Bionics ≠ Biomimetics ≠ Biomimicry

Did you know Otto H. Schmitt and Jack Steele both lived to be 84 years old?

They were very close to celebrating their 85th birthdays, but never got a chance to. They did, however, get a chance to become fathers of biologically inspired design movements and bring such terms as ‘bionics’ and ‘biomimetics’ into existence.

In fact, the term ‘bionics’ (biology + technics) describing the process of “copying, imitating, and learning from biology” was conceived by Jack Steele in as early as 1960 prior to the infamous Bionics Symposium.

United States Air Force, Wright Air Development Division 1961 (Kline 2009)

Steven Vogel in his book “Cats’ Paws and Catapults” defined bionics as being mostly concerned with systems design:

… [bionics] is based on living systems. The word ‘systems’ came naturally to those, mostly engineers, initially involved; neural systems and physiological controls formed biological parallels to human technology’s cybernetics and systems theory

Daniel Wahl  took  a radically  different approach to the evaluation  of the term, describing it from the perspective of ‘nature-culture relationships’ and indicating the deficiency of “salutogenic design  approach that increases human, societal, and ecological health synergistically”. One of the most interesting quotes by Wahl examines the place of ‘bionics’ within the biologically inspired design:

Unfortunately the focus [of bionic-centred conferences] was so exclusively on technological innovation that it almost actively tried to discourage ecological concerns and the issue of sustainability.

Portrait of Otto Schmitt

Otto H. Schmitt coined the term ‘biomimetics’ in approximately 1969 as a derivative of Greek words bios (life) and mimesis (imitate). Schmitt was one of the early giants in biomedical engineering, a founding president of Biomedical Engineering Society and founding vice president of the Biophysical Society.

What I found to be highly interesting is that many contemporary researchers and practitioners of biologically inspired design believe this term to be the pioneering one. To the point that Julian Vincent, chair in Biomimetics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, asserts that:

people are inventing an increasing number of other words to label the area, thus giving them some sort of exclusivity.

Portrait of Janine Benyus

Finally, according to Daniel Wahl, ‘biomimicry’ (coined by Janine Benyus) speculatively takes its inspiration from principles of ecologically informed design proposed by John Todd and Nancy Jack-Todd of New Alchemy Institute in 1970s. Later expanded on by Fritjof Capra – the founder of Center for Ecoliteracy – these principles of ecology transformed into ‘the language of Nature’ (1994) and caused a perceptual shift in “the link between ecological and human communities”.

I once spoke with Brian Burns, the director of Institute of Environmental Science here at Carleton University and my dear friend, and liked something he said very spontaneously but thoughtfully:

We only have one Earth, one goal. Why do we have so many movements?

This got me thinking. Why DO we have all these terms, if we have just one goal – to derive inspiration from nature for the purpose of better designs?

  • Biomimetics
  • Bionics
  • Biomimicry
  • Bio-inspired Engineering
  • Sometimes even Biognosis

Because, it is not just one goal. And this is what contemporary practitioners and academics keep stumbling over and piling the terms into one category. Historically, ‘bionics’ was invented by an engineer and psychiatrist of the Air Force’s Aerospace Medical Division with emphasis on neuroanatomy. ‘Biomimetics’ was coined by a biomedical engineer who – in the early stages of his career – concentrated on producing a device that explicitly mimicked the electrical action of a nerve. And, finally ‘biomimicry’  was conceived by Janine Benyus, a natural sciences writer with a degree in natural resource management and English literature/writing from Rutgers University.

So, if these terms were to be re-examined under the microscope of historical and semantic models, it would become clear that biomimicry ≠ biomimetics ≠ bionics, simply because these movements historically have had different goals and underlying connotations:

innovation for the purpose of technological advancement, and innovation for the purpose of social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

Something to be aware of if you are entering the field of biologically inspired design. And something to discuss if you are teaching and practicing biologically inspired design.


6 thoughts on “Bionics ≠ Biomimetics ≠ Biomimicry

  1. Perhaps I should change my topic from “Biomimicry in Military Use ” to “Bionics in Military Use” then? D: But thanks for making my concept clear > <

    • Hello Charlie! Interesting that you mention “military use” – I was involved in a very exciting project designing a stretcher for battle grounds and was very specific about using the term ‘bionics’ – there is also vastly more research on the subject within the field of bionics than there is in biomimicry, which helped with defining the scope of the project. Would love to see how your project evolves and let me know if you need any more info (:

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