Learning from nature to reconcile economic upgrading with biodiversity conservation? Biomimicry as an innovation policy

Produced as part of the Adaptation to climate change and human development CCCEP research programme theme

One of the most important challenges of the 21st century is the quest for development models that generate prosperity while respecting the planet’s ecology. Rather than imposing our industrial systems on nature, why not let nature influence our industrial and innovation systems? From wind turbine blades to bullet trains and solar cells, many of the technologies we rely on today have been inspired by solutions found in nature – which can be termed ‘biomimicry’. However, despite the exponential growth of nature-inspired innovation and its economic impact, what drives biomimicry remains elusive and has been overlooked in the development economics literature.

In this first study of the potential of biomimicry as an innovation strategy in developing countries, the author investigates how nations can leverage their biodiversity as a knowledge bank of solutions to both current and future challenges. The author finds that the biomimicry innovation landscape is dominated by advanced economies that have relied on proactive policy interventions, while virtually no developing country has adopted biomimicry as an innovation strategy.

By drawing on empirical evidence from a selection of Latin American countries, the paper also shows that while biomimicry presents tremendous opportunities for biodiverse nations to upgrade economically by leaping towards high value-added innovation sectors, the lack of policy and institutional support has led to the persistence of important coordination failures. The paper concludes by discussing the type of public policies needed to support the integration of developing nations at the innovation frontier through biomimicry.

Key points for decision-makers

  • Biomimicry is an innovation method that relies on the inspiration, learning from, and imitation of the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges (e.g. solar cells that mimic leaves), to create a healthier, greener and more sustainable future.
  • The biodiversity stock in developing countries is a knowledge bank of solutions to both current challenges and problems of the future that currently remain unknown. Leveraging such an information stock through biomimicry could represent a valuable opportunity for economic upgrading in biodiverse nations.
  • Biomimicry activities can also generate large spillovers in terms of value and employment creation, with an estimated contribution of US$1.6 trillion to global GDP by 2030; and employment creation in sectors as diverse as transport, electronics and food manufacturing.
  • Biomimicry-based innovation strategies have been exclusively implemented in a handful of advanced economies; virtually no developing country has adopted biomimicry as an innovation strategy. This process has reinforced the exploitation by the Global North of biodiversity in the Global South.
  • Government interventions are needed to stimulate the accumulation of capabilities around nature-inspired innovation in developing countries, and include the provision of long-term funding, facilitation of access to study biodiversity, and a collaborative framework with education providers, the private sector and research units.
  • The promotion of interdisciplinary education programmes in biomimicry processes will be crucial for the successful development of local nature-inspired innovation ecosystems because the development of biomimicry activities requires the provision of a strategic mix of skills cutting across engineering, biology and chemistry.
  • Because biomimicry relies on the availability of natural assets, appropriate legal frameworks and institutions are needed to accompany resources for biomimicry with protected area status and protection of the biodiversity stock. In that sense, the experiences of some countries (such as Costa Rica) with bioprospecting can hold important sources of lessons that can be adapted and applied in the context of biomimicry.