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Designing from nature could solve the world's biggest challenges

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Their questions reminded readers that life is a vast web of networks, that working with, rather than dominating, nature might unleash greater possibilities. Indeed, Benyus, McDonough, and Braungart invited us to reconceive basic principles of manufacturing in ways that seemed at once radical and rudimentary.

The public embraced these concepts, and today, a decade after publication, "Cradle to Cradle" still sells
 20,000 copies annually. But when early adopters actually tried to put these principles into practice and design new products accordingly, they quickly confronted the depth and complexity of the problem: manufacturing processes shrouded in secrecy, rooted in unsustainable sourcing, and driven only by the bottom line.

Their answer: establish quality standards for those manufacturers who did want to make safe, healthy products. In the last two years, propelled by a rapid shift in public consciousness and a growing network of practitioners, both movements have made significant strides toward their goals.

In 2010, McDonough and Braungart founded the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a nonprofit that evaluates and certifies products as safe and sustainable. In 2011, Benyus and her team launched Biomimicry 3.8, a consortium of scientists and businesspeople dedicated to collecting research and training designers and engineers around the world as certified biomimicry specialists.

Viewing nature as a source of ideas—rather than merely a source of goods—has a lengthy history among indigenous people. But Western industrial culture had mostly relegated such inquiry to the realm of obscure academic research. After Benyus’s book came out in 1997, however, corporations began to call, looking for ways they might practice what she called “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.”

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