Michel Wolfstirn: A Conversation on Biomimicry and Sustainability

Michel Wolfstirn is the founder of BiomimicryNorway, which aims to provide innovation inspired by nature both in the academic and professional sectors. During the Good Life Project camp, I had a chance to sit down with Michel to discuss alternative solutions to climate change and promote sustainability.

How did you get involved in the oil industry?

I completed a French-German diploma in mechanical engineering because I was aiming for an international European company like Airbus. I thought it would be seen very well to show my experience with French, German, and English. I found an internship with an oil company, where English was the working language. They wound up hiring me and I worked there for four years, before I quit.

What was your job at the company?

I was working on new ideas and concepts to find new oil reservoirs. I was in the marine division where we worked with electromagnetics, which was a new way of detecting reservoirs. Normally you use seismic, which has the same principle as the ultrasound. It’s all based on the echo of the signal you send. We create underwater explosions through high pressure air guns. The air is released very quickly, which creates a bubble and soundwaves. It travels to the sea floor and gets reflected back. With every layer it encounters, part of the wave bounces back and part of it is transmitted through the oil to the next layer. Simply put, by knowing the speed of sound in the water and the ground, you know the time between the emission and the reception, and therefore the depth of each layer. Basically, seismic gives you an image of the different layers, and it is analyzed to find out if there’s high potential for oil or not. There’s only a 40% success rate with this method.

So a lot of the budget goes into attempts that can wind up being unfruitful.

That’s right. At the time, it was believed that electromagnetics would help because it measures the resistance of what’s underground. The rocks are normally conductive because it has a lot of water in it, while oil is resistive, and you would get this anomaly in the signal. By superimposing eletromagnetics and seismic data, there would be an estimated 80% chance you would find the oil. I worked with electromagnetics for four years, but that technology wasn’t mature enough for high speed data production. We experimented with different methods to increase productivity.

Eventually, you felt it was time to leave and that you belonged elsewhere. Why was that?

It had always been there. I care about the environment and the outdoors. I don’t like fear-based messages about global warming and the end of the world. They don’t interest me. I guess it was a bit of a reaction to the media rhetoric of this giant problem, which builds on fear, rather than offering solutions. I always wanted to contribute to solving the climate change issue, but I guess I lured myself into this really big opportunity to work for a big company in Norway. For some reason I was always attracted to Scandinavia and the oil industry gave me a great opportunity to live there.

Initially I thought, the oil industry is going down and everybody knows we have limited resources. I thought it would make sense that oil industry giants would invest in sustainability, new energy, and ways to become resilient they gradually move away from their current business which is only going downwards. I thought, maybe I can be part of this adventure. When I entered the company, it became clear relatively quickly this wasn’t where it was going. It felt like they were going to milk the cow to the bitter end.

If I’m hearing you correctly, even though they were aware of the issues with sustainability, they weren’t really dedicated to addressing it?

The oil company I worked for is doing carbon storage and some water management things. I was discouraged to go in that direction because my manager felt it wasn’t a smart move career-wise. He felt this would be a small initiative and wouldn’t be a big part of the business, at least in the next five to 10 years. Most oil giants in Europe weren’t really investing in oil alternatives, except to boost their public image. Now, some are starting to invest in things like offshore wind. Others will just keep milking the cow.

I was at this start-up event in Oslo recently, and they reversed how these events normally work. Start-ups usually pitch big companies, but here, they had the big companies pitch to start-ups. The four companies present at this panel were heavily focused on the oil business, and the word sustainability was mentioned only twice during a two-hour event. There was no intention, at least from what they communicated, to diversify and find other ways to make money. This is a bit sad because there’s been a lot of lay-offs recently, especially in Norway. A good chunk of Norway’s industry is related to offshore and subsea technology, so these skills can be used in a lot of different industries linked to renewables, such as wave power or offshore wind. But the money is not directed in that direction. For the oil giants, the low oil prices were a good excuse to get rid of a lot of people and lose some “fat.” It was the quickest way to minimize money losses.

Whenever there’s a big event like an oil spill, does it affect the commerce or conversation within a company, even if another company was responsible for the event?

Absolutely. Security is a very high priority in the oil industry. I’ve always respected that, actually. Things like the Macondo Incident is a catastrophe that none of us can afford. The first really big incident that happened in the North Sea was Piper Alpha in 1988. That was the start of companies investing in Health, Safety and Environment (HSE). It’s been a very high priority since then, because you cannot afford losing lives or polluting the environment that much. It’s really bad for business and ethically speaking, it doesn’t make sense. That also explains why the oil industry, while incredibly innovative sometimes, advances at a slow pace due to all the safety factors and procedures you have to implement. Frankly, the oil industry is so big, it’s almost surprising it has so few incidents. Or maybe they’re just not covered, I don’t know.

I never thought about it this way, but I suppose having high security would also slow down implementation of new technologies.

Yeah. To build new platforms, companies build in really intense security coefficients, or the entire thing could explode. They do a lot of simulations. Also, you have to deal with really rough environments, especially offshore. Let’s say you have a hurricane or something. You want to be safe for your people, your business, and the environment.

I think another factor is that every decision weighs millions of dollars. The price of exploration is really high. Every downtime quickly amounts to millions of dollars flushed down the drain. That’s the psychology behind it. So if you are introducing a new technology, you better have really good safety factors. If the risk is too high, the industry would rather stay safe and keep making money the way they’ve been making it so far.

What are some energy alternatives to oil you are excited about?

I think solar power makes a lot of sense, but not necessarily the way we’re doing it right now. It makes sense because it’s so abundant. This is also how nature does it. Solar energy is captured by the leaves of plants; it’s a dominant strategy for energy harvesting. Wind power and wave power make a lot of sense as well since their source cannot be exhausted. Diversity is very much needed.

The only thing that concerns me is the way we rush into these industries without necessarily thinking about the entire cycle. It’s one thing to create a technology that’s “green,” but solar panels are still really hard to recycle. We are getting better at it, but the more panels we create, the more waste we ultimately create as well. The rare earth components that go into the panels are just like the ones in our cellphones. They’re very hard to extract (commercial grade ore is not easy to find), so we need to find a way to put them and the other components back into the industrial cycle rather than throwing them away when panels go to waste.

I think we have a lot of good alternatives, but it’s important to focus on the full life cycle, and not simply the solution that is provided, especially at the rate at which renewable technology improves and needs to be updated. You extract all these resources, but it’s not necessarily reusable afterwards to update the infrastructure. Those things need to be taken into consideration as well. There are always things we don’t really think about.

I wouldn’t have thought of it.

There are all these alternatives, but what are the actual consequences of shifting to that alternative? We don’t think about the types of materials we’re using because we’re so used to consuming. A product may be doing better things, but what’s going to happen after that?

A cycle could potentially take a long time, so are there accurate ways to predict a lifecycle in the meantime?

Sure, but it’s a really complex problem. You are producing the raw materials, but you also have to use what’s available right now. You also have to look at the value stream and see if there are opportunities to recycle these things. Often time, the recycling industry only comes up once you start retiring those products and there is enough quantity to make it worthwhile from a business point of view. There are products we produce that we know we can recycle, but we are not doing it yet because the critical mass has not been reached to make it worthwhile. This is a bit sad because there’s a lot of waste that’s buried or burned, despite it being valuable materials. Once waste buried or burned, it’s really hard to get anything back from it.

You mentioned that a huge percentage of Norway’s GDP comes from the oil industry.

We are almost a mono-industry. Fish farming is very big, as well as the shipping industry. The military is quite big as well because we have the Kongsberg Group that has a relatively large defense section. But these industries are not as significant as the oil industry. Even though we have only 5 million people, we have an impact on the climate because we extract so much oil. The fact that the oil prices have been so low has been dramatic for the oil industry. To make a profit, they need oil prices above $40 a barrel (estimate as of 2015). So they have been losing money every day for a while at the beginning of the year. So the quickest response was to flush out a lot of people. The country has been realizing for some time that we are in a danger zone because of our reliance on oil for income.

Norway, I believe, has the biggest national fund in the world, so we don’t have any debt. Now, that fund is also being used for strategic purposes, like divesting from coal. The country realizes we cannot just rely on oil. We need to create new jobs and industries. We could run out of oil by 2080, but probably before that. It’s not sustainable, so we need to find new ways to have people live comfortably. There’s been a big push towards innovation lately. There’s been a lot of talking, but maybe not enough action. I’m a bit of the impatient type. [Laughs]

[Laughs] I think all innovators feel that way.

But it’s a really great country to live in and I really love it. I want to be part of that change. That’s why I came out of the oil industry, though it took me a while.

But now you have gathered all this information about the industry you wish to impact. What are you working on right now?

I watched this Ted Talk with Janine Benyus where she talked about biomimicry. Biomimicry is sustainable innovation inspired by nature. It’s a framework to solve challenges by asking how nature would solve the problem.

For example, Japan’s high-speed railway lines called the Shinkansen wanted to make their trains faster, but every time they came out of a tunnel, it would almost create a very loud boom. It was so fast that that it was compressing air in front of itself in the tunnel, and that mass of air would explode like a champagne cork when the train comes out of the tunnel. Japan is very densely inhabited and the train rides through urban zones for large parts of the stretch, so it would be a big disturbance.

They solved that by looking at the kingfisher. The kingfisher dives into water without making a splash. The Shinkansen engineers thought maybe they could use the shape of the bill of the kingfisher to solve their problem, and it did. In fact, the trains consumed about 10% less electricity to move forward, and could go something like 10% faster as well. They also made additional changes with the train’s pantograph, which is the part touching the power cables. It was not aerodynamic, so they changed the shape but that was not enough. So they took inspiration from the owl. It flies silently to avoid detection, and the reason for that is its serrated feathers, which breaks down the noisy turbulence. They used the same principle to quiet the pantographs.

A more interesting example is the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. It’s a huge office building, so one question is, how do you keep a relatively constant temperature inside? Zimbabwe is a very warm country. Electricity is not very reliable there and relatively expensive. They turned to the termites because they build these huge mounts that can measure three to four meters. They have this ventilation system that allows them to regulate the temperature of the mount. The Eastgate architects applied those ventilation principles, and now it consumes only 10% of the energy such a building would normally use for air conditioning. It’s huge in energy savings.

What’s fascinating is that you can push the framework even further to social innovation. For example, Pam Slim spoke about ecosystems [at this year’s Camp GLP]. She comes very close to what we are doing with biomimicry. If you take the metaphorical level of that framework to look at how nature builds ecosystems, you can come up with great ways to organize your business and society.

I read this fantastic book by Thomas D. Seeley called “Honeybee Democracy.” Bees are very good at making very efficient decisions as a group. He gives five steps towards making great group decisions based on the way the honeybees take theirs. There’s so much information that’s right before our eyes; we just need to learn to read them. In January of 2016, I started working fully with biomimicry because the method is not well-known in Norway. I think it is important to educate people and especially companies about it. The idea is to provide workshops and consulting services to companies.

The Biomimicry Institute is quite active in the U.S. and Ms. Benyus is on the board of several organizations like the Green Building Council. Biomimicry is a framework that’s gaining a lot of attention. The FBEI created what’s called the Da Vinci Index to track the progress of biomimicry and bioinspiration. Biomimicry has the goal of sustainability, while bioinspiration does not necessary have that component. For example, robotics takes from nature, but not necessarily in terms of sustainability or the environment. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate the two. The Index shows that by 2030, biomimicry and bioinspiration will generate $1.6 trillion of GDP, and almost $500 billion in the U.S. alone. They are also expected to create 1.6 million jobs in the U.S. as well. The environmental savings are estimated to be half a trillion dollars. The Index tracks all the patents that are generated, articles and papers published, as well as grants that are provided to those disciplines.

If you want know more about biomimicry, there’s a great paper that’s been published by Terrapin Bright Green, a New York-based company. It’s called “Tapping into Nature,” which tracks the different degrees of maturity of biomimetic applications and products. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff happening, but we need to engage businesses a bit more to make them understand that if you’re not working towards sustainability, you’re working towards yesterday. The problem is that we don’t get feedback very quickly. Now, we are noticing climate change, but that’s a consequence of all the crap we’ve done from 20 years ago. Even if we stop all oil emissions now, we would still get a worsening of the situation for the next 10 or 15 years at least. The system is still digesting all the crap we’ve been doing so far. It’s important to be aware of that.

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