“Nature does not invent perfection overnight – it evolves over time…and this is the process we will also need to undertake” – Sue Swain
Sue Swain is an environmentalist, biomimicry practitioner and the Founder and Executive Director of BioWise; a non-profit company dedicated to the uptake of biomimicry.
Sue has recently partnered with Village n Life – and more intensely with Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa on the Garden Route – to bring the ideals of biomimicry to life and to ultimately create a hotel experience that is as wholesome and valuable to the guest as it is to our planet.
First things first: what is biomimicry?
The dictionary describes biomimicry as “the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modelled on biological entities and processes”. “In essence, biomimicry aims to emulate the models and systems and natural elements of nature in human life and the way we as humans live, in order to create a way forward of solving our design and sustainability challenges
Being inspired by the natural way in which nature works in order to solve the issues we face.
Humans have always looked to nature for inspiration to solve problems. Leonardo da Vinci applied biomimicry to the study of birds, closely observing their anatomy and flight to produce numerous notes and sketches in the hope of enabling human flight. Although he was not successful with his own “flying machine”, his biomimicry approach was the source of inspiration for the Wright Brothers, who were also inspired by their observations of pigeons in flight. They finally did succeed in creating and flying the first airplane in 1903.
“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous” Leonardo da Vinci
Sue’s company, BioWise, aims to facilitate the uptake of biomimicry in the Garden Route which, already a lush paradise of forests, beaches and ecosystems, would ultimately become a hub of biomimicry –in action – serving as a model and inspiration for others.
So how does Sue tie in with Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa? Well, Sue will be the custodian and leader of the biomimicry initiative/journey at Pezula…leading the way to a more environmentally attuned & responsive hospitality experience for all at Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa.
Between overseeing various projects and helping to make the world a better place, we caught up with Sue to ask her about her background, her chance (or rather serendipitous?) meeting with Village n Life Chairman, Maree Brink, and her vision for the future of Pezula.
Hi Sue! We are so excited to have you on board. Tell us a bit about your background.
I come from a conservation and environmental education background having completed my National Diploma in Nature Conservation in 1987.
Between 1988 and 2011, my career took me all over the place, from working at an environmental education centre in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, to social ecologist at Addo Elephant National Park to managing Working for Water Projects in and around Port Elizabeth.
I then became a stewardship extension officer for the Garden Route Initiative and an environmental advisor for the Plett Environmental Forum, while managing a few alien clearing projects for the Eden to Addo Corridor Initiative.
In between this, I backpacked up through parts of Africa, worked in the United Kingdom and enjoyed a brief stint of of voluntary conservation in Iceland of all places!
“I think my focus on environmental education is what has really lead me on the path of biomimicry – you have to really try and understand something in order to be able to teach on it and in immersing myself in understanding nature, I realised that there is so much we can learn from the living world.”
When was BioWise founded and how did that come about?
Between 2002 and 2004, I developed the idea of an edutainment attraction based on reconnecting with and functioning like nature. This is when I founded the non profit company in 2004. At that stage it was called Challenge Environmental Centre (Challenge stood for Centre for Holistic and Alternative Living and Lifestyle’s Embracing Nature’s Green Ethics) An application to the National Lotteries for funding was submitted at the end of 2004. We started using the Trading As name of BioWise from 2007.
Did you already know of the term ‘biomimicry’ by the time you founded BioWise, or was that something you discovered later, as you were already working in that field (albeit unbeknownst to you)
No actually I didn’t, I only learned of biomimicry for the first time in 2006 and realised that this is exactly what had been intended with Challenge aka BioWise. I then immersed myself in research and attended numerous training courses for the next 3 years, including one at Leshaba in 2007 near the Kruger National Park with Janine Benyus, who wrote the book on biomimicry.
In addition to learning more and more about this concept, I continued resubmitting our funding proposals for what was now called a “Biomimicry Discovery Park” and the focus of BioWise became to promote the practice of biomimicry.
We also promoted the concept to Knysna Municipality for a “town functioning like a forest” and in 2010, with this in mind, the Knysna Municipality and BioWise launched a programme called “Naturally Knysna”. The programme’s straplines read: ‘inspired by nature’ and ‘a nature-inspired economy’.
“Biomimicry is both an ethos and a blueprint presenting our species with the opportunity to really ‘find our way’ and begin functioning like a species that is a welcome member of the interconnected web of life.”
How did your funding efforts continue? And did BioWise eventually receive funding?
We continued campaigning for funds, and in 2011, BioWise received funding from the National Lotteries to do a detailed concept design and business plan for the Discovery Park.
What followed was 4 years of working with multi-disciplinary teams (architects, engineers, graphic and industrial designers, educators, biomimics and ecologists) to deliver the required output.
However, the R500 million cost to develop phase1 of the Discovery Park was beyond our ability to raise. We considered how best to move forward and the concept was then adapted to that of a decentralised Discovery Park experience where the Garden Route as a whole becomes the Discovery Park where any number of attractions and offerings could provide the introduction to biomimicry.
In 2017 we received funding to run our 2-year ‘Waste Nothing Knysna’ programme. Highlights were our partnership with SANParks, the Knysna Municipality and Edge of Africa and the bio-wise school’s competition and programme.
We also began to take on smaller projects related to biomimicry including a river restoration project in Knysna and the development of a biomimicry-based strategy for Bitou Municipality’s Local Economic Development department amongst others.
Tell us about how you met Maree Brink, the Chairman of Village n Life?
Talk about a serendipitous encounter! In early May, I was walking with two friends on the Fisherman’s Trail just where it enters the forest when Maree and Bella (one of his dogs) came up the path. Maree struck up a conversation, having also noted my wearing of an old SANParks cap, in which he mentioned he was the new owner of Pezula and speaking of his intention to re-launch/re-brand Pezula.
On hearing this, I mentioned the concept of biomimicry and BioWise and that it may be something to consider for the re-launch. We exchanged names.
I loved Maree’s parting shot which was to say he was making Pezula a pet-friendly hotel and if I didn’t agree with that, we wouldn’t really have anything to talk about!
The next day, I received an email from Maree who had gone onto our BioWise website, and that he was interested in the concept of biomimicry that I proposed and it has all simply developed from there.
It was at this stage that started to dare get excited as from Maree’s questions, statements and interest, I could see that this was someone who really got biomimicry and could see the potential.
There were many things remarkable about this encounter. I don’t really believe in coincidence and do think that our meeting was somehow meant to happen. The fact that it took place in the forest I think has particular significance:
The forest is ultimately our model, mentor and measure for Pezula.
The encounter was really brief and out of character for both of us, as I am inherently shy and Maree would not normally strike up a conversation with a stranger, but I think somehow the forest weaved its magic and made it happen, and this happened in spite of ourselves, not because of ourselves.
So tell us, what is your vision for Pezula?
The vision for Pezula is for it to be an outstanding example of biomimicry in action, and because of the adjacent forest, we would want the hotel to be ‘functioning as a forest’. We want to offer guests an unforgettable experience of what this means, and for them to have the opportunity to be part of our journey and ecosystem.
Pezula would also become a keystone attraction of the decentralised Discovery Park, and be a shining example of biomimicry-inspired regenerative tourism where we are learning from and emulating the natural ecosystems that surround the hotel. Pezula will have the opportunity to become the venue for hosting special conferences relating to these principles.
Pezula within the 3 key elements of biomimicry:
Reconnect: Pezula will offer meaningful experiences for guests to reconnect with nature.
Emulate: The intention will be to learn from and function like nature, bringing in life’s principles (the deep patterns by which all of nature functions) into all aspects of our operations.
Ethos: Pezula would strive to create conditions conducive to life, just like nature.
Most importantly, going down this route offers Pezula the opportunity to have a common, unifying and exciting purpose and vision to which all staff aspire and for which they will become informed, committed and passionate ambassadors.
Maya Angelou famously said that “[my] mission in life is not merely to survive, but thrive [sic]” and the same can be said for us as a human species. Taking our cues from and partnering with nature may just be the way forward – so that we can thrive as meaningful contributors and not merely survive.