Olivier Bocquet, architect, director of Lab Rougerie +Tangram
Maider Lassus-Olasagasti, Programme Leader for biomimicry and co-ordination of networks and local communities at the economic and environmental development cluster of the Regional Council of Nouvelle Aquitaine,
Kalina Raskin, CEO of CEEBIOS (biomimicry studies and expertise centre)
How should we understand the word “biomimicry”? How does its meaning differ from “bio-inspiration” or “biomorphism”?
Kalina Raskin – “Bio inspiration” is the umbrella term that covers any strategy inspired by living things, in the very broad sense of the term, across artistic, poetic and scientific fields.
Biomorphism consists of copying a form found in nature: Art Nouveau, for example, for aesthetic reasons, will represent a flower or a plant. But there does not necessarily have to be any function associated with this imitation.
The biomimetic approach is a scientific approach for obtaining a detailed understanding of biological phenomena, in order to find solutions to problems, in fields other than biology. This is the approach we are working on at CEEBIOS, without denying the value of the biomorphic approach – aesthetics play a fundamental role, as does inspiration – but we are seeking to understand the reasons behind a form or a structure… its underlying properties, how to extract and optimise them, and transpose them to other areas.
Beyond that, we are focusing on learning how living things adapt to crises, looking at how they were made, how they evolved, under what conditions, etc.
Olivier Bocquet – It is also an invitation to reconnect humans with living things in general, and the environment from which they come. We have put aside ecology in the broad sense, the living world that surrounds us, enabling us to answer basic questions: what has given us life? What enables us to feed ourselves, and to breathe healthy air?
Because the question before us is clearly this: will humankind be able to continue to feed itself, breathe and survive in favourable climatic conditions, on the surface of this magnificent planet with its finite resources?
Why is there currently such an interest in biomimicry?
Kalina Raskin – Because our understanding of living things and how they work is much better, thanks to technical tools, such as microscopy, molecular analysis and satellites, that we did not have a few decades ago.
On the other hand, we are at an impasse in terms of social development. The IPCC and IPBES reports are damning! We need new points of reference to enable us to find a new path forward and evolve.
Olivier Bocquet – Drawing inspiration from living principles provides its own guarantee that you are doing something sustainable. Living things have been innovating for 3.8 billion years of existence. What we have in front of us today are treasures of innovation, refined by time, evolution, and periods of warming and cooling. This forms a gigantic library of what endures and facilitates endurance – an extremely interesting source of inspiration, given that it takes ecosystems and alternative possibilities into account.
Kalina Raskin – The specifications for living things are very close to the specifications that are being established in terms of ecological transition. Living things operate in non-extreme conditions: at moderate temperature and pressure, thanks to abundant, widely available, local resources, they consume modest amounts of water, and are very efficient in managing information.
To find out more on this subject, there has been a permanent exhibition at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie museum on biomimicry for the past year, aimed at the general public. I have had the chance to be part of the scientific council made up of biologists, physicists, chemists, economists, sociologists and anthropologists. We all agreed on the fact that visitors should take these living specifications away with them afterwards, as a blueprint for the development of the society of tomorrow. Surely this path offered by evolution, which all species on earth have followed (except us), is the most interesting, and the most sustainable? The one that will be the least risky for the future?
Olivier Bocquet – These principles and strategies of living organisms have blessed us with considerable biodiversity on a planet with finite resources. Nature does not produce waste that is not useful to others: adopting a circular approach, it feeds itself via short supply chains, and works on the basis of energy flows and not energy stocks. Living organisms produce other living organisms. They are not a threat to themselves. Only Man is.
Are these specifications already being adopted by manufacturers?
Kalina Raskin – Yes, a growing number of architectural firms are integrating the specifications of living things; and this is not limited to aesthetics or biomorphism. An ecosystem is starting to spring up around the theme of biomimicry, including promoters and constructors.
But the architects are often the ones who are the main drivers of projects that incorporate this complex theme: they play a pivotal and unifying role regarding new concepts, scientific approaches and innovative themes that promoters and manufacturers have more difficulty achieving at present.
Olivier Bocquet, please tell us about Tangram Lab – the research laboratory you’ve been managing for eight years within Tangram Architects.
Olivier Bocquet – It’s a prospective architecture research and innovation laboratory; but because Tangram Architects and the Jacques Rougerie architectes agency have just merged, the laboratory is now called Rougerie+ Tangram Lab.
Opened in 2013 within the Tangram Architects agency, it puts living organisms at the heart of initiatives for which it develops its own tools, creation and innovation processes.
Its vocation is always the same: to advance research, in a multidisciplinary and partnership approach, on questions of innovation, biomimicry in particular, by taking four themes – four major concerns – into consideration: energy and energy saving, materials and material saving, waste = resources, biodiversity and ecosystems.
And as we believe that the future of humankind is not only on earth but also under water and in space, our research is focused on three separate work environments: sea, land and space.
The lab is also, and most importantly, a resource center for Rougerie + Tangram. Prospective projects born in the lab are turning into an increasing number of projects that are starting to take shape: the four themes that I have just mentioned are sufficiently cross-cutting to have a role to play, in the long term, in all of our projects. Clearly, the direction taken today is no longer one of simply embarking upon a project as we used to without first focusing on these four themes.
In addition, our ambition – that’s not too strong a word, because it’s extremely complex to do this well – is to transform our professions so that they are no longer merely urban planners and landscape architects, but designers of the framework of tomorrow’s world. To be ready to play our part in advancing the future of Man and sharing our knowledge, as we are always keen to do, especially with middle and high school students.
Is there an eco-inspired project that you are particularly proud of?
Olivier Bocquet – An artificial reef, named Bathyreef, will start at the end of January 2022 on an astrophysical site, the Antarès site, off the Toulon coast, to observe the bioluminescence of bacteria at a depth of 2,500 metres and changes in the Mediterranean as a result of climate change: acidification of oceans, current changes, etc.
About fifteen special areas are involved in this major European project, for which Mediterranean Institute of Oceanology (the MIO) has asked me to create a very small artificial reef, 4 metres long by 2 metres wide by 1.20 metres high, an observation platform for a robot depths, called Bathybot, which will be linked to the surface and will send us real-time data via the Internet. The robot needed a platform to lift it off the seabed and escape the clouds of sediment caused by its comings and goings, and to be able to look down from above.
I therefore suggested a reef inspired by ascidians, with branches that support the platform, offer maximum resistance, and allow the robot to see through its gaps.
The idea was to do this with a minimum of material: we were inspired by a manufacturing method used by living organisms that involves adding material (so-called “additive” manufacturing), by 3D-printing the concrete in strands from 3 to 8 cm in diameter, which is extremely small, but sufficient to support the reef. And because concrete is mineral and biogenic, it acts as a good home for living things.
Extreme environments – space and the seabed – interest me enormously. They have things in common: no access to drinking water, light, or air… in such conditions, we are forced to become inventive and find as many intelligent and pragmatic solutions as possible. So once you come back to the surface of the earth, it’s much easier to find frugal, innovative solutions once you have been in such environments. Beyond that, the poetry inherent in the exploration of these environments has always fascinated me, just as it has always fascinated Jacques Rougerie. I try to convey it in my work.
Is Marseille, where you are located, an inspiring place to be?
Olivier Bocquet – Yes, very inspiring! Are you familiar with Marseille? It forms a sort of amphitheatre overlooking the sea, backed by a semicircular cordon of hills, facing the sun and the blue of the sea. In almost all the streets, you’re in close proximity to natural spaces; the Les Calanques national park is right in the city, and the Old Port is the city’s epicentre!
In addition to that, despite what you might think, it’s a city that has a fierce climate, subject to dry spells, strong light and wind, and deep darkness; these are aspects that tend to form the local character.
The southern region for which it is the capital is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The Ecrins massif is 4,000 metres above sea level, and the Mediterranean sea floor is beneath over 2,500 metres of deep water. When you descend from the mountains and then pass through alpine valleys, rivers, deltas and hills that plunge into the sea, what geographical, climatic and hydraulic riches!
If the engine of biomimicry is biodiversity, we can hardly help but be inspired by these colossal reservoirs of knowledge!
At the same time, as one of the most visited regions in the world, there is strong human pressure on these extremely old, fragile, unique ecosystems, subject to global warming.
So here, we are dealing with a challenge (reducing this pressure) as well as a reservoir of knowledge with which to tackle it: species that have spent millions of years adapting certainly have a lot to teach us to solve the problems that we have created.
Maider Lassus-Olasagasti: back in 2016, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region declared itself a pioneer in biomimicry. Why this goal?
Maider Lassus-Olasagasti: The objective was to support “blue growth” as part of our regional economic development plan for innovation and internationalisation (SRDEII), late 2016.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is open to the ocean, with its 900 km of coastline. It has an exceptional natural heritage, and is based on an academic fabric of excellence and remarkably dynamic economic players.
In our support for blue growth, we are committed to a responsible approach towards the ocean. This commitment has required us to abandon a traditional model of knowledge stored inside silos, and has overturned a linear vision of innovation, replacing it with a more systemic and horizontal collaboration, which makes it possible to address the environmental, social and economic challenges of all local communities and to reconcile humans with nature.
In addition, in July 2019, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Regional Council adopted a roadmap, Néo Terra, to support and accelerate ecological and energy transitions in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. The roadmap adheres to specifications for living organisms, and emphasises how biomimicry is part of a response to the eleven ambitions of this roadmap, with the aim of moving from diagnosis to action.
In practical terms, how did Nouvelle-Aquitaine’s commitment to a biomimetic approach come about? What actions have been taken to achieve the stated objective?
Maider Lassus-Olasagasti – With support from CEEBIOS, we have identified and mapped the players involved in the biomimicry process: startups, SMEs and academic players.
In addition, the Vertigo Lab consultancy firm has assessed the socio-economic impact of this approach: if 25% of Nouvelle-Aquitaine companies in the chemical-materials, construction, agriculture and blue growth sectors were to adopt biomimicry in their activities, the region’s GDP would increase by 575 million and enable the creation of 5,600 jobs over the next 2 to 10 years.
We then created working groups focused on the themes of materials, marine life and habitat. Key players in the region have taken on the co-management of these working groups: the University of Pau and the Adour countries (UPPA), with its IPREM laboratory, the Basque Country conurbation with a strong commitment to the subject which has assumed responsibility for blue growth, and the NOBATEK / INEF4 research centre, for the building and habitat component. This has enabled us to structure a long-term network, and to spread the culture of biomimicry in the region.
In 2018, the region supported the creation of the Manta research chair, which brings together institutional, academic and economic partners to meet the challenges of competitiveness and provide sustainable jobs. This primarily involves promoting co-products from the sea and developing bio-sourced and bio-inspired materials for its industrial partners.
We are working with the stakeholders to continue efforts to structure an innovation ecosystem that brings together companies, academics and students, with several initiatives that we hope to be able to discuss soon.
What are the main obstacles encountered?
Maider Lassus-Olasagasti – Above all, there are fragmented initiatives and work in silos.
But the question that arises is not so much how to unite and coordinate the actors; it is more how to convince others of the value of biomimicry… to give it real shape, and to prove its effectiveness.
However, if the process has not even been deployed, how can its effectiveness be proven? It will take a little while longer. In the natural world, patience is a virtue…
And what drivers are used to engage regional players, in addition to the foundation of a technology hub and research chair, and the creation of working groups?
Maider Lassus-Olasagasti – Calls for projects are excellent drivers. In October 2020, for example, we launched a call for projects on marine bio-inspired design covering multiple sectors, such as construction, cosmetology and board sports. It’s still running; we’re still accepting responses!
And in 2020, we included biomimicry in the specifications for the renovation of secondary schools in Saintes, Pessac and Voutezac.
In addition, the Odeys cluster for sustainable construction and development in Nouvelle-Aquitaine will integrate biomimicry into its building standards, in line with the Sustainable Construction roadmap.
Finally, it seems to be the case that major groups have understood the value of the topic and seized on the opportunity that it represented. We are working with several of them in this area within the framework of the partnerships that we have set up. The region has included biomimicry in its Nouvelle-Aquitaine Rebonds fund, approved in October 2020, as a driver of innovation accompanied by support for the emergence of demonstrators.
And this summer, the region joined the CEEBIOS SCIC organisation. It is the first region to have acquired shares in this co-operative.
Kalina Raskin, the CEEBIOS association became a cooperative in January 2021. To what end?
Kalina Raskin – Such a status is not common in the field of science and research, but we believe that with regard to climatic and environmental emergencies, the large number of CEEBIOS players and the multidisciplinary nature of its work, and if we are to maintain and nurture a biomimicry dynamic in France, it was the only statute that ultimately made sense; it meets our needs for a structure that is represented, guided and governed by all stakeholders, in the most representative way possible: companies, associations, institutions, finance, academia and research.
It is a non-profit SCIC. Profit would not be unwelcome, but the return on investment will lie in the development of common resources; everyone has skills that will be enriched by collaboration with others.
Collaborating, while ensuring a sustainable economic system for everyone, and without diluting the message, either… that’s exciting!
“Cooperation creates, and competition sorts,” writes Jean-Marie Pelt. The days of competition seem over. Create, create again, and collaborate: we see no other possible way, given the situation.