Black Earth Podcast

In Season 3 of Black Earth Podcast, we are meeting visionary black women who are creating innovations inspired by nature.

In this episode, we meet Dr Melissa Sikosana. She is a biomaterials scientist who is passionate about connecting art, science and design to solve society’s problems.

Dr Melissa speaks with us about an exciting discipline called biomimicry. Biomimicry is the art and science of learning how nature creates life in order to redesign a more regenerative and resilient world. 

Dr Melissa shares with us what biomimicry is and how we can apply it to change the world around us and our relationship with nature.
Get ready for an inspiring episode that will leave you in awe of nature.

00:00 - Introductions

4:37 - Melissa’s relationship with nature 

13:08 - How Melissa came across biomimicry

16:52 - What is biomimicry?

21:35 - The three seeds (principles) of biomimicry

27:23 - An example of how to apply biomimicry to design something

34:50 - Biomimicry is practiced across cultures all around the world

44:58 - Decolonising knowledge   

51:40 - Using biomimicry to redesign our social and political institutions 

01:02:00 - Affordable or free resources for you to learn more about biomimicry 

01:02:43 - Marion’s experience with eco-grief and how biomimicry is helping her

01:06:30 - How to support Melissa and Melissa’s work

Resources mentioned in the episode 
  • Website: Biomimicry Institute 
  • Website:
  • Book: Teeming by Tamsin Woolley-Barker
How you can support Black Earth Podcast:
  • Subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen to your favourite podcast and leave a review!
  • Connect with us on Instagram, LinkedIn and Tiktok @blackearthpodcast
  • For partnership opportunities email us at
How you can support Melissa
  • For collaboration opportunities contact Melissa via LinkedIn: Melissa Sikosana

Creators & Guests

Marion Atieno Osieyo
Creator and Host of Black Earth Podcast

What is Black Earth Podcast ?

Black Earth is an interview podcast celebrating nature and black women leaders in the environmental movement. Join us for inspiring, informed and authentic conversations on how we can make a positive impact for people and nature worldwide.

Episodes out every Wednesday. Connect with us online @blackearthpodcast on Instagram, LinkedIn and Tiktok.

Hosted by Marion Atieno Osieyo. Healing our relationship with nature, one conversation at a time.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: [00:00:00] Welcome to Black Earth podcast. I'm your host, Marion Atieno Osiyo. In season three, we're meeting visionary black women who are creating innovations inspired by nature. In today's episode, we meet Dr. Melissa Sikosana. Melissa is a scientist who is passionate about connecting art, science and design to solve society's problems.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Dr. Melissa is also an expert in biomimicry and today she's talking to us about this exciting discipline. Biomimicry is the art and science of learning how nature creates life so that we can redesign a more regenerative and reconnected world. Get ready for an inspiring and world changing episode.[00:01:00]

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Hi, Dr. Melissa. Thank you so much for joining us today on Black Earth Podcast. Um, I'm so excited to be in conversation with you. Um, so thank you. Thank you for joining us. Um, please, Dr. Melissa, could you please introduce yourself to our listener community?

Melissa Sikosana: Sure, firstly, Thank you for having me and for the invite.

Melissa Sikosana: I'm really grateful to be here as well and having this conversation with you. Uh, I was really happy to be approached and along the topic of biomimicry, which is my passion and, uh, hopefully trying to you know, make that my career. So yes, I'm Melissa. I'm a global citizen. I'm currently in Dresden. It's a city in East Germany.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, that's where I reside right now. I like to keep it that way. [00:02:00] Cause you know, things change, life changes. I grew up in Zimbabwe, uh, the breadbasket of Africa, as it was once called. I hopefully, I would say it still is. And I'm partly Tanzanian as well, so I was a little bit spoiled in, in a sense that I could call the shores of Zanzibar home as well for part of my childhood.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, yes, I don't know if you want a little bit more about what I do and my profession. Uh, well, okay, so what pays my bills right now is that I'm a biomaterial scientist at the Institute of Functionalized Polymers in Dresden. And I'm looking at biomimicry methods, in particular looking at antibacterial coatings on surfaces to make different surfaces, such as biomedical devices or water bottles, which was my PhD studies antibacterial.

Melissa Sikosana: So non stick to bacteria. That's what pays my [00:03:00] bill. Uh, I like to maybe not define myself by my profession. I mean, I have a few pieces of paper that say that I'm a chemical engineer. So this is what I did for my bachelor's, I'm an environmental engineer as well. Um, that's what I did for my master's and I recently got my PhD in chemistry, but I'm more interested and passionate about being an expert generalist, someone who is just in between disciplines.

Melissa Sikosana: Bringing together art, science, and design to solve, uh, societal problems. Um, I think that would be me in a nutshell, a translator is how I would put it.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: That's amazing. Thank you so much, Melissa. And I like that, uh, concept of being a translator and kind of bridging different disciplines together. Um, cause So many of, you know, society and our reality, [00:04:00] um, is made up of different disciplines and different like ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So it only makes sense that, um, when you're trying to create solutions, um, for society, you bridge different disciplines and yeah, translate it. So. Yeah, thank you so much for that introduction. And I do love Zanzibar. So when you mentioned that my heart melted a bit.

Melissa Sikosana: I haven't been a while, but I'm hoping to visit this year, but we'll see.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Yeah, it is heaven on earth. It is. Um, yes. So Melissa, how would you describe your relationship with nature?

Melissa Sikosana: This is a tough one, but I thought maybe I'll be honest. It's, it's complicated. Um, for someone who teaches the art of biomimicry, which we'll get into in a bit, uh, I'll kind of describe what biomimicry is after, [00:05:00] um, I'm in a situationship with nature, I would say.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, I would like to be outside a lot more than I am. I would like to slow down, be more observant. I often, uh, think of the times when I lived in Cape Town for some time, for about 10 years. Um, I would hike every single day. I would find every opportunity to be in the sun. I would always, um, it's kind of a joke.

Melissa Sikosana: I always had it like, what are you doing? I'm photosynthesizing. Uh, I just always had to be outside in the sun and I haven't had much of that in the past few years. And, um, maybe it's been in a slightly colder climate, but I also thought maybe it's could be what happens when your passion becomes your job.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, now that I sit behind a computer teaching people how to observe nature from a scientific lens, uh, keeps me behind the, uh, microscoping behind the computer a lot more than what I used [00:06:00] to do before when I was just enjoying it and being curious. But, uh, I'm trying to heal that relationship now with nature by revisiting, uh, my earliest memories of it.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, I'm not too sure if you did, but I always remember, I don't know why it is that every single child makes mud pies. It is always the most fascinating thing you can do, uh, in a kindergarten and nursery school is to play with mud and make little mud pies. And I recall having a very peculiar. uh, affinity, uh, to wanting to eat sand.

Melissa Sikosana: So I did this a lot. I would lick sand or lick the earth and sand. And it was less the texture, maybe a bit of the texture or the taste, but more the smell, because I always would get very enchanted almost as a child with the smell of, um, after the rain when it was super dry and this fresh, [00:07:00] smell of rain.

Melissa Sikosana: And I always try to mimic that on my own by licking the ground. And, um, what's really funny is that that link to me and the earth, uh, comes through my favorite, um, vegetable right now, beetroot. Cause beetroot is the only, uh, vegetable that has this particular molecule called petrichor, which is the same molecule that's released when it rains.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, So I eat beetroot all the time. Beetroot smoothies, beetroot brownies, and kind of an interesting link. Um, yeah, so this is my relationship with nature. I'm trying to heal it and I'm healing it with children as well. I'm surrounded by children, a lot more toddlers in particular, uh, while I'm out there being cool aunt, but I'm also, you know, going into the playgrounds, uh, with my friends' children and enjoying the sand and the [00:08:00] textures.

Melissa Sikosana: So reconnecting with what I enjoy most in life, which are smells and textures. In fact, you can't see this, but on the call, I am always playing with something with texture, uh, when I can. Yes. That's my relationship with nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: That's a really profound response, Melissa, and I'm so grateful that you shared with us that, um, yeah, I mean, there's so many things to that's come up for me in response to that.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, I definitely resonate with like the experience of when you make earth care your work. It's funny because you spend so much of your time thinking and talking about the earth and the environment, but you don't actually spend as much time being, just being with nature [00:09:00] and having that personal relationship with nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And it's come up in several conversations, um, on this podcast, um, where so much of our time is spent trying to kind of advocate for change, uh, when it comes to the environment, but sometimes it comes at the cost of our own kind of personal encounters and beingness with nature. Um, and that's something that I've been very mindful of in the past year, as much as I love the work I do, as much as I love this podcast, um, that is connected to, but separate from my own individual, uh, personal relationship with nature, uh, which requires quality time with nature, actually quality time, um, just being and sensing and understanding and receiving nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, so that really resonates with me. Um, I also love the, [00:10:00] uh, kind of your, uh, your recent reconnection or, um, deepening with beetroot. And it's funny because petrichor is my favorite smell, uh, on, on this planet. I love that. that smell that's released after the rain and it's just magical. Probably something kind of to do with like evolutionary biology and like probably thousands of years ago rain was like, and it's, yeah, it's a symbol of fertility.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: It's a symbol of, you know, when some, when it rains, um, there is, you know, Uh, yeah, there is replenishment on earth. So probably linked to that, but it's also just a really beautiful smell. So um, that, yeah, that reminded me also of, um, a part of nature that I, I really love and that's not connected to, uh, sight or touch, but yeah, smell and [00:11:00] memory and other things.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So yeah, thank you for sharing that. That was, that was profound for me. Um, and yeah, I'm, I'm glad that there's the space for your relationship with nature to evolve. Um, like it can be complicated and that's okay. It can, there can be proximity and distance and that's also okay. Um, so yeah. Thank you for sharing that.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: You're welcome. You've mentioned a few times, um, about your work in biomimicry, which is the, the topic of kind of our conversation today. Um, so season three of Black Earth podcast is about innovation inspired by nature. Um, and so, you know, in, in us imagining, you know, what the present and the futures of our planet can look like, um, I know there is so much that we can learn from nature about how to create [00:12:00] life.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and so this season is, is about that. It's about meeting people who, um, are learning from nature about how to create life and using that wisdom and intelligence to apply it to, um, redesign, re imagine, um, you know, our collective place on this planet and in the future of our planet. Um, and so biomimicry for me, I find it such a fascinating idea, concept, because it's also very transformative.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: It's not just about extracting knowledge and science from nature. It's actually about allowing yourself to be transformed in the process of, of understanding, um, nature's intelligence. Um, So before we dive into that, I'm just curious to understand what led you to your work in biomimicry because it's a very, we'll get into it, but it's quite niche.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So I'm always curious, like, [00:13:00] wow, how did you, how did your path unfold into, you know, into studying or learning about biomimicry?

Melissa Sikosana: So I was, uh, It was in my second year of my bachelor's in chemical engineering and, uh, Spirit Claire, because she passed away two years ago, uh, who then became my mentor as well, uh, had a talk at our university.

Melissa Sikosana: She was part of the very first cohort of learners to go and do the first official ever biomimicry master's course. In 2009, maybe 9 or 10. And, uh, she just had this gift of words and she really kind of, I would say, instilled in me this childish, childish curiosity again. She didn't talk too much about the technical sides of biomimicry.

Melissa Sikosana: She spoke [00:14:00] directly to nature about the fascinating and the awe. Um, fascinating aspects and strategies that are in nature, uh, things that you would never see under the surface. Uh, I would really highly recommend that you see some of her talks. Her name is Claire Janisch. She just has a way of words.

Melissa Sikosana: And from that first talk, I was really drawn in. She has a talk about water where she lets us know that everything is related to the golden ratio so much that, uh, when you mix water, the spiral. Uh, that is, uh, the most efficient way of keeping water alive is to keep it moving. And, uh, when water is healthiest, it also takes on the golden ratio and the heartbeat that we have as well.

Melissa Sikosana: The ratio between the upbeat and the low beats and upbeat and low beat is also on the golden ratio. So just really was like, we are nature, we're connected to [00:15:00] nature. And I was just super fascinated, uh, with this. And of course, she showed us some engineering, uh, examples and I was studying engineering at the time.

Melissa Sikosana: So I thought, okay, this is what this specialization I would like to go into. Um, So at the time I couldn't really afford this course. Uh, it's still quite pricey. It's like 50, 000 dollars or more. Uh, so I stalked her. This is what I did. I emailed her. I tried to find out wherever she would be in terms of talks.

Melissa Sikosana: And uh, I emailed her, asked her if I could shadow her, if I could, you know, even just be her. her PA or something along these lines and that's how it transpired. I just kept myself around it and I kept myself around the growing biomimicry community at the time and, uh, and all the workshops. That's how I educated myself in the methodologies, uh, by staying close and excited, um, because we'll talk about it a little bit [00:16:00] later.

Melissa Sikosana: There are a lot of resources out there, but I feel a lot of them are out of reach, uh, for some people and for me at that time as well. But I was, um, very inspired by her talk.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: That's incredible. Thank you so much for sharing that. Um, it's always amazing how one conversation, one encounter can just open you up to a whole new world and a whole new path.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So I'm grateful that you listened to it and, uh, you, you were persistent in, yeah, finding avenues to learn about biomimicry. Um, so thank you for sharing that. Um, so biomimicry, we've spoken about it so many times. Yeah, what is biomimicry? Can you share a bit more about this amazing, fascinating discipline?

Melissa Sikosana: So, uh, very briefly, like the first line a lot of us give our learners is biomimicry is the art [00:17:00] of looking to nature, uh, and applying its design principles to processes and systems. to solve human challenges. And I find if you explain it that way, it sounds a bit extractive. Uh, but bimurcary has a lot more elements to it, but in a nutshell, that's what it is.

Melissa Sikosana: And if we really kind of try to understand the strategies in nature, nature has 3. 8 billion years of R& D. And if we were to, uh, boil that down into one day, the timeline of the planet into one day, humans have only been alive or contributed to, uh, earth in seven seconds. So if you compare 3. 8 billion years, which is, uh, close to, I think 18 hours or more, To seven seconds.

Melissa Sikosana: I think that's very humbling [00:18:00] for me to be like, okay, we should, uh, learn from the cradle that brought us life. And definitely nature knows what it's doing. Uh, and we've come in and, you know, we know better and we're more intelligent, but if anything, it's been 3. 8 billion years of this. Um, so biomimicry is observing nature.

Melissa Sikosana: And to be a biomimicry professional is to be a translator between nature and human design. So how do you extract those design principles and apply them to human technology to solve our biggest human challenges? Um, but also adding a layer of ethics on top of that, but we'll talk, we'll get into that in a bit.

Melissa Sikosana: So maybe just to put it very briefly, The easiest touch point for a lot of people with biomimicry is an example and form examples because we have different types of biomimicry, we have form, which is more product design, we have processes and [00:19:00] recipes, but we also have systems. So, a form one is, uh, Velcro.

Melissa Sikosana: Velcro is one of the earliest forms or the easiest, uh, one I can explain. That was a biomimicry inspiration. I think it was a Swiss engineer who was doing what I would love to be doing right now, going out on a hike with his dog and looking around and observing. And he found that the seeds of, um, I can't remember what tree it was.

Melissa Sikosana: I do not want to say it wrong. Um, a burdock tree, I think, um, which stick to the fur of his dog and then he studied this and that's how he came up with Velcro because it's a lot of little hooks and a lot of, uh, hoops, um, that allow it to stick to most textile surfaces. And that's how Velcro was born.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Wow.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Yeah, there's so many, um, innovations that are commonplace in our society, um, that people may not know, um, [00:20:00] is, uh, designed or created through, through the process of biomimicry. Um, and Velcro, yeah, thank you for sharing that because Velcro is so, it's like part and parcel of. design, um, but that, that draws from, um, yeah, nature's interaction.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, so yeah, thank you for sharing that. And, um, I, yeah, I wanted to ask you more about the, the types of kind of principles which inform bimimicry because It's, uh, you know, as I've heard you say, it's, it's more than just extracting knowledge from nature and then applying it to human design, um, which is kind of, you know, the crudest level of sustainability is really just that, like, you know, maybe using more or less harmful kind of resources or textiles.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: But still continuing, you know, [00:21:00] the human system or the way of of living. But, um,

Marion Atieno Osieyo: I guess, I, yeah, what I'm trying to say is that there, biomimicry for me has attracted me because there are deeper philosophies or deeper principles that move beyond just a surface level of like using more sustainable resources, but actually thinking about, yeah, nature in a different way and using that to transform us as human beings.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Are there key principles that really guide this, this discipline of biomimicry? Yes. Um, so

Melissa Sikosana: There's three, we call it the three seeds of biomimicry. So the first one is emulate, uh, and then we have ethos and we have reconnect. And what falls under emulate, I think that's the one that's more direct, that's the one that we can relate to, which is, okay, look to nature, look what it's doing and emulate it.

Melissa Sikosana: Just do the scientific study of it, find the principles and make a design. That's the emulate [00:22:00] part of, uh, biomimicry. And what can fall under this is what we call, under this emulate bracket, uh, is biomimicry life principles. So it's 26 strategies that every single, like every single organism and ecosystem on the planet adhere to, to create conditions conducive to life.

Melissa Sikosana: Down to the smallest and to the, you know, the largest tree, all of these 26 strategies are always working. For example, uh, being adaptive and responsive, nothing in nature is static. It's always, you know, self healing or changing with the conditions and the environment. And has allowed itself to adapt to be able to do this, uh, to do chemistry in water, which is similar to what you spoke about earlier, you know, the sustainability.

Melissa Sikosana: And that's just one of the 26 design principles that there are in nature. Uh, another one is to be [00:23:00] resource efficient in terms of energy and materials. What's the shortest route to the solution, but also how do we use the least amount of materials? Um, and using modular building blocks. So, um, there's a big, study or at least a field of research right now, uh, kind of in the metamaterials, which is now the understanding of, uh, spider silk, for example which is a very tough, can be stronger than steel substance.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, but when you, uh, hold it on its own, like one string of, uh, spider silk, it seems quite flimsy, but how do they build these modular blocks together to become really strong? And, uh, a lot of scientists, uh, unfortunately in one direction are studying this, but I'll get to that.

Melissa Sikosana: And that brings me to the other seed biomimicry which is ethos. How do we use these strategies in a way that's ethical? So, um, I [00:24:00] find this really important when it comes to ethics is to realize what biomimicry is not. So, um, biomimicry can be often, uh, tethered in some way to bioutilization, just using nature and biomimetics.

Melissa Sikosana: Yes, it is a type of biomimicry, but it's not what biomimicry is about. So bioutilization would be in a way, uh, for example, it is a green way of, um, extracting carbon dioxide, uh, from the air and embedding it in the ground or into another substance, such as, uh, companies that do this with bioprocesses and algae, that's using nature to solve our problems.

Melissa Sikosana: So that's bio utilization. It does come under the biomimicry, uh, umbrella a little bit, but it's something we try to avoid at first. And then you get [00:25:00] biomimetics. which I think a lot of people would relate to when we think of biomimetics. The easiest example is a lot of robots that are being built in the form of, uh, different animals, uh, kangaroos, or ones that can sprint really fast.

Melissa Sikosana: And a lot of these examples come from companies that specialize in defense forces. So, you know, as this, so this is what we try not to, uh, promote because this is biomimetics and. you know, we need to put the ethos and the ethical part on top of that. So biomimicry is extracting designs from nature, but that also give back to nature.

Melissa Sikosana: So that creates conditions, conduces to life. So this is the ethos. And the last seed is, uh, reconnect. And, uh, just to spend time in nature, reconnect, see the unseen, um, and allow yourselves to feel Like you're part of nature once again, because we are. [00:26:00] And um, this is sort of a re upgrowing field in biomimicry where we're trying to observe human behavior and social dynamics, uh, past, present, and future, and how that's also part of our biomimicry journeys but in an ethical way.

Melissa Sikosana: So, yeah, these are the three seeds of biomimicry, emulate, ethos, and reconnect.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much. Um, that's a really clear explanation. Um, and yeah, it's what has also drawn me to this topic. This field, because, um, yeah, as, as you've mentioned, um, just now, um, it's more than just extracting from nature, it's actually learning about nature, but also learning with the intention of giving back, uh, which is in some ways also, you know, continuing the cycle of life.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So, um,[00:27:00] I'm very grateful for that explanation.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So what would a typical process, um, of, of applying biomimicry look like to design something? Um, is there like, yeah, a typical process, um, using these three seeds?

Melissa Sikosana: There are two ways you can do biomimicry. One is what we call, uh, biomimicry to challenge or biomimicry to design. And one, which is challenge to biomimicry.

Melissa Sikosana: So sometimes when you're reconnecting and you're outside and you see something super interesting in nature and, uh, you observe it and you say, what if, [00:28:00] and then you learn the design principles of this particular strategy of what you saw.

Melissa Sikosana: For example, um, the Velcro example, he got that from nature and, uh, observed it and then applied it to some sort of fastening system or design challenge.

Melissa Sikosana: So you can do a biomimicry this way around. And the easier starting point for this is there are several toolkits, and I'll tell you about where you can find them online, where you can start with the life principles, the 26 life principles, and it'd be very quickly, you can say, okay, there's 26 life principles, and this is my business as it is right now, am I adhering to all 26, and how can I improve my business to become more biomimetic or closer in line with nature by just, um, iterating around the 26 principles. So this is going from biology to design or biomimicry to design, rather biology to design. [00:29:00]

Melissa Sikosana: And then the other way is, is having a human challenge. And, um, wanting to then define it and then find inspiration in nature and then bring it back for the design. And this is the process that I'm involved in the most.

Melissa Sikosana: So I mentor and consult in this field of teaching people. They come with their design challenges and we help them define them and, uh, find a way to look for the answers in nature and come back. So we have a five step process, uh, which is to scope. Uh, scoping, I'll go into that very briefly, uh, discovery, uh, abstraction, uh, evaluates, and then prototypes, so five steps.

Melissa Sikosana: So in your scoping phase, um, maybe if I give you an example of what that may look like, let's say your design challenge is something that may sound super random. You [00:30:00] have a bathroom in a certain place and it keeps getting dirty. How do I keep the bathroom clean without using toxic chemicals and saving money.

Melissa Sikosana: So what we do in the scoping phase, which is kind of the, the most amount of time that we use in the biomimicry methodology is boiling it down to a function and a context. So, okay, so let's go maybe around the context. Where's the bathroom? Is it a public space or is it at home? What's making it dirty? Is it mud?

Melissa Sikosana: Or is it mould? What would then be the context? So if you're now in a public space, uh, the flow of people is hundreds of people a day. Are those adults or those children? And, uh, are they different types of, are they gendered as well? Because this will really get you to hone in on whether it's a behavioral, uh, biomimicry that you'll go [00:31:00] for, or it's something more of a process or a form that's something flawed in the design of your bathroom, for example, or how you're getting people to use it.

Melissa Sikosana: And there are two directions you can go in biomimicry is a more literal, which is more form and design, or you can go metaphorical as well. So we really spend a lot of time in trying to understand this. So what could be happening to get it, uh, maybe let's say now the bathroom is in your home. It's getting moldy.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, we needed to understand, uh, what's your climate. Because if you are in minus five degrees, uh, in the North pole versus in plus 35 degrees in a humid area, those are completely different conditions. So you would look for different organisms in nature to solve your problem. And when we're talking about mold, and this is where it gets super fascinating is to understand the language of nature.

Melissa Sikosana: So, um, an [00:32:00] example that we give is, um, if you want to improve, uh, an air conditioning system. That's what we've done as humans. We've created nouns and we've created objects. Nature works in processes. So that process is how do you regulate temperature? So this is the right type of question you need to be going back to nature with.

Melissa Sikosana: How do I regulate temperature in my context? So with a bathroom in a similar way, how do I make a better bathroom? Uh, what's, what bathroom are you going to look for in nature? Okay. Now you boiled it down to mold on the surface. And, uh, What is it about the mold on the surface? So nature, how do I get rid of mold on the surface?

Melissa Sikosana: So nature doesn't do this. Nature tends to manage different organisms. There's nothing in nature that's bad or good. Um, it just manages microorganisms on its surface. By, um, managing the environment, for example, or, uh, [00:33:00] managing the attachment of microorganisms on surfaces, which is what I did a lot in my PhD.

Melissa Sikosana: So it's just reframing the question completely. You started at how do I keep my bathroom clean to how do I manage attachment of microorganisms on surfaces in this context? This is what we call the translation. So biomimicry is a translation. We need to translate from human words and human understandings, uh, to functions in nature, regulate temperature, manage attachment, manage flow, uh, processes.

Melissa Sikosana: Then, uh, this is where we allow our learners, or you can get, uh, stuck in this for two months of discovering. And, you know, there's a website called Ask Nature. where you can type in these questions. How does nature manage water? How does nature manage or regulate temperature? And you'll get a lot of examples.

Melissa Sikosana: And [00:34:00] then the art of being a biomimicry professional or learning biomimicry is now that when you found these strategies, how do you come back, uh, to use them in our human world and in our language? So you need to, we teach people how to. take out the biological terms and create what we call an abstracted design principle.

Melissa Sikosana: And a good abstracted design principle is a statement or a description of the strategy that anyone can use. So I should be able to go with this abstracted design principle to an architect as well as a biomaterial scientist, as well as an artist. That's the element of a good translation of biomimicry.

Melissa Sikosana: Because the same abstracted design principle can be used in so many different contexts.

Melissa Sikosana: Worked.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Yes, it did. Wow. That's so, that's so fascinating. Like, there's so much, there's so much richness to that process. [00:35:00] Um, yeah, thank you for sharing. There's so many things I'm like, in my head, I'm like, whoa, this is a lot. Yeah, I'm going to sit with that. Thank you. That is, yeah, that is so deep.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Um, we've had a discussion about biomimicry and kind of the site that about us learning from nature, um, and in that process, not just applying it to human design, but also to give back to nature, to give back to, uh, the life cycle that exists on, on our planet.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, One of the things that fascinated me about biomimicry and what I've learned so far is how the more I read or the more I read, the more it feels familiar. Like this not just like this makes sense, but it's like I've seen this before. Um, [00:36:00] and that's, that's the thing. In some ways, that's quite novel because sometimes when you're learning about things in, um, about ecology or about climate, it's a lot of new information, right?

Marion Atieno Osieyo: New science. But the more I learn about biomimicry, as a design principle, as a design tool, I'm like, I've seen this before. It feels familiar to me. And I guess it links back to experiences I've had, um, growing up in Kenya or whenever we go back to my ancestral home, uh, which is in the countryside in Western Kenya, there, like, for example, the homes, the way the homes are like made out of thatched mud.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And it's not just because That's the only resource of material they have. It's actually the most efficient resource to use that will regulate and adapt to the changing temperatures throughout the year. Um, so there's a wisdom and an understanding and [00:37:00] appreciation of what types of materials can actually enable not just life amongst our community, like as human beings, but also what is actually in sync with the life cycles of the weather in, in, uh, that part of where I'm from. Um, and I guess when I, traveled around the world, I've also seen that in, you know, cause. Often when I do go traveling, it's to more remote areas or places with lots of nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Go figure. And I get to kind of have insights or glimpses into how communities who are really living intimately with nature, how they live and a lot of their designs. are based on that kind of observing and understanding the nature around them and building, um, infrastructures, whether it's social infrastructures or actually physical infrastructures like homes that are in sync with nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and I [00:38:00] guess on the one hand, we have biomimicry as a discipline that is, um, how do I say? It's being translated into, into, well, I guess not standardized, that sounds, I don't like that term, but it's, it's being translated into kind of principles that can be applied across different disciplines. Um, but on the other hand, biomimicry, to me, it feels like it exists already in different cultures.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And different cultures have their, their own design principles, uh, of learning from nature and giving back to nature, um, and that diversity of this collective intelligence that we have, um, is all part of biomimicry that we've practiced as a human species. In addition to having [00:39:00] this discipline that is, um, we're creating, um, kind of procedures and principles that we can then take and apply in different contexts.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So I wanted if you kind of, um, Kind of speak to that, the, the diversity of biomimicry across our cultures that exists, um, before and beyond this discipline that we've now termed as biomimicry.

Melissa Sikosana: I'm also trying to learn about this aspect of bimimicry as well.

Melissa Sikosana: It's been about the past, uh, year. Uh, thank you for, you know, sharing your experience because I would say it's been similar to mine. The more I am in the biomimicry field, the more I'm moving back and taking a step back and realizing this feels familiar. Okay. I know this, this, this is intuitive for me, but then it's interesting to see when I teach it and I, you know, the methodology, it's not so intuitive to some people.

Melissa Sikosana: And, [00:40:00] um, So it's an unlearning in a lot of ways. We learned the scientific method for so long in this industrialized way of living, such that we need the same type of learning and the principles and the exercises and the frameworks to have us come back to ourselves. I think this is why for you it may feel familiar.

Melissa Sikosana: And, uh, this is something I speak about often about, you know, when you go back to rural areas, uh, at least in my context as well, and looking at huts and the construction there, because a big, there's a big movement on rammed earth right now. We're starting to realize that it's the most efficient building material.

Melissa Sikosana: It is naturally insulating, um, keeps you cool in summer months as well. It self regulates. And a lot of the shapes of huts in, um, a lot of regions around the world, uh, take on conical shapes and that's because of ventilation. And that is in most parts [00:41:00] mimicked from termite mounds. Uh, they have this particular shape that keeps them cool or the temperature regulated all year round.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, and, you know, a lot of our ancestors had been building this way for some time. Uh, there were lessons to be learned and I can only imagine, like you said, that they learned from observing nature and also the houses are not intrusive. You know, they keep the colors the same and the thatch and, um, kind of an integration with the surroundings.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, and that's another testament to knowing that we're part of nature. Also, uh, someone was telling me when I had this discussion, uh, As well, he's from Zimbabwe and also a, um, a biomimicry professional. And he said the best farmer he met in the world was his grandmother. She knew when it was about to rain, she knew when it was time to plant, she knew when the weather and the seasons were shifting, just based on years of [00:42:00] her growing up in nature and all of these observations.

Melissa Sikosana: There's also the cultural relevance, which is a part, you know, like you spoke about recently, how people are building, have built social structures in the past versus now. And this is a big theme in biomimicry at the moment of how we can look to collective intelligence, look at swarming for business organizational structures, but people are also looking at how social structures were built in the past.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, but I would say, uh, from my experience in a lot of African cultures, that's always been the case. collaboration, maintain community, which is another part of the biomimicry life principles that you'll see if you look at the biomimicry ring, um, maintain community, um, communication, send and receive signals.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, and that makes me think of Ubuntu, you know, like we are, you know, I am because we are. [00:43:00] And, uh, a lot of these studies now in biomimicry are looking at hierarchical structures, for example, which barely exist. They do. They're usually semi democratic. Um, termites or ants, for example, have rotational roles.

Melissa Sikosana: So they will divide their tasks into five different roles and every ant can be one of those five different roles at a different time. So everyone's a generalist, no one's specialized, it's just that they, uh, know when to communicate, where they will need maybe 80 percent of the time. forages today versus 20 percent, uh, ants, um, and taking care of, uh, the larvae in the, in the nest, for example.

Melissa Sikosana: So these roles are always rotating and, uh, these hierarchical structures or at least these organizational structures rather are being mimicked now and being studied further. Um, but yeah, [00:44:00] Uwuntu and collaboration is something we've always known, that everyone shares the work. There's no really. one leader and if there is, are there different forms and different ways of making decisions?

Melissa Sikosana: maybe, I don't know. I hope that touched so that it's something really passionate about, uh, you know, this part of looking to nature and social structures, but also being careful that we're not forming or at least starting a new version of neo colonialism because a lot of Uh, the projects I've seen want to look at the practices of First Nations or First Nationals, uh, and then extract that for business development or, um, democratic, uh, structures or semi democratic structures or, um, we just need to be careful of how we look for that inspiration, um, and extract it.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much, um, [00:45:00] Melissa for sharing that. And, um, yeah, I guess the, the, the last element that you spoke of right now about being careful of how we extract information. Um, um, I think it's, it's very important for me, um, as someone in the work of earth care, um, whenever I come across information, um, or insights Um, I'm curious to understand who came up with it, um, as much as I am curious to understand that information.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and when it comes to kind of knowledge about, uh, how Earth functions, how climate functions, how ecology functions, um, so much of that has been dominated by, um, uh, [00:46:00] Western institutions, um, necessarily in terms of learning about that knowledge, but more so deciding what is knowledge and what is of value.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And even naming, naming, uh, you know, plant names, um, tends to have kind of Latin names. And I'm like, wait, what? Um, you know, and, and, you know, I say this because As you know, if, if we're collectively trying to kind of reconnect with nature, trying to understand nature, trying to learn from communities and people who have examples of being able to live in harmony with nature, um, we have to be mindful of learning in a way that doesn't, um, extract or undermine or erase their perspectives.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, [00:47:00] and so this work isn't just about knowing, it's also the way that, you know, um, and it's come up, you know, there's a potential danger, as I heard you say, within biomimicry, but, um, I think of permaculture, for example, um, permaculture is a deeply restorative, deeply transformational practice of growing, you know, growing with nature, uh, but a lot of, you know, that intelligence came from the wisdom of indigenous, um, earth keepers.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and so it's, it's important that even in other disciplines, uh, within the environmental space, we, honor and respect and revere, um, the intelligence of other communities who, um, have harvested that knowledge, have practiced it, and now we have the benefit of learning and applying that in our, our lives.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and I think that's a really important part of, uh, environmental justice. We don't talk about that as much because we're focused more on [00:48:00] kind of the distribution of impacts and benefits when it comes to the climate crisis and nature loss.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: But actually, a lot of part, an important part of environmental justice for me is also about, um, healing knowledge, like not finding knowledge that heals, but healing the way in which we have, um, termed, valued and understood what knowledge is and who is, um, and the creator of that knowledge.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, so I'm so grateful that, um, there's an understanding and awareness within you as a practitioner of, yeah, the collective intelligence that we have about the environment and looking to inspiration from other cultures and also honoring and remembering that and acknowledging it. Um, Whenever you get to practice and share that knowledge with, with other people.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Of course, of course. So yeah, so thank you. Um, you can tell through my [00:49:00] conversation today, this is a space that, um, has really challenged me to learn and go deeper within my own practice. So, um, I'm explaining and talking a lot because I'm also, I'm also learning and unlearning at the same time. But thank you for holding space and listening to me.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: You're probably like,

Melissa Sikosana: No not at all. I'm like, you're talking and I'm listening, taking it in. I was like, I need to share this book and I need to share this that I heard. And I just, the terminology you, uh, expressed just expressed it beautifully, kind of healing knowledge, you know, like who defined what knowledge is and what knowledge is not.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, and, uh, a lot of people have been disadvantaged based on being in the bucket of what is not considered, uh, knowledge.

Melissa Sikosana: This is, uh, just very quickly, one book I didn't finish reading, but it was called African Knowledge and Math, I think, and Science. And, um, just contrasting how, um, It was a PhD student and she [00:50:00] did her study in, I can't remember where, and, uh, she was looking at, uh, different perceptions of, uh, fractions, for example, and how it's so different in the Western world and, um, and in a lot of, uh, African countries or emerging economies.

Melissa Sikosana: And uh, which is really, and it's just like, no matter, that's why I was so confused in math class. And it's also down to this indigenous knowledge of the way fractions are taught are, uh, taught, uh, taught as parts but the African knowledge of, uh, fractions is a part of a whole. Uh, which is a completely different perspective of how to teach it, uh, understanding that there's a whole and then you can take four parts out of it or eight parts out of it.

Melissa Sikosana: But in the calculus way of teaching it, it's, uh, parts that build up to a whole. And it's just really interesting in, um, yeah, just the perception of knowledge and how it's acquired and how it's used, uh, that creates these [00:51:00] different social structures. Um, and types of knowledge. Anyway, I'll stop there.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you. Thank you so much, Melissa. Please share the links to that book. And I'll put it in the show notes as well. I'm not a gatekeeper of knowledge. Knowledge is free. Knowledge is free.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So we've touched a bit, uh, about, um, biomimicry and how it's been used to kind of design social institutions. Um, and I'm curious about that because, um, just recently, within my part of the [00:52:00] environmental world, there's many parts, but within my part, um, kind of a lot of, uh, social organizers, social activists that I'm coming across are looking to learn from nature about how to organize differently, um, because they would like to organize in a way that doesn't mimic the existing institutions, which, you know, arguably are causing so much of the destruction in the planet, right?

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, so, um, I'll give an example. In, in a previous episode, I interviewed, uh, an amazing writer and organizer called Evie Muir, and she, uh, sorry, they created a nature for healing, um, platform called Peaks of Color. Um, so they, they organize, it's more than walks, it's, it's being with the land.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And so they create opportunities to be with the land. [00:53:00] And, um, one of the things that they were organizing when I last spoke to them was about, um, how to learn from kind of mycelium structures, um, the way they, like, the way mycelium organizes, how to learn from that to, um, Organized in a way that is, uh, an alternative to hierarchy, right?

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So they were trying to think of ways to organize the group doesn't depend on kind of hierarchy with the NGO structures of, you know, top down leadership. Um, and so they were looking to learning from mycelium and I've come across other people also who are thinking of this way. What can we learn from nature and how nature organizes to design new, you know, social and political institutions that, um, enable life to flourish and enable [00:54:00] co-operation, enable, uh, community, um, because that's, that is a solution as much as, you know, actually repairing natural, um, intelligence.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So, yeah, I was, I was wondering if that has come up in the field of biomimicry, um, using that to design new social and political institutions that can actually allow for life to flourish through the way we connect and organize.

Melissa Sikosana: Thank you for that observation.. And, um, it is a buzzing, uh, And budding, uh, kind of part of biomimicry and one I am trying, uh, to get my fingers into and really, uh, move my career in that direction, kind of biomimicry for social design.

Melissa Sikosana: And, um, slime mold is another example. They create this intricate networks that kind of optimize the distribution and they self organize. So a lot of scientists have actually done is that they put slime mold in an [00:55:00] obstacle course and see how it makes decisions. And they're trying to mimic these algorithms, uh, for decision making.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, at first they've used it for city planning. You know, how do we, uh, plan our streets in the most efficient way to get resources to and out of cities. And, um, also to prevent traffic jams and things like that. But, you know, that's another layer. It's not really social organization. Um, but they're starting to look at, uh, examples of this.

Melissa Sikosana: A really great example is one of our learners, um, We had in a cohort maybe about two years ago, he started an NGO called Policy Shapers, uh, in Nigeria. And it's a youth led, um, political organization helping to inform the youth about, um, yeah, around politics and how to get them more participate in, uh, the government and the decisions and the politics around them.

Melissa Sikosana: So [00:56:00] he studied, um, African wild dogs. actually, and they have an interesting semi democratic voting system where there's, yeah, it's super fascinating, and where you have, um, the dominant dog and then you have the rest of the pride or the rest of the pack, and when they need to decide on whether to go hunting or when to decide when they're going to move from a certain area that they're, um, living in or habitat, area they're living in, habitat.

Melissa Sikosana: And, um, they have a sneeze voting system. So what's really interesting is that it doesn't have to be the dominant dog that starts the voting. Anyone or the less dominant dogs are allowed to start the voting. And they are allowed to veto any decisions. They have many rounds until there's a consensus. I think the ratio is 10 is to three.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, so a dominant dog will need three votes, whereas a less dominant dog will need 10. But if they is less than [00:57:00] two, separation, two times, two votes, uh, between the two, then they have to do it again. And what he did, he looked at these ratios and the study and the way they voted to try to apply it and wrote a, a white paper to the UN security council of how do we get uh, the voices of, um, less dominant nations, you know, the ones that are not in the, the G7 or the G9 now, I think, um, clearly this is not my field, but yeah, there's something on those sides.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Yeah.

Melissa Sikosana: Yeah. How to get that balance between the nations and the voting systems, which is quite relevant right now.

Melissa Sikosana: With, uh, all the conflict around the world, uh, and, um, how to make those decisions. And, um, for me, what's super fascinating in social design and systems change to put it, uh, I'm interested in how ecosystems are built.

Melissa Sikosana: Uh, so ecological, ecological [00:58:00] succession, when you look at a certain ecosystem, how does it come to be starting from the smallest organism to the largest tree, uh, initially, uh, which is called primary ecological succession when it's coming from nothing per se, or secondary ecological succession, which is a forest on ecosystem that was there, and it had a disturbance like a flood or, um, a fire and how it rebuilds itself.

Melissa Sikosana: And they are quite set formulas in nature of how these ecosystems build from scratch or build after a disturbance and different key players. For example, Um, when we talk about secondary ecological succession, the recovery after a disturbance, you have key players such as pioneer species, which are kind of lichens and um, moss.

Melissa Sikosana: And all these, um, uh, [00:59:00] plants that grow quite freely, they're non competitive and they just need to grow very fast to make the soil fertile. And then you get the intermediates with other shrubs that are a little bit more competitive. And then you have, uh, other players known as, mobile linkers. And these are typically bats, certain species of, uh, birds that come from a healthy ecosystem and bring seeds in.

Melissa Sikosana: Then you also have legacies, which are, uh, organisms or trees that survived the disturbance. So they hold the knowledge of that previous ecosystem and they're great hubs to help facilitate and rebuild that ecosystem. Um, so when I think of these, you know, legacies, you know, our grandparents, the people's indigenous knowledge and the mobile linkers, uh, you know, maybe transdisciplinary actors like you and me, people who are curious, who are jumping from here to there, from country to country, from, uh, discipline to discipline, [01:00:00] uh, that bring fertile land and fertile ideas from different places.

Melissa Sikosana: So there's so much to play with, uh, there. And it's something I'm very interested in studying and, um, seeing how we can apply that to social design. Uh, I could go on and on, but that's, I will stop there, but it's, it's a really fascinating. field. And, um, I'll share with you a couple of books in this direction.

Melissa Sikosana: I can't remember them off the top of my head right now. Uh, but they are Teeming. Um, that's a really good book to read as well.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much. Um, I'll definitely add that in the show notes as well. Uh, But yeah, it is a fascinating field, um, how we can apply what we learn about nature to social design and redesigning our political institutions.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, yeah, that's something that really fascinates me a lot. Um, so thank you [01:01:00] for, for sharing. Um, I know that people listening to this podcast, like me, uh, would definitely want to learn more about Biomimicry, um, are there any kind of like affordable or free resources you can recommend, um, as introductions to Biomimicry that you can share with our community?

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Sure, um, so the

Melissa Sikosana: Biomimicry Institute, biomimicryinstitute. org are websites where you can find a lot of these free resources, um, the biomimicry taxonomy, which is sort of this dictionary for nature that you can look at and the life principles. Uh, these, um, infographics or these, uh, pieces of information are free and you can find them quite easy online if you want to start applying biomimicry very simply in your life.

Melissa Sikosana: Um, I work with LearnBiomimicry, which is a platform, um, for where we teach the biomimicry method and you can learn about biomimicry and we have a lot of different courses [01:02:00] at different levels. Uh, the introduction to biomimicry is free, uh, as a course and you can take smaller, uh, courses or a masterclass as well.

Melissa Sikosana: And, uh, yeah, we cater for different learning styles. Um, but there's a really robust community on Reddit online as well. Uh, I joined a lot of those discussions. Um, I will also forgotten the links now, but I will send them to you and maybe you can share them with the rest of the community. Um, yes, I think that's about what I can think about now, but the Biomimicry Institute website is a good one and Learn Biomimicry where I work has a lot of resources.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: That's amazing. Thank you so much. Um, this has been such an insightful, uh, conversation and my heart is just beaming with so much joy and gratitude that, um, we already exist, um, in a [01:03:00] sustainable world. I think I read a quote from, uh, Janine Beynus uh, who wrote a really great book on biomimicry.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and she said a sustainable world already exists. The answers are all around us. And she was, of course, referring to nature's intelligence. Um, and I also just wanted to also share with you how, um, I'm getting emotional. Um, it's, I'm at a stage in my journey, um, where I'm, I'm, learning to process a lot, um, what's happening in the world.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And I think also coming to a realization in many ways that there's so much about what's happening in the environmental crisis that we can't necessarily stop. And that fills me with great sadness. It's not just because of the suffering that people face and species face, but [01:04:00] also because there's so much beauty, um, in nature, there's so much life in nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So I've been processing and trying to find new avenues of hope that don't rely on this like imagined future of like, it's not too late. And I found it through learning about things like biomimicry and learning about how nature creates life. Um, that has given me a more resilient hope and a more realistic hope, um, than wishing away, um, Things that we know are happening or have already happened to, to many communities around the world when it comes to the environmental crisis.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So, um, yeah, I also just want to share and offer that, um, in learning about nature, um, one can also find, um, a [01:05:00] hope that speaks truly to our times and what we're facing. And it's definitely helped me process, um, some of the, the more challenging emotions that come with eco grief and, um, yeah, understanding what the destruction of our planet is, is really doing to, to us and to other forms of life on earth.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So yeah, just want to offer that vote of thanks and to say your work matters. And it is really needed. Biomimicry I feel, is, uh, the work of our time in terms of learning how to reconnect, uh, deeply with nature. So, um, I thank you for honoring this path and really, um, yeah, being an expert that we can look to and learn from, um, as you're also continuing to learn in your own journey.

Melissa Sikosana: Thank you so much for being so open and vulnerable and for holding space for that. Um, [01:06:00] I think we just shared a very beautiful moment there, you know, just understanding of, um, this connection, the human connection and the nature connection and how we can really, uh, tap into that and, um, hold hope, get some sense of hope.

Melissa Sikosana: It's, uh, Thank you for, for sharing and I'm really glad to be connected with you. And in terms of, um, how you can help, um, I should have thought about this before, right?

Melissa Sikosana: Um, this is a tremendous, I feel, opportunity, this podcast of, you know, just, I've always, I talk very openly about biomimicry all the time. So I'll just be happy for the audience and everyone that's listening to just continue to share nature's genius and to go outside and keep talking about it because it's one of the key things I feel we need to kind of heal our times and to heal us.[01:07:00]

Melissa Sikosana: And I would not ask for anything more. Thank you.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much, Melissa. It's been a joy to speak with you. And yeah, I look forward to reconnecting again. So yeah, so thank you for joining us today on Black Earth.

Melissa Sikosana: Sure, likewise. Thank you so much for having me.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much for joining us on today's episode. We'd love to stay connected with you. You can subscribe to Black Earth Podcast wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts, and you can also connect with us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok at Black Earth Podcast. See you in the next episode.[01:08:00]