. There are opportunities throughout the value chain, from production centres to consumption centres and the product end-of-life.
This project deals with the overarching strategy of nature “Be resource efficient (material and energy)”, namely to take advantage of resources and opportunities being skilfully and conservatively. On this line of thought, the management of textile industry waste was focussed on using low energy processes, minimising energy consumption by reducing requisite temperatures, pressures and/or time for reactions, recycling textile materials keeping them in a closed loop, and applying multi-functional design. These strategies can be seen in the way living beings use and oppress material and energy resources.
Case 3 – Chalosse Professional Farming School and Fraisoro College.
There is a trans-regional European project organised jointly by New Aquitaine and the Basque Country, namely, a French Professional Farming School and an Spanish Vocational Training Centre, that aims to recover flax cultivation as a catalyst for innovation and, subsequently, for the creation of value and employment in the region. This project takes account of the fact that natural resources are finite and must be exploited in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way. The project also seeks to develop with multidisciplinary contribution and considers different stages of execution, considering the sowing and harvesting of two varieties of flax (textile and oilseed) (Hall et al., 2016). It works on the basis of biodegradable/renewable sources valorisation (Bekhit et al., 2018; Shim et al., 2014; Zuk et al., 2015): seeds to produce oil, seed waste to produce fodder, stem waste to produce paper and agglomerates, and fibres to produce textiles, clothes and composite materials. There are also complementary objectives such to recover a historic crop, to combine traditional knowledge with current innovation and technology, ant to respond to the current demand for these bio resources.
The global approach of living beings used in this project is “Be locally attuned and responsive”, that is to fit into and integrate with the surrounding environment. In this regard, measures taken to restore flax cultivation in the Basque Country consider to leverage cyclic processes and to take advantage of phenomena that repeat themselves, as the case of harvests and crops, and bear in mind the use of feedback loops, building with abundant-accessible materials while harnessing freely available energy, and finding value through win-win interactions.
Institutional support and multidisciplinary integration of sustainable knowledge
Sustainable development needs the support of institutional organisations. Moreover, it must be in line with European Union Environmental Policy which facilitates the social conditions and infrastructures that help reduce the negative environmental impacts of production and consumption activities, but which also provides security for investments, encouraging organisations to develop more environmental products, and public authorities to provide environmental infrastructures and services. Thus, the joint action of public and private agents and institutional support all contribute to environmental action (Foxon and Pearson, 2008). Some studies confirm that relationships between the firm and its local/regional/international social partners are central to driving environmental innovation (Cainelli et al., 2012; Josu et al., 2014; Mazzanti and Zoboli, 2009). Sustainable products, processes, services and institutions are needed as catalysts of the transition towards a sustainable human civilisation. Those solutions to the world’s problems require the integration of multiple perspectives and knowledge basis (McGregor, 2013) and this kind of investigation requires multidisciplinary cooperation between natural scientists, engineers and social scientists (Zilberman et al., 2018).
To enable social well-being and viable solutions for good governance based on innovative bio-eco-geo-economy through the integration of complex socio-ecological systems (Bogdan et al., 2014), sustainability-oriented results either for the organisation, the economy, the society or nature (Mead) could be achieved.
Government, institutions and companies have been two of the key players addressing a number of components and transformations of Circular Economy through redesigning their products and processes (Murray et al., 2017). The United Nations Environmental Programme set up an initiative to promote sustainable public procurement. The goal of the initiative is to link the consumption side, through governmental public procurement, to the production side, through the development of more sustainable business models.
In that line of thought, corporate sustainability emerges as an alternative to traditional short-term, profit-oriented approaches to managing the firm by holistically balancing economic, environmental and social issues in the present generation and for those of the future. In fact, sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs through a trade-off between present-day well-being and the future well-being of members of society (Carrillo-Hermosilla et al.). Thus, a great number of business theories have been proposed for their interpretative approach to corporate sustainability (such as the stockholder theory, the aggregate theory, the contractual theory, the resource-based view and the stakeholder theory), although their application has been limited in addressing sustainability’s four dimensions (i.e. the economic, environmental, social and time perspective) (Lozano et al., 2015). Sustainability aims at addressing environmental and socio-economic issues in the long term. Hence, to solve particular problems, society is being called upon to consider how their solutions affect the long-term viability of environmental, social and economic systems (Hoeller et al., 2007) .
Taking into account the temporal perspective, Carrillo-Hermosilla et al. accept that the Earth’s resources are, a priori, sufficient to meet humanity’s long-term needs. Moreover, it can be considered that human behaviour is conditioned by evolved needs and learning capacities. Hence, the hypothesis that individuals rationally choose utility-maximising items from a given set of alternatives is discarded (Buenstorf and Cordes, 2008). The key issue is to manage the imbalanced distribution and the ineffective and irrational employ of those resources.
Eco-efficiency in economic and ecological systems
Biomimetic approaches can help to change human mind-set to give sustainable economies a chance, shifting from maximising to optimising. Ecological systems perform material and energy consumption efficiency. Institutions and companies can therefore decrease their ecological footprints. In general terms, there are four ways to achieve eco-efficiency in economic systems (Penttinen, 2010), thereby reducing consumption of resources, lowering pollution and avoiding risks:
by service dominant logic, moving from offering to services instead of selling products (e.g. renting or car sharing);
re-engineering processes, including delivery and supplier operations, distribution, customer use, and disposal (e.g. closed-loop manufacturing);
co-operating with other companies to find creative ways of revalorising by-products, creating more added-value with less consumption and waste (e.g. composting); and
redesigning products according to ecological design rules, looking for simplicity, variety of materials, been easy to assembly/disassembly (e.g. renewability, recyclability and biodegradability).
This paper provides an overview of the potential of biomimicry approach to develop nature inspired design strategies and business decision making. Thus, biomimicry can be systematically incorporated into future environmental business management. It not only acknowledges the complex interactions and relationships between social, economic and natural systems but also integrates multiple perspectives.
The aim of this paper has been to examine the use of biomimicry to inspire sustainable development. The complexity of the matter has shown that high levels of abstraction are required when conceptualising problems and explanations related with nature-inspired solutions. Stakeholder engagement and transdisciplinary collaboration are required to face long-term environmental challenges.
According to the Europe 2020 strategy, the transition to a more sustainable, competitive and greener economy economic system needs accurate economic, social and environmental development if it is to satisfactorily address the shortage of natural resources.
The Biological Bases of Economic Behaviour offer solid materialisation in regard to the associations between biology and economic theory. In this context, bioeconomy must be considered as a new approach based on an innovative bio-eco-geo-economy which entails viable solutions for achieving social well-being and good governance by means of integrating complex socio-ecological systems.
Nature provides with an important model to follow in finding solutions to the ecological crisis, and the natural system could be adopted as a better way to balance human wellbeing with nature’s sustainability. Hence, strategies based on “learning from nature” offer opportunities to link environmental innovation with economic and social development.
A transformation of this magnitude does not materialise without firm efforts by government and industry. Future progress of bio-based economy needs, among others, considerable changes in technological and market development, and industrial processes, ultimately affecting production and consumption patterns.
Finally, a practical approach and a holistic view are shown through a series of environmentally advanced cases in the Basque Country (Spain), a European region with highly developed environmental policies and instruments. Thus, the regional context of the Basque Country can be considered as a guide for other regions in the transition towards healthier and more sustainable scenarios. Moreover, the aforementioned cases could be taken as an inspiration for testing other biomimetic initiatives.
Managerial implications and further research
Since the research field of biomimetic economy concept has not been explored exhaustively, there is still a need for further analysis. The managerial implications demand additional in-depth research. The exploratory analysis applied in this paper appeared isolated but suitable to gather existing literature. Next steps must explore into more theoretical detail, offering illustrative empirical approach. Guidelines for managerial assistance need to be validated in both ways. In fact, some general guidelines and representative empirical data could help decision makers convert these new concepts into valuable strategic business opportunities.
Future research could include stakeholder theory and public–private collaboration to better understand the complexity of biomimetic economy.
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About the authors
Unai Tamayo is based at the Department of Marketing and Market Research, University of Basque Country, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Spain.
Gustavo Vargas is based at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Basque Country, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Spain.