The Anthropocene is the new geological epoch, characterized by the accelerating global influence of humankind and the impending point of no return on environmental changes. In this article, we highlight reactions of scientists to the challenges of the Anthropocene from the perspectives of biomimetics and sustainability research. To answer novel questions in the Anthropocene context, scientists have established relevant approaches to collaborate at an interdisciplinary level and have entered into exchange with society in the sense of transdisciplinary activities. With regard to biomimetics, we introduce the interdisciplinary approaches and transdisciplinary contributions leading to the development of biomimetic products on the market. Regarding sustainability research, we focus on a prospective assessment of substances of very high concern and show how environmental, economic, social, and ethical issues as well as policy measures play a central role in chemicals risk management. In the final “practice bridge” section, we use examples to describe how biomimetics and sustainability research can meet and how biomimetic products can contribute to sustainable development in the Anthropocene.

In 2000, the natural scientists Crutzen and Stoermer proposed the Anthropocene as the new geological age with regard to the lasting, global influence of humans and human technology on the biosphere of our planet, which was finally confirmed in a binding vote in 2019 (http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/working-groups/anthropocene/). This human-dominated epoch is mainly characterized by three features. First, humans or their actions have irreversibly inscribed themselves in nature, as can be detected globally in the Earth’s layers, especially by the artificial radionuclides disseminated worldwide by the atomic bomb tests since the 1950s (Steffen et al., 2016). Second, since 1950, humans have been influencing the Earth system in different areas of our globe with exponentially increasing speed. This so-called Great Acceleration (Steffen et al., 2011, pp. 849–853; Steffen et al., 2015a) is characterized by an exponential increase of, for example, new chemicals synthesized and marketed (Binetti et al., 2008) and volumes of microplastic released in ecosystems (Dong et al., 2020), as well as massive biodiversity losses and a permanent change of climate. Third, human influence on the entire Earth system is largely irreversible and a point of no return, for example, on global warming, will soon be reached (Lenton et al., 2019).

It took a conglomerate of highly interdisciplinary working sciences to meet the task of “defining the Anthropocene,” which led these researchers to establish an “Earth System Science” (Ehlers and Krafft, 2006; Steffen et al., 2016, p. 326). According to Rockström et al. (2009, p. 472), planetary boundaries, which must not be exceeded, define “a safe operating space for humanity” with respect to the Earth system. If humans transgress these limits, irreversible environmental change will occur. In fact, we have already exceeded some of these limits in the context of the “Great Acceleration” (Steffen et al., 2015b; Lenton et al., 2019).

Such a systemic crisis requires a systemic solution. Neither a single discipline nor a number of individual disciplines will be able to realize this solution. Rather, interdisciplinary collaborations of various sciences and a transdisciplinary approach involving society could offer an opportunity to react effectively to the challenges of the Anthropocene. Indeed, in recent years, interdisciplinary research in natural and social sciences has been on the rise (Van Noorden, 2015; Inkpen and DesRoches, 2019; Renn, 2019). The Zurich Survey of Academics (Rauhut et al., 2020), a large-scale and representative web survey of 15,972 scientists at 236 universities in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria conducted in 2020, revealed a significant increase of teamwork in science. Although strong teamwork is common in physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, mathematics, medicine, and psychology, teamwork is below average in the humanities and law. In fact, 15% of respondents in all disciplines surveyed indicated that coauthors generally come from other disciplines. A further 5% stated that they publish to about the same extent with colleagues from both their own and other disciplines.

Paradigmatically, these trends can be studied in the two interdisciplinary fields of biomimetics and sustainability research. Generally, biomimetics deals with the analysis and systematic transfer of functional principles of biological models into technical applications. Thus, biomimetic approaches bring together the competences and knowledge of researchers from natural, applied, and formal sciences. Sustainability research aims to investigate and implement sustainable development strategies at the local, regional/national, and global level in combining social sciences and humanities, natural science, and engineering as an applied science. In recent years, both biomimetics and sustainability research have increasingly included the phenomena of the Anthropocene in their scientific questions. This is illustrated by the increasing number of articles on “sustainability and anthropocene” and “biomimetics and anthropocene” published from 1999 to 2019 (Figure 1, raw data are given in Table S1 in supplemental material).

Figure 1.

Increase of articles with the words “sustainability and anthropocene” and “biomimetics and anthropocene” published from 1999 to 2019. Please note that the y-axis has a logarithmic scale. (Raw data retrieved from Google Scholar in January 2020, cf. Table S1 in supplemental material). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f1

Figure 1.

Increase of articles with the words “sustainability and anthropocene” and “biomimetics and anthropocene” published from 1999 to 2019. Please note that the y-axis has a logarithmic scale. (Raw data retrieved from Google Scholar in January 2020, cf. Table S1 in supplemental material). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f1

In addition to the established research approaches within the traditional scientific disciplines and within interdisciplinary studies, scientists attach great importance to the perspectives of society. These so-called transdisciplinary research approaches, that is, opening of science to the public and participation of society, are becoming increasingly important in certain scientific fields. Transdisciplinary studies enable the inclusion of socio-moral preconceptions and the problem-solving capacity of numerous societal actors in the transformation process (Wickson et al., 2006; Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2007). The self-reflexive process of the scientific disciplines, which is necessary for interdisciplinarity (Lélé and Norgaard, 2005), can be substantially increased if public points of view are also included (Öberg, 2011).

The aim of this article is to present the scientific approaches in biomimetics and sustainability research in practice with reference to the Anthropocene. With regard to biomimetics (Section 2), we introduce the interdisciplinary approaches and transdisciplinary contributions leading to the development of biomimetic products on the market. Regarding sustainability research (Section 3), we focus on a prospective assessment of substances of very high concern and show how societal and ethical issues and policy measures play a central role in responding to the challenges of the Anthropocene. First, the following three aspects of both scientific fields are introduced:

(1) descriptive aspects such as definitions and approaches,

(2) normative aspects like the biomimetic promise and sustainable development goals (SDGs), and (3) concrete methodological approaches for inter- and transdisciplinarity. Finally, in a “practice bridge” (Section 4), we describe how biomimetics and sustainability research can meet and how biomimetic products can contribute to a sustainable development in the Anthropocene.

2.1. Definitions of bioinspiration, biomimetics, bionics, and biomimicry

The dream of flying is not only an ancient human dream, it is also the cradle of biomimetics. Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in the 15th century, is regarded as the first biomimetist who combined the knowledge of various scientific disciplines. He studied the flight of birds and designed flying machines with flapping wings. However, the knowledge of his time and the available materials did not allow for a successful implementation (Vincent et al., 2006). Over the years, many aviation pioneers followed, inspired either by the flight of birds or by the gliding flight of seeds and fruits. Although Otto Lilienthal understood the principle of the curved wing shape for lift, he died in 1896 during one of his flight experiments. In 1906, Igo Etrich developed the first manned flying wing glider based on the self-stabilizing glide of the Zanonia seed (Vincent et al., 2006).

In 1957, the term “biomimetics” was coined by the American engineer Otto Herbert Schmitt. He understood biomimetics as a biological approach to engineering (Schmitt, 1969; Vincent et al., 2006). In 1958, the American medical doctor Jack E. Steel introduced the term “bionics” (Vincent et al., 2006), apparently being formed as a portmanteau from biology and electronics. Within the framework of a systematic “learning from the living nature for technology,” a wide variety of terms was created depending on the attribute transferred. Speck et al. (2017) presented a decision tree generated on a dataset as a straightforward analysis tool to identify various kinds of biology-derived and technology-derived products and algorithms. The term “bioinspiration” is an umbrella term because a nature-inspired idea is always the starting point. Moreover, for example, the transfer of the functional principle (biomimetic) or the morphology (biomorphic) is very common (Speck et al., 2017). In recent years, Benyus (2002) popularized the term “biomimicry,” which means imitating or taking inspiration from nature to solve human’s problems. Although biomimetics and biomimicry might seem quite similar and interchangeable for people not working in the field, researchers and developers in the fields differentiate the goals of their work. In the following, we focus on the interdisciplinary field of biomimetics and briefly explain differences to biomimicry regarding normative aspects.

2.2. Biomimetic approaches

The interdisciplinary field of biomimetics, or transferring the functional principle of living models to technical applications, combines the competences and knowledge of researchers from geology, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, medicine, computer sciences, mathematics, and theoretical physics (cf. Section 5). According to the biomimetic guidelines of the Association of German Engineers (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure, VDI) and International Organization of Standardization (ISO), two biomimetic approaches can be distinguished (Speck and Speck, 2008; VDI, 2012; ISO, 2015). Both approaches are systematic, step-by-step development processes that begin with a scientific question that is decisive for the selection of a suitable biological model. The biology push process or bottom-up approach starts with a question originating from biologists for understanding biological systems (cf. Figure 2 for the well-known example of the self-cleaning lotus leaves). In contrast, the technology pull process or top-down approach begins with a technical question from engineers addressed to a biologist asking for a plant- or animal-inspired answer (cf. Figure 3 for an example of self-adaptive facade shading). All further steps of both biomimetic approaches are identical. In Step 2, the selected biological model is quantitatively analyzed, and in Step 3, the underlying functional principle is qualitatively deciphered. In the subsequent step of abstraction, the functional principle is translated into a language common to all scientists (i.e., functional models, construction plans, circuit diagrams, and numerical and analytical models). In particular, this step requires a quantitative description of the functional principle for the technical application. The transfer into technical applications begins with feasibility studies and the production of samples at the laboratory scale, prototypes, and pilot series. Such samples are ultimately the prerequisite for commercial production and thus for a biomimetic product that is available on the market (Speck et al., 2017).

Figure 2.

The biology push process (bottom-up approach) of the self-cleaning paint Lotusan®. (1) What is the basis of the self-cleaning effects of plant surfaces in general and of lotus leaves (Nelumbo nucifera) in particular?; (2) Scanning electron microscope picture showing a micro- and nanorough plant surface with wax crystalloids (Photo courtesy of C. Neinhuis, TU Dresden); (3) the functional principle is the minimal contact area between dirt particles and the surface based on a hierarchically micro- and nanostructured and water-repellent surface in combination with water droplets; (4) lotus surfaces show contact angles of approximately 147°; (5) technical applications with this functional principle bear the Lotus-Effect® trademark; (6) the self-cleaning facade paint Lotusan® has been on the market since 1999. (Reprinted after Speck et al., 2017 under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f2

Figure 2.

The biology push process (bottom-up approach) of the self-cleaning paint Lotusan®. (1) What is the basis of the self-cleaning effects of plant surfaces in general and of lotus leaves (Nelumbo nucifera) in particular?; (2) Scanning electron microscope picture showing a micro- and nanorough plant surface with wax crystalloids (Photo courtesy of C. Neinhuis, TU Dresden); (3) the functional principle is the minimal contact area between dirt particles and the surface based on a hierarchically micro- and nanostructured and water-repellent surface in combination with water droplets; (4) lotus surfaces show contact angles of approximately 147°; (5) technical applications with this functional principle bear the Lotus-Effect® trademark; (6) the self-cleaning facade paint Lotusan® has been on the market since 1999. (Reprinted after Speck et al., 2017 under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f2

Figure 3.

The technology pull process (top-down approach) of the self-adapting facade shading system Flectofin®. (1) Is it possible to find hinge-less kinematics of deployable systems for architectural purposes?; (2) the biological model was the elastic deformation system of the perch of the bird-of-paradise flower; (3) the functional principle is a lateral-torsional buckling; (4) the kinematic structure is simulated with finite element modelling; (5) technical applications consist of one or two laminae and one backbone; (6) closed state of Flectofin® lamellae. (Reprinted after Speck et al., 2017 under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f3

Figure 3.

The technology pull process (top-down approach) of the self-adapting facade shading system Flectofin®. (1) Is it possible to find hinge-less kinematics of deployable systems for architectural purposes?; (2) the biological model was the elastic deformation system of the perch of the bird-of-paradise flower; (3) the functional principle is a lateral-torsional buckling; (4) the kinematic structure is simulated with finite element modelling; (5) technical applications consist of one or two laminae and one backbone; (6) closed state of Flectofin® lamellae. (Reprinted after Speck et al., 2017 under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f3

The two biomimetic approaches differ clearly in the impulse generator (biologist from the academic field or engineer from industry), which makes a difference in terms of the transdisciplinary perspective. In addition, the average development time in the technology pull process is much shorter than in the biology push process since an already existing technical product is merely biomimetically improved. In contrast, the level of innovation in the biology push process is usually considerably higher than in the technology pull process because the biological model opens up a free field for completely new developments (Speck and Speck, 2008). Biomimetic examples resulting from biology push processes are the self-cleaning facade paint Lotusan® inspired by lotus leaves (Figure 2; cf. Section 4.4; Barthlott and Neinhuis, 1997), a biomimetic ribbed slab inspired by the lightweight construction of bones (cf. Section 4.3; Antony et al., 2014) and artificial spider silk (Salehi et al., 2020). Selected examples resulting from technology pull processes are biomimetic facade shading systems inspired by plant movements (Figure 3; Lienhard et al., 2011), self-sharpening knives inspired by rodent teeth (cf. section 4.2; Meyers et al., 2008) and aircraft winglets inspired by bird wings (Siddiqui et al., 2017).

Since biomimetic projects are interdisciplinary, some prerequisites must be met, and boundaries have to be overcome. A main prerequisite is clear communication across disciplines. This is a challenge due to the different modes of thinking, language concepts and writing and symbol systems of the individual scientific disciplines. Moreover, everyone must be willing to acknowledge the expertise of others, learn from others, and accept that one cannot be an expert in all aspects (Lélé and Norgaard, 2005). In biomimetics, the selection criteria of the appropriate biological model are usually completely incomprehensible to engineers. Close interaction with several feedback loops takes place during the formulation of the functional principle and the abstraction by means of model development. On the one hand, especially for numerical models, a large number of parameters derived from test series of the biological model are necessary. On the other hand, the degree of abstraction can be evaluated by comparing the function of the technical product and the biological model. A strong example for the above-mentioned differences in modelling is the self-sealing mechanism of the succulent leaves of Delosperma cooperi after damage. An analytical model with five tissue shells was developed to describe the sealing motion derived from mechanical instabilities. The study showed that by reducing the number of shells from five to three, the sealing function is lost (Konrad et al., 2013). Thirty parameters were necessary for the development of the numerical model describing the hydraulically driven sealing motion (cf. Table 1 in Klein et al., 2018). Inspired by this self-sealing mechanism, Yang et al. (2018) developed a leaf-inspired self-healing polymer with shape memory effect.

Common basic laws of chemistry and physics as well as the formal logics in mathematics, which are valid for both biology and technology, guarantee the transfer of biological insights into technical applications. Of course, plants and animals cannot be reduced to the basic laws of physics and mathematics. Yet, in biomimetics, we only transfer functional principles that follow these laws. Thereby, these basic laws represent a limit, since biomimetic developments must not exceed their limits. Nevertheless, serious efforts are being made to equip technical systems with life-like functions and properties. As a result, long-known boundaries between living nature and artificial technology are shifting due to numerous nature-inspired innovations, such as self-X-materials like, for example, self-repairing, self-sharpening (cf. Section 4.2), self-cleaning materials systems (Figure 2) and self-adaptive facade shading systems (e.g., Flectofold, Flectofin®, cf. Figure 3), biomimetic algorithms for optimization (e.g., Soft Kill Option, Computer Aided Optimization, evolutionary algorithms) and many more innovations (Speck et al., 2017; Speck and Speck, 2019).

Paradigm shifts reveal the great opportunities that arise from interdisciplinary work between natural sciences and engineering sciences. An illustrative example is the Lotus-Effect®, which was developed in a biology push process (Figure 2). Two German botanists, Barthlott and Neinhuis, discovered that the self-cleaning function is based on rough and not on smooth surfaces. This contra-intuitive insight, that of course follows all basic scientific laws, has been discovered by taking a detour via a natural model (Barthlott and Neinhuis, 1997). After the successful decoding of the functional principle of self-cleaning leaves, which consists of a triad of micro-rough and nano-rough hydrophobic surfaces together with the surface tension of water, they pushed the patenting and then the transfer into technical products like a facade paint with Lotus-Effect® (cf. Section 4.4).

2.3. Normative aspects of biomimetics respectively biomimicry

Apart from the above-mentioned descriptive aspects such as definitions, approaches and classifications, biomimetics is also associated with normative aspects (von Gleich et al., 2010; Speck et al., 2017). Von Gleich et al. (2010) coined the term “biomimetic promise,” which forms the core of the normative content of biomimetics. The normative aspect of biomimetic developments, that is, a qualitative promise of better, more ecological, low-risk and more appropriate solutions, is derived from the consideration of learning from optimized biological models that fit perfectly into the natural environment. Furthermore, because of their inspiring flow from biological models into technical applications, biomimetic solutions ought to have the specific potential to contribute to sustainable technology development (von Gleich et al., 2010). However, even if the biological model has evolved extraordinary properties in the course of 3.8 billion years of biological evolution, does that mean that biomimetic products are automatically sustainable by transferring the functional principle?

To answer this question, it first needs to be clarified whether biological models are sustainable. What does sustainability mean? Sustainability or sustainable development is a human-made mission statement. Although the view has changed slightly over the last 300 years (Grober, 2012), it has not changed in its anthropocentric perspective. In other words, the mission statement of sustainability places humankind at the center and continues with its teleological thinking and acting to pursue a specific goal. Living beings, however, are the result of biological evolution, which is neither anthropocentric nor goal-oriented. Thus, organisms—or from the point of view of biomimetics the biological models—themselves are not sustainable in the sense of the human-generated mission statement. Consequently, if the biological models are not sustainable, biomimetic developments cannot be automatically sustainable in the sense of a simple sustainability emergence (Horn et al., 2016; Speck et al., 2017). In summary, biomimetic products exclusively transfer functional principles of biological models without claiming to be automatically sustainable.

Biomimicry, on the other hand, is a biologically oriented design methodology with the goal to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that solve our greatest design challenges sustainably and in solidarity with all life on Earth. Against this background, biomimicry aims to establish an ethical standard to assess the biomimetic designs. Thus, nature is the normative principle regarding appropriateness, ecological health, and integrity of biomimetic designs (MacKinnon et al., 2020).

Dicks (2016) focused on the philosophy of biomimicry. He distinguished four main areas. The first one is “Nature as physis,” or in other words, what Nature ultimately is. The remaining three areas are based on the biomimicry approach published by Benyus (2002). The second one, “Nature as model,” is interpreted by Dicks (2016) as the poetic principle of biomimicry. Essentially, it tells us how it is that things are to be “brought forth” (poiēsis). The third one is “Nature as measure.” According to Dicks (2016), this is the ethical principle of biomimicry. It tells us that Nature places ethical limits or standards on what it is possible for us to accomplish. The fourth one is “Nature as mentor” and serves as the epistemological principle of biomimicry. It affirms that Nature is the ultimate source of truth, wisdom, and freedom from error. Especially the enumeration of the last three main areas and their interpretation by Dicks (2016) show that biomimicry practitioners make far-reaching claims and promises in relation to sustainable futures, the fulfillment of which was analyzed by MacKinnon et al. in 2020. Analyses of quotes from the Biomimicry Global Network (BGN) point to the potential of biomimicry for innovation, sustainability, and transformation of society. Innovation is linked to “sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested strategies.” (MacKinnon et al., 2020, p. 6) Sustainability is the most prominently expressed claim on BGN webpages promising “products, processes, and policies […] that are well-adapted to life on Earth over the long haul” (MacKinnon et al., 2020, p. 6). Finally, transformation is a new discourse on how humanity values nature. In biomimicry’s concept, nature is a normative principle, according to this quote from Benyus (2002): “Nature as measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.” In summary, the results of MacKinnon et al. (2020) show that the promises of biomimicry can only be realized if a special ethos and respectful interaction with nature complement the technological ambitions of the practice.

Because of the differences between biomimetics and biomimicry described in this section, these two interdisciplinary fields of science are not addressed synonymously in this publication. The focus of this article is biomimetics. If not described otherwise, the article refers to biomimetics as described in the VDI and ISO guidelines, which are based on the two biomimetic approaches.

2.4. Inter- and transdisciplinarity in biomimetic practice

This section exclusively presents examples of inter- and transdisciplinarity of biomimetics. Without doubt, biomimetics is an interdisciplinary scientific field in which scientists and engineers work together across disciplines (cf. Section 5). The question is rather whether biomimetics is also transdisciplinary.

It is rarely possible for outsiders to gain insight into industry-funded research projects—regardless of the research area—because they are handled confidentially. However, state-funded research projects are required to present their results to the public. Dissemination activities include peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals, popular science literature, lectures, exhibitions, and information on the internet and social media. With regard to the funding guidelines, biomimetic projects do not differ from all other projects.

Occasionally, natural phenomena observed by people interested in biomimetics are reported to scientists. However, these people are usually very reluctant to reveal what they have observed and which technical product they would like to bring to market. An exception is the development of the Fin Ray Effect®. In 1997, Leif Kniese from Berlin made an interesting observation while fishing. When he pressed his finger against the tail fin of a fish, it did not bend away. On the contrary, the tail fin bent toward his finger. In cooperation with the company EvoLogics GmbH, he deciphered the functional principle and applied for a patent for the self-adaptive structure under the brand name Fin Ray Effect®. In recent years, licenses for adaptive grippers have been issued to industrial companies (Crooks et al., 2016).

Transdisciplinarity is often found in projects from the medical field, where the exchange of information between patients, caregivers, medical staff (e.g., doctors, nurses, logopedics), and companies producing medical devices is essential. One example is the cochlear implant, a biomimetic inner ear prosthesis for severely hearing-impaired subjects whose auditory nerve is still functioning. Young people and their parents are involved in decision making about cochlear implantation (Ion et al., 2013). Young and adult patients participate in choosing a particular cochlear implant (Chundu and Stephens, 2013). Patients who have been implanted with a cochlear implant utilize social media sources (Saxena et al., 2015) and join together in self-help groups, where they meet regularly to exchange experiences (e.g., https://civ-bawue.de/project/shg-freiburg/). They invite speakers to give lectures with subsequent discussion addressing the topic of hearing impairment in general or news about “living with cochlear implant.” Support associations in which patients, medical staff, and fellow citizens are involved inform about the possibility of cochlear implant treatment through public relations and events and fund new research projects and technical developments (e.g., http://www.taube-kinder-lernen-hoeren.de/index2.htm).

Transdisciplinarity also exists in the development of the biomimetics guidelines (VDI, 2012; ISO, 2015). A team of experts consisting of scientists, industry representatives, and representatives of the Association of German Engineers (VDI), the so-called guideline committee, jointly developed a draft version. After clarifying the specific objective, the guideline committee meets regularly to jointly provide directive technical and scientific procedural documentation and decision-making aids. They describe the state of the art in research and science and harmonize terminology and technical language. A draft version should be published at least 3 years after the formal initiation. By publishing the guideline draft, the public was given the opportunity to share comments. This measure served to involve the public in the standardization work, supported legislation, and improved the quality of the guidelines. Within the comment period of 6 months, anyone and everyone may comment by means of a written statement to the VDI organization. The responsible guideline committee examines all comments and accepts suggestions if there is a consensus. If no agreement can be reached, an appeal may be lodged and an arbitration committee will decide (VDI 1000, 2017). A comparable procedure involving experts in an honorary capacity and giving the public the opportunity to exert influence by means of a commenting procedure was carried out in the creation of the guidelines of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO).

3.1. Definitions and approaches

Sustainability research can be regarded as an example of an inter- and transdisciplinary science par excellence (cf. Ehlers and Krafft, 2006; Öberg, 2011). It considers environmental, economic, and social values in an interdisciplinary approach combining ethics, politics, law, sociology, psychology, economy, geology, chemistry, biology, physics, and engineering (cf. Section 5). Key issues of sustainability research investigate the consequences of the Anthropocene. For example, physicists and geologists engage in assessing and predicting the current and future impact of the Great Acceleration on climate change. Biologists and chemists assess the impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, like the dying of species and the accumulation of harmful substances in the environment and its compartments (i.e., subsystems). In addition, based on predicted climate change, engineers propose feasible technical approaches to reduce human impact and even to alleviate the negative consequences of the Anthropocene.

A major contribution to reducing human impact refers to the design of more sustainable products, services, and technologies. In order to structure the procedure of the corresponding assessment, some general instruments for the prospective assessment of products, services, and technologies have been developed. These are characterized by a systemic view on the entire life cycle of the research object and the adaptation of existing analytical instruments from the various disciplines of sustainability. An important milestone has been the establishment of international standards on life-cycle assessment in 1997, which have become a widely accepted analysis tool in the context of environmental management. However, even in their updated version, ISO 14040 (2006) and ISO 14044 (2006) only cover the environmental dimension of sustainability. Based on the life-cycle approach as described in ISO 14040/14044, BASF launched SEEBalance® as a comprehensive approach to assess environmental, economic and social aspects of the company’s products and processes in 2005 (BASF, n.d.). Grießhammer et al. (2007) created PROSA (Product Sustainability Assessment) as a concept for strategic analysis, evaluation, and optimization of products and services. PROSA draws on an interdisciplinary set of well-established and standardized individual tools (such as Life-Cycle Assessment, Life-Cycle Costing and Social Life-Cycle Assessment) and systematically structures the decision-making processes, reducing complexity to key elements (cf. Figure 4). In this context, a detailed benefit analysis also plays an important role, considering aspects of use benefit, symbolic benefit, and societal benefit at a qualitative level. Important fields of application include product and technology assessment (cf. Möller et al., 2012), product portfolio analyses in companies, product policy, and dialogue processes.

Figure 4.

Basic structure of PROSA. The sequence of work is guided by the typical phases of strategy formulation processes. The Megatrend Analysis is a scoping tool that facilitates the definition of the objective and the market analysis. The tools in green color (BA, LCA, LCC, SLCA) all represent analytical tools for the in-depth assessment of the different aspects of sustainability (environmental, economic, and social aspects). ProfitS (acronym for Products-fit-to-Sustainability) is the integrated evaluation framework that aggregates the results of the different analytical tools. (Reprinted after Grießhammer et al., 2007 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f4

Figure 4.

Basic structure of PROSA. The sequence of work is guided by the typical phases of strategy formulation processes. The Megatrend Analysis is a scoping tool that facilitates the definition of the objective and the market analysis. The tools in green color (BA, LCA, LCC, SLCA) all represent analytical tools for the in-depth assessment of the different aspects of sustainability (environmental, economic, and social aspects). ProfitS (acronym for Products-fit-to-Sustainability) is the integrated evaluation framework that aggregates the results of the different analytical tools. (Reprinted after Grießhammer et al., 2007 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f4

3.2. Normative aspects

As the presented instruments show, sustainability research is characterized by an overarching interdisciplinary research question—the conjoint consideration of environmental, economic, and social issues. Recently, sustainability assessment follows an approach that aims to integrate global normative settings. In this respect, besides the concept of Planetary Boundaries (Rockström et al., 2009, cf. introduction), the 2030 Agenda with its SDGs (cf. Section 5), and the “precautionary principle” form important normative principles for sustainability research. The latter two approaches are briefly presented and discussed hereafter.

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, its 17 SDGs and 169 targets, an internationally agreed set of sustainability goals has been in place since 2015 (United Nations, 2016). These goals can be considered as the interdisciplinary normative basis of sustainability research, covering environmental, economic, and social aspects. In these terms, they offer the unique chance to guide research on sustainability worldwide. However, implementing the 17 SDGs is challenging, since actions necessary to reach one SDG might interfere with actions required to reach other goals of the 2030 Agenda. For example, the use of biofuels can make a positive contribution to achieving SDG target 7.2 (increasing the share of renewable energy); however, existing conflicts of their use in the food sector poses major risks regarding SDG 2 (end hunger). Therefore, the global challenge of sustainability research is to foster consistency of the different policy areas, to steer transformation processes (cf. Section 5), and to facilitate and support behavioral changes aiming for sustainability. Major challenges and starting points for shaping transformation processes in an active way are shown in the following section using the assessment and substitution of substances of very high concern as an important example in industrial practice (cf. Section 3.3). Here, sustainability research is based on ethical principles that ensure consistency between the various interests. To this end, the partly implicit corporatist or individual moral concepts must first be articulated in order to then examine them against the background of a global concept of justice that also includes future generations and responsibility toward nature (Jonas, 1984; Grunwald, 1999).

Furthermore, since research in industrial practice, particularly in the context of chemicals risk management, entails many risks that cannot be calculated with ultimate accuracy, a “precautionary principle” must be applied from an ethical perspective. Surely it is too radical to speak out against technical innovations in cases of doubt, as the philosopher Hans Jonas did (Jonas, 1984). As a practical solution, § 15 of the “Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development” refers to the precautionary principle by stating that the “lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (United Nations, 1993, p. 3). The burden of proof must lie with the rebuttal of the presumption of dangerousness and not vice versa. This is not only a matter of intergenerational equity but also of taking into account the fact that those who accept the risk are not always the sole bearers of the risk.

3.3. Inter- and transdisciplinarity in practice: Improving socio-economic assessment as part of chemicals risk management

The urgency and severity of the existing challenges in the Anthropocene underline the need for interdisciplinary research approaches, as already implemented in the instruments described above. An important practice-oriented example for the implementation of interdisciplinary research in industrial practice can be found in the field of chemicals risk management. The global accumulation of hazardous chemicals as a major challenge of the Anthropocene (cf. introduction) has influenced and further developed the assessments of sustainability research in this field. Within the global “Green Chemistry” initiative (Anastas and Warner, 2000), various interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder initiatives and concepts have been designed and implemented in order to assess and minimize the impact of chemical substances on both environment and health (Iles and Mulvihill, 2012; Blum et al., 2017; Keijer et al., 2019).

Within this context, we highlight the socio-economic analysis of chemicals as an interdisciplinary approach within the framework of REACH, the European Union’s Regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (European Commission, 2006). Adopted in 2006, REACH places responsibility on producers and distributers of chemicals for demonstrating the safe use of their products. As part of the legal requirements, substances of very high concern (SVHC) that are included in Annex XIV of REACH can no longer be used, unless their use is approved by a time-limited authorization. Upon application, producers and distributers of SVHC can be granted an authorization if they can prove that the socio-economic benefit of continuing to use the substance outweighs corresponding health and environmental risks (European Commission, 2006). To support such a socio-economic analysis quantitatively, industry applicants seeking REACH authorization must submit a Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA). Although CBAs have been used in policy analysis for several decades, its use with regard to assessing SVHC is rather recent and is still subject to legislative evolution. Within the context of chemicals risk management, benefits refer to the economic surplus of continuing versus ceasing the use of a substance for which the application was made, whereas the term cost is related to the monetized risks of continuing its use (Georgiou et al., 2018). In this sense, CBAs can be perceived as a typical interdisciplinary approach involving a wide array of different disciplines including chemistry/toxicology, biology, economy, laws, and politics.

A review by Georgiou et al. (2018) of more than 100 CBAs submitted in support of REACH applications for authorization disclosed several major shortcomings: In particular, applicants had difficulties describing the societal impacts related to the use of SVHC. Furthermore, the assessment of wider welfare effects (e.g., for other actors including the applicant’s suppliers, customers, and competitors) have been largely ignored in existing CBAs. Moreover, monetarization is a problem in itself, since applicants tend to overestimate the compliance with legislation, whereas the benefits for ceasing the use of a substance in favor of a suitable substitute are often difficult to quantify in monetary terms (ChemSec, 2019).

In order to deal with these issues, we propose to further develop and concretize CBA methodology on the basis of the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs. For example, SDG target 3.9 (Reducing deaths/illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination) refers to relevant targets that need to be taken into account in the context of the benefit assessment of the CBA. Another important beneficial effect of the application of chemicals, for example, in the energy sector, is addressed by SDG target 7.2 (Enabling/increasing the production of renewable energy). This target can also contribute to qualifying the CBA. Practical guidance for applicants based on the goals, targets, and indicators of the 2030 Agenda would facilitate the performance of CBA in practice and result in more methodological consistency among the applications.

Transdisciplinary interaction is foreseen by opening the assessment process to all relevant stakeholders. For this purpose, the European Chemicals Agency launches public consultations on the application in order to give third parties the opportunity to submit information on possible alternative substances or technologies regarding the substance’s existing areas of application. Since public consultations explicitly encourage direct interactions between the applicant and its competitors (including also producers for potential substitutes), this generates a significant challenge for the applicant and can stimulate innovation.

In this respect, the precautionary principle goes beyond a pure cost-benefit approach to risk and also includes other societal groups and the natural environment (Caney, 2015). In order to ensure the inclusion of other societal groups and a transparent procedure vis-à-vis them, a constant translation between scientific experts and societal groups that may be affected by the risks is necessary (Böschen et al., 2003; Woodhouse and Breyman, 2005). In this way, precautionary reasons can be adequately identified and determined so that effective risk management measures can subsequently be taken. However, the precautionary principle must not be allowed to hinder research in the face of ignorance (Manson, 2002), even if there is not only “specified ignorance” that can be converted into knowledge in the future but also always fundamental non-knowledge (Scheringer et al., 2006, p. 705). The ethical relevance of the latter must therefore also be taken into account by the legislator.

In order to further strengthen the inclusion of society as a whole, sustainability assessments are increasingly embedded in a transdisciplinary approach involving citizens and consumers in the process of finding solutions. So-called real-world laboratories (Schäpke et al., 2018), that is, open-innovation environments that focus on cooperation between science and the public in an experimental environment, are important examples in this respect. For instance, several projects have developed more sustainable alternatives for e-waste recycling in Africa, in which economists have cooperated with engineers, lawyers, and sociologists, involving various civil society actors in the implementation process (Secretariat of the Basel Convention, 2011; Buchert and Manhart, 2016). Within this context, real-world laboratories are suitable tools for assessing the relevance of societal issues like consumption patterns as well as policy measures in responding to the challenges of the Anthropocene in a sustainable way. Ultimately, these approaches can help to increase the probability of actual changes in behavior at the individual level and the opportunity of a paradigm shift in the direction of qualitative growth and more sufficiency-oriented lifestyles.

At first glance, it seems to be a major disadvantage that biomimetic developments are not automatically sustainable in the sense of being a by-product of the biomimetic approach. However, this weak tie between biomimetics and sustainability can prove to be a strength. Practically, the contribution to a sustainable development can be increased for both biomimetic and conventional products by setting appropriate goals. Therefore, on closer consideration, the scientific question should be asked as follows: “Is the biomimetic product more sustainable than a comparable conventional product?” To answer this question, biomimetics has been combined with methodological approaches of sustainability research, including the normative settings described above.

4.1. Approach to check the biomimetic promise

Antony et al. (2012) established a three-stage validation procedure to determine whether the “biomimetic promise” (von Gleich et al., 2010) has been fulfilled or not (Figure 5). The first stage is to find out whether the product is biomimetic or not. The biomimetics guidelines (VDI, 2012; ISO, 2015) provide three criteria to be fulfilled for a biomimetic development: (1) existence of a biological model, (2) understanding of the functional principle and abstraction, and (3) existence of a technical development. The second stage is a sustainability assessment of the biomimetic product, in the best case scenario compared with an appropriate conventional product. For a fast check, the sustainability assessment can be purely qualitative, for which the Integrative Approach to Sustainable Development of the Helmholtz Association is suitable (Jörissen, 1999; Kopfmüller, 2001). Contributions to sustainability can be assessed qualitatively on the basis of 15 so-called sustainability rules. This method was applied to eight biomimetic examples and presented in the internet in German at www.bionik-vitrine.de (Antony et al., 2012). Exemplarily, the development of self-sharpening knives inspired by rodent teeth is presented in Section 4.2. For a detailed analysis, a quantitative sustainability assessment with PROSA has been carried out. Since these quantitative analyses are based on extensive research and are very time-consuming, we selected two biomimetic products. First, a bone-inspired ceiling structure was compared with conventional lightweight constructions (Antony et al., 2014; Section 4.3). Second, the biomimetic facade paint Lotusan® was compared with the conventional paint Jumbosil® (Antony et al., 2016; Section 4.4). In the third stage, it has to be decided whether or not the biomimetic promise has been fulfilled.

Figure 5.

Three-stage validation procedure to prove qualitatively as to whether the biomimetic promise is kept or not kept: (1) Is the product biomimetic? (2) Does the product contribute to sustainable development? (3) The biomimetic promise is only fulfilled if both questions are answered with yes. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f5

Figure 5.

Three-stage validation procedure to prove qualitatively as to whether the biomimetic promise is kept or not kept: (1) Is the product biomimetic? (2) Does the product contribute to sustainable development? (3) The biomimetic promise is only fulfilled if both questions are answered with yes. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f5

4.2. Self-sharpening knives versus conventional knife

The starting point was the search for self-sharpening knives for the shredding of abrasive materials in industrial plants; thus, this example refers to a technology pull process. The biological model is rodent teeth. Thanks to the different degrees of abrasion of the soft dentin and the hard enamel, rodent’s teeth self-sharpen into a razor-sharp edge of enamel at the tip of the tooth (Meyers et al., 2008). Like the rodent teeth, the blades of self-sharpening Rodentics® knives consist of two materials with a hardness ratio of hard metal:ceramic = 1:2 with a razor-sharp cutting edge. This technology pull process was led by engineers and based on literature sources and discussions with biologists. Qualitative contributions to sustainable development can be expected by (1) extending the service life of the knives and thus (2) increasing the productivity of the entire process, (3) improving the quality of the cut, (4) reducing steel consumption due to less abrasion, and (5) lowering energy consumption during the cutting process due to lower cutting forces. Since the functional principle of the biomimetic product is predetermined, but the choice of material is free, the contribution to sustainability can be increased at any time by selecting suitable materials (www.bionik-vitrine.de, Antony et al., 2012). From the perspective of the SDGs, their enhanced abrasion properties contribute to increasing the resource efficiency (SDG 8.4) and help to reduce waste generation (SDG 12.4). Furthermore, lower energy consumption during the cutting process increases the energy efficiency of the application (SDG 7.3). Based on the three-stage validation procedure (cf. Figure 5), we would thus conclude that self-sharpening knives fulfill their biomimetic promise.

4.3. Bone-inspired ceiling structure versus state-of-the-art lightweight ceilings

When attending a lecture on bones given by the anatomist Meyer in 1867, the engineer K. Culmann recognized that the bone trabeculae’s orientation exactly follows the theoretical course of tensile and compressive stress. This was the basis for Wolff’s law, which describes the relationship between geometry and mechanical loading of bones. The architect, H.-D. Hecker, built on this knowledge when he planned the lightweight ceiling for the former zoology lecture hall of the University of Freiburg (Germany) in the 1960s. Antony et al. (2014) quantitatively compared the sustainability contributions of the bone-inspired ceiling structure with a hollow article slab and a prestressed flat slab. The Life-Cycle Costing revealed that the biomimetic ceiling was 2.2 times more expensive because of the big effort for the formwork of the ribbed construction. In terms of Life-Cycle Assessment, the biomimetic ribbed slab showed comparable results, even performing better in global warming potential and cumulative energy demand. The Social Life-Cycle Assessment includes the aesthetic architecture and the symbolic character that zoology students study in a lecture hall with a bone-inspired ceiling (Antony et al., 2014). With regard to the SDGs, bone-inspired ceiling structures provide a positive contribution to building resilient infrastructure by reducing the specific CO2 emissions (SDG 9.4). Their reduced cumulative energy demand also has a positive effect on increasing energy efficiency (SDG 7.3). To conclude, the biomimetic ceiling, developed in a biology push process, fulfills the biomimetic promise according to the procedure shown in Figure 5.

4.4. Facade paint with Lotus-Effect® versus conventional paint

Figure 2 shows the biology push process of the facade paint Lotusan® in detail. In this case, the self-cleaning function of leaf surfaces was the model for the development of a facade paint, which bears the trademark Lotus Effect® (cf. Section 2.2). Antony et al. (2016) compared the sustainability contribution of Lotusan® with the conventional paint Jumbosil®. The life costing of material costs per liter showed that Lotusan® is twice as expensive as Jumbosil®. Total cost per one facade coating is 4,382 € for Lotusan® and 4,000 € for Jumbosil®. Regarding a life cycle of 75 years, a Lotusan®-based facade painting only requires three repaint coatings instead of four when using Jumbosil®. Thus, the higher material cost of Lotusan® is more than compensated by reduced overall materials consumption and lower labor cost. Cost savings over the entire building life cycle of 75 years sum up to 2,854 €. The Life-Cycle Assessment revealed that Lotusan® performs better in global warming potential and cumulative energy demand. However, the poorer performance of total ecotoxicity of Lotusan® is dominated by the TiO2 provision. Various scenario analyses showed that the environmental impacts and costs depend markedly on service life. The Social Life-Cycle Assessment was not analyzed in depth, but no fundamental differences were expected. The reduced global warming potential of Lotusan® and their lower cumulative energy demand reveal positive contributions to the 2030 Agenda by building resilient infrastructure (SDG 9.4) and increasing energy efficiency (SDG 7.3). However, their poorer performance in terms of total ecotoxicity adversely affects the goal to reduce the release of chemicals into air, water, and soil (SDG 12.4) and is therefore an aspect that needs to be scrutinized in the context of chemicals risk management of the application. Although the self-cleaning paint Lotusan® does not perform better than the conventional product in all impact categories, it has been identified as a cost-effective and resource-saving product with a comparatively low overall impact on the environment. Since Lotusan® is a biomimetic product and contributes to sustainability, it fulfills the biomimetic promise. (cf. Figure 5; Antony et al., 2016).

Twenty years after the human-dominated age of the Anthropocene was launched, concepts and structures have been developed that at least partially counteract the accelerated change of the whole Earth system and the resulting local, regional, and global problems. In response to these problems, the UN member states decided at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 to develop the SDGs. Studies show that interdisciplinary research in natural and social sciences is on the rise (Van Noorden, 2015; Rauhut et al., 2020). Furthermore, the Anthropocene debate promotes deep ethical questions about the politics and economics of global change and encourages exchanges between academia and society (Brondizio et al., 2016; von Weizsäcker and Wijkman, 2018).

Regarding biomimetics and sustainability research and cooperation between them, we have shown concretely how inter- and transdisciplinary research can react to the challenges of the Anthropocene. In summary, Figure 6 sketches selected reactions, normative settings, and opportunities of individual disciplines, as well as the already established interdisciplinary approaches in biomimetics and sustainability research. The latter are distinct interdisciplinary fields that cover various single disciplines (cf. green and blue boxes). Figure 6 also summarizes selected reactions of biomimetics and sustainability research to the Anthropocene in terms of new approaches that are applied to deal with key questions (cf. left column). As we have shown, biomimetics is dedicated to approaches on how to transfer functional principles from living nature into technology. An important issue addressed within sustainability research is the identification and substitution of SVHC. Even if biomimetics and sustainability research are independent from each other, their issues nevertheless overlap. In particular, biomimetics and sustainability research are mutually intertwined in terms of assessing biomimetic products, as we have shown on some selected examples in the “practice bridge” section.

Figure 6.

Overview of the sciences in the Anthropocene with a focus when biomimetics and sustainability research meet. Green framed fields refer to biomimetics, blue framed fields refer to sustainability research. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f6

Figure 6.

Overview of the sciences in the Anthropocene with a focus when biomimetics and sustainability research meet. Green framed fields refer to biomimetics, blue framed fields refer to sustainability research. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035.f6

In this respect, the presented collaborations between biomimetics and sustainability research can be seen as a promising start to move from a loose to a strong tie. For example, it would be desirable that biomimetic products are not only assessed for their sustainability subsequent to their final development but also for a more sustainable performance during the development process, for instance, by providing advice on the use of suitable chemicals/materials and avoiding unsuitable chemicals/materials. Within this context, it is crucial to establish and mainstream a development-integrated approach of Technology Assessment that encourages and enables the innovators themselves to carry out assessments in the innovation process as early as possible (Möller et al., n.d.).

Although Crutzen and Stoermer described in 2000 the challenge for scientists and engineers to guide society toward more sustainability, many approaches to a transdisciplinary opening of science have since emerged, extending the task that Crutzen and Stoermer addressed to the “engineering community” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000, p. 18; Crutzen, 2002). In addition to activities in the natural sciences and engineering, such as Citizen Scientists and real-world laboratories, the humanities play an increasingly important role at the interface between natural and social sciences or between cultural sciences, geosciences, and life sciences with formats such as Human Ecology, Cultural Ecology, and Ecocriticism (Rueckert, 1996; Marten, 2001; Zapf, 2016; Wirth, 2017; Slovic et al., 2019). Since humans and human technology became a dominating factor within the biosphere during the Anthropocene, as it could never be proven historically before (Höfele, 2020), the protection of the biosphere as an integral part of sustainable development requires the involvement of various sciences and societal groups. In this way, the risks and detrimental consequences of technology, to which the precautionary principle in particular reacts, can ultimately be minimized.

Data are given in supplemental material. The data that support the findings shown in Figure 1 can be found in the supplemental material file.

The supplemental file for this article can be found as follows:

Table S1. Raw data of published articles on ‘sustainability and anthropocene’ and ‘biomimetics and anthropocene’ published from 1999 to 2019. (PDF)

This work was inspired by discussions with our livMatS colleagues Rainer Grießhammer, Lore Hühn, Sabrina Livanec, Lisa Reuter, and Michael Stumpf. We thank Iva Speck for additional information about the transdisciplinary exchange of experience of cochlear implant patients and Michal Rössler from livMatS for help with the graphics.

Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy – EXC-2193/1 – 390951807. The article processing charge was funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and Art and the University of Freiburg in the funding program Open Access Publishing.

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Contributed to conception and design: MM, PH, AK, OS.

Contributed to acquisition of data: OS.

Contributed to analysis and interpretation of data: MM, PH, AK, OS.

Drafted and/or revised the article: MM, PH, AK, OS.

Approved the submitted version for publication: MM, PH, AK, OS.

BGN: Biomimicry Global Network.

CBA: Cost Benefit Analysis.

ISO: International Organization of Standardization.

PROSA: Product Sustainability Assessment.

REACH: European Union’s Regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals.

SDG: Sustainable Development Goal.

SEM: Scanning Electron Microscope.

SVHC: Substances of Very High Concern.

VDI: Association of German Engineers.

Martin Möller: 0000-0001-6608-1999.

Philipp Höfele: 0000-0002-8682-9965.

Andrea Kiesel: 0000-0001-5564-010X.

Olga Speck: 0000-0002-8705-5121.

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How to cite this article: Möller, M, Höfele, P, Kiesel, A, Speck, O. 2020. Reactions of sciences to the Anthropocene: Highlighting inter- and transdisciplinary practices in biomimetics and sustainability research. Elementa Science of the Anthropocene 9(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.035

Domain Editor-in-Chief: Alastair Iles, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

Knowledge Domain: Sustainability Transitions

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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