What Might Future Offices Look Like? Insights from Biomimicry

If you were granted one wish to decide what your future workplace should look like, what would it be? The science of Biomimicry suggests that nature is the best designer you could consult for the job. Since life first appeared on Earth, nature has been perfecting its designs and has over 3 billion years of evolutionary experience under its belt. All you have to do is look beyond your workplace.

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Enough has been said about the turmoil and loss of livelihoods that Covid-19 brought upon the world. An important aspect for historians to analyse in the future is how our current models of work were upheaved and either made redundant or forced to adapt to a world affected by the pandemic. For those of us connected via the internet, the time we spent indoors during the lockdown brought up many shared experiences across cultural and geographical boundaries. One of these shared experiences was a reinvigorated urge to spend time outdoors. This innate sense of longing to be in nature and reconnect with the natural world is simply put, called «Biophilia».

This term was first coined in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson in his book, The Biophilia Hypothesis. Wilson hypothesised that humans have an innate and predisposed genetic affinity with nature. He brought together different perspectives (biological, psychological, symbolic, cultural and aesthetic) to frame the concept. Although the book itself was aspirational, a simple web-based search on related research produced a mount of evidence.

Biophilia, hardly a new concept in many fields (such as architecture, city planning, and psychology), has been slowly revolutionising the way we develop our working environments. It takes the form of «Biophilic Design» which is the deliberate introduction of elements into a building's design to dissolve a disconnected feeling from nature, improve productivity and promote well-being. It consists of direct (e.g., contact with air, water, plants, etc.) or indirect (e.g., natural materials, nature-inspired patterns, etc.) elements.

While Biophilic design focuses on the psychological benefits of nature to humans, we live in an age that also urgently demands the environmental sustainability and accountability of our built environments. Companies need to go beyond merely visually replicating nature-like experiences for their employees and ensure that their workplaces function with reduced environmental footprints. This can be related to their products, operations or the workspace itself. This is where «Biomimicry» can step in.

Biomimicry’s origins

Biomimicry is described as an act of «emulating nature's genius» and mimicking a form, process and/or system present in the natural world for the benefit of humans to the extent that it is able to solve contemporary technological problems. Janine Benyus coined the term when she wrote Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in the late 1990s. By compiling case studies, she is credited to have gathered surmounting evidence of using nature itself as inspiration for innovation. Benyus remains a passionate proponent of the notion that nature has been perfecting evolutionary processes to adapt and optimise since life first appeared on Earth over 3 billion years ago, and that there is no better source to learn problem-solving techniques from. 

To the uninformed, the premise might appear vague and consisting of lofty goals. How exactly could biology or nature be mimicked in the office and is it even relevant?

Biomimicry is already shaping workplaces

Biomimicry is typically well known in the field of innovative product-design. The many entry points of biomimicry in built environments are also well documented. An exemplary case study of using Biomimicry in this field is the Eastgate Centre, a shopping centre and office block in Harare, Zimbabwe that opened in 1996. Buildings in Harare need to have their temperatures continuously moderated throughout the year due to local climatic conditions, along with the additional resources required to regulate such a system. Similarly, termite mounds in Zimbabwe require good temperature control through day and night cycles as they farm fungi inside the mounds as their primary food source. The termites  accomplish this through a network of channels, modifying air currents much like a mammal's lungs. They manipulate ventilation between the outside and inside of the mounds by plugging and digging up vents for circulation. The Eastgate Centre has a passive cooling system that mimics this design to circulate air from the surroundings and up through chimneys, depending upon the relative temperature of the building's concrete and the atmosphere. This not only serves to regulate the climate, but also has the added benefits of a reduced environmental footprint and energy savings that trickle down to the occupants. 

Closer to home and along similar lines as the Eastgate Centre, is the planned Biomimetic Office in Zurich. Although not much information is publicly available at the moment, climate control by optimally harvesting the energy of the local environment is one of the main principles of the design. 

Another multiple award-winning example is that of the One One One Eagle Centre in Brisbane that replicates the structure of a tree. The initial challenge was to design the building while keeping a loading dock and parking space of the neighbouring buildings intact. As the structural design of the building evolved under these constraints, its landing columns needed to branch out for better stability. The engineers soon realised they were mimicking structures of the city’s historically treasured fig trees across the street from the site. One source states that an algorithm, later dubbed «growing towards the light», generated this solution which was comparatively more efficient and used 20% lesser material than other conventional towers. 

Delving into the aesthetic realm of the built environment, biomimicry has inspired innovations in the production process of paints and dyes in the form of «structural colour». According to one definition, «structural colour is colour derived from the nanostructure of a surface which acts like a prism, interacting with light waves». A notable example is Cypris Materials, whose success story is based on the brilliant blue structural colour of the Morpho butterfly. The microscopic structure of the scales on the butterfly's wings refracts light at specific wavelengths. Cypris Materials mimicked this process by creating chains of copolymers that self-assemble to refract light when applied to a surface. The added benefit is that their colourants reduce the number of extra additives needed, unlike conventional paints.

Going beyond the office building

Biomimicry is not limited to individual structures. At a systems level, concepts such as self-sustaining ecosystems inspire a shift towards a circular economy – optimising material flows, recycling waste and other available resources, much like the industrial ecology of the Kalundborg Symbiosis in Denmark. The buildings within this industrial hub effectively use and circulate resources amongst themselves to optimise production and minimise wastes.

Further along the application spectrum, there are explorations of the utility of biomimicry in an organisation's management style, for example. Birds flocking and migrating in groups can offer lessons in self-organisation and the abolition of traditional hierarchical forms of leadership and management. 

Biomimicry can be extended towards communication and team dynamics as well. Companies often take pride in promoting democratic ideals as part of their work culture – these ideals are by no means limited to our species, as collective decision-making and voting behaviours have also been documented in Macaques and African Wild Dogs, revealing alternate pathways to conflict resolution. Another example is the rotational style of leadership observed in Meerkats while they forage for food. This style suits the group well as individuals often have varying nutrition needs. These examples illustrate how «nature’s genius» can be easily accessed by companies.

The promise of Biomimicry?

Richard Feynman wrote about what he once heard, «To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell. And so it is with science». The zealous proponents of Biomimicry perceive it as a silver bullet to deal with the pressing energy and material issues facing our species. One study, with the help of examples spanning across different fields, argues that Biomimicry has «as much capacity to cause environmental harm as for eco-friendliness» and that one should not presuppose Biomimicry to be inherently sustainable.

Biomimicry is not immune to misuse. Like other well-intentioned approaches, it can still be tweaked to suit goals or other agendas to ill-effect. For instance, companies that learn of biomimicking materials may switch to manufacturing processes that efficiently produce newer non-biodegradable materials in contrast to most materials found in nature. A biomimetically designed building structure does not always imply it is sustainable unless that is the direction its designers intended for it and it is complemented by other features of sustainable design (case in point is the aforementioned One One One Eagle Centre). Managers who prefer to share their burden can cite the example of the migrating birds to shrug off some of their responsibility under the guise of unconventional managerial styles. To stretch this analogy, examples of survival of the fittest from nature could inspire unhealthy competitive strategies within a workplace and between companies.

Richard Feynman, in the same book, goes on to ponder if we should completely discard this key or struggle with using it. This applies to the science of Biomimcry as well. Though the key should be valued for its power to do something valuable, the end result will depend on how it is used.

A tool to shape the future

In a well-off society, a workplace is quite often more than just a means of earning a living. The lucky few who have the best job in the world can brag about their workspace decorated by coral reefs. Not to be left behind are those of us in Switzerland, who can comfortably afford to work from a secluded yet beautiful spot in the mountains. If we really were granted a wish to change how our workspaces looked, we might have had different responses before, during and after the pandemic. A good majority of us have been working from home for the past year and counting. Needless to say, this has changed our views on what type of workspaces we desire and has given us a new perspective on office relations and workplace dynamics.

This period has also given us enough opportunities to step back and reflect – there are different models that function satisfactorily but what do we long for in future work environments? When the Covid-19 pandemic-related restrictions are lifted, do we still want to fall back into the same patterns we came to despise in the conventional workplace? This is not only about the science or spirit of Biomimicry but also about ourselves and our relationship to work. Biomimicry is one tool from an amalgamation of different ones that can help us improve that relationship and imagine new ways forward. There are tangible lessons to discover in how nature operates, if we are only willing to listen, observe, and eventually, transfer this knowledge.

Author’s tip:

References as external links:

  1. Connection with nature in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown
  2. Social media, nature, and life satisfaction: Global evidence of the biophilia hypothesis
  3. Biophilic qualities of historical architecture: In quest of the timeless terminologies of ‘life’ in architectural expression
  4. Handbook of Biophilic City Planning and Design
  5. The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: Increasing Mental Health or Increasing Pathology?
  6. Biophilic design consultants for Swiss organic food conglomerate Hero
  7. Carbon footprints and reduction requirements: the Swiss real estate sector https://journal-buildingscitie...
  8. Biomimicry and Business. How Companies Are Using Nature’s Strategies to Succeed
  9. Biomimicry in Architecture
  10. Eastgate Building Harare – Mike Pearce
  11. Beyond biomimicry: What termites can tell us about realizing the living building
  12. One One One Eagle Centre, Brisbane
  13. One One Eagle Street / Cox Rayner Architects
  14. Biomimetic Office with Exploration Architecture
  15. Interview - Biomimicry & The Biomimetic Office Building
  16. Recent advances in the biomimicry of structural colours
  17. Nature’s Mastery of Colour
  18. A Butterfly’s Brilliant Blue Wings Lead to Less Toxic Paint
  19. Explore the Kalundborg Symbiosis
  20. Nature Inspired Guidelines to Effectively Communicate Sustainability Messages
  21. Macaques Use Simple Voting Process to Stay Together
  22. African Wild Dogs Use Versatile Voting System
  23. Resolution of experimentally induced symmetrical conflicts of interest in meerkats
  24. Biomimicry Institute + Tree Media Present “The Promise of Biomimicry”
  25. The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
  26. Questioning the Theory And Practice of Biomimicry
  27. Best Job in the World
  28. Greetings from my home office in the Swiss Alps


Reatch Scimpact Fellow 2020/21 and MSc Environmental Engineering at ETH Zürich.

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