Director of Biomimicry at B+H Architects
Jamie Miller is the Director of Biomimicry at B+H Architects. He’s also the founder of the award-winning sustainability consultancy Biomimicry Frontiers, and the founder of the Biomimicry Commons education and incubator program, which Fast Company named a “World Changing Idea” in 2019. He was the director of the Biomimicry program at OCAD University and holds a PhD in engineering, which focused on systems-based biomimicry. He’s worked in the field since 2004 and has been trained by Janine Benyus and Indigenous Elders on the deeper principles of nature and focuses on making biomimicry real through its application.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
It’s fundamental. I only do what I do, because I want to see a world that adopts a biomimetic mindset and biomimicry at its core is about sustainability. It’s about pulling on the only sustainable model that we have which is the natural world. So it’s fundamental to what I do. The social impact is at the forefront as well. I see myself as an advocate of nature, but everything I do is for our species because if we’re not creating sustainable change, then our species is at risk. And people talk about saving our planet. I don’t espouse that idea; I think our planet’s fine and has done well before us and would be fine without us. It’s our species that I’m more worried about and our dependence on ecological balance. So everything that I’m doing is based on sustainability and trying to be sustainable to save our species.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
I focus a lot on land use and master planning. I see that as the biggest opportunity to mitigate climate change. So large scale land use, architecture, and the built environment are where I’m generally focused at the moment.
How did you enter this space?
I had a bit of a paradigm shift when I was in my undergraduate in engineering at Queen’s University. It was 2004 and up until this point, I had been living in a belief that there had to be a different way of doing things and that what I was being taught wasn’t the only way. I took a course called math and poetry, where we learned about the Fibonacci sequence, which is a sequence of numbers that produces a geometric spiral that is ubiquitous in the natural world. And it was at that moment I suddenly realized there is a different way, there’s a better way of doing things, and it’s rooted in a nature-based philosophy. I realized that nature could teach us how to both design and thrive on this planet. This realization was the impetus for this journey I’m on. From there, I met Janine Benyus (the woman who coined the term Biomimicry) and worked with her for several years. I taught the Biomimicry Programs at OCAD University. I worked in Indonesia and Sri Lanka on Tsunami Relief and incorporated biomimicry and learned about biomimicry in those capacities. I did a Ph.D. in engineering which focused on systems-level biomimicry. I started my company in biomimicry, called Biomimicry Frontiers and a community called the Biomimicry Commons. This one experience in a math and poetry class in 2004 that initiated a lifelong journey to explore the genius of nature and I’ve been committed to this idea for almost 20 years.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I’ve always been interested in nature and people. For a while I wanted to be a professor but I felt the need to focus on practical application of my ideas. After my Ph.D., I did think that I’d go to a traditional engineering job but I think it’s a part of my character to try to do things differently. Even while I worked for Environment Canada for a year, the whole time I just thought of biomimicry. I was trying to explore ways in which we could shift the status quo. I think at my core I knew that we need to fundamentally change our approaches to design and our relationship with nature.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
Biomimicry is growing dramatically and I’m so excited at the prospect of our future because the concept is growing, we’re getting more creative in how we abstract from nature, and we’re being able to pair it with advancements in technology that we’ve never had before. Ideas such as walls that breathe like lungs are not a futuristic design – that’s happening today. Self-healing concrete already exists. Concrete that sequesters carbon like trees already exists as I put it in a condo in Toronto. There is incredible stuff that’s happening in biomimicry. And it’s the perfect timing. It’s just a matter of getting more people out there, learning about it, and practically applying it. And the only limitation in my mind to its practical application is creativity – the creativity of abstracting nature’s genius and then the creativity of leveraging existing technologies to produce sustainable, cost-effective solutions that are inspired by nature. Creativity, in my mind, is done best through collaboration. So that’s why I’m excited to be with B+H Architects, that’s why I’ve created The Biomimicry Commons, because I want to inspire more creative collaboration and diverse thinkers applying this way of thinking.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
The biggest one is that you have to be a biologist. That’s a misnomer. I don’t know much about biology; I dropped out of biology in high school. So you don’t have to be a biologist, but you have to be curious about biology. You also don’t have to be a designer. Biomimicry applies to everything; you can be a social impact provider, or you could be a CEO of a company. I worked with a group in Singapore to help bring biomimicry to improve their Organisational Behaviour. We looked at ants and primates and tried to pull metaphors for how to build better businesses. During my Ph.D., I learned about an ecological model called the adaptive cycle, which taught me about resilience, which can be applied to individuals or communities. The key to biomimicry is finding your niche – what you’re naturally good at or excited by – and finding the stories in nature to help support a different approach to that area.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
One of my sons just woke up, so my day always starts with them – we start early. My wife had a second baby a month ago. So we start with these guys. After that it’s a bit of meditation. I like to focus my mornings on key tasks and prioritizing. I focus on anything that needs to be produced/published/sent out. Currently, my team is working on projects around the world. We have a residential house design in India that we’ve been working on for several years. We just did a biomimicry treehouse design for the museum of architecture in the UK. We have a land-use project in Gabon, Africa that we’ll start to ramp up. And then we have another land-use biomimicry design in Ontario that we’re working on. We may have also just landed a vision master plan in the Dominican Republic. These three (maybe four) new projects will be taking my time. I usually allocate my afternoons to outreach and social outreach. Right now, I’m in the mode of business development because I just started with B+H Architects. This includes publishing papers and doing interviews. It’s about connecting with a lot of people in the firm and checking in with contacts. I do a lot of connecting with groups, companies and schools, which includes a lot of presentations and speaking engagements. So mornings are usually business and afternoons are business development. I try to keep my working days from 8am to 4pm to focus on the 4 to 7pm hours with my kids. Because my work is international, I can often jump on to calls after 7pm. The great thing is, my work is relatively remote so I can do a lot of my work from my office, which shares a wall with my two-year old. I love working from home, but also love the creativity and engagement of working in our main office in Toronto.
One thing that I feel fortunate to have is a deep excitement for my work. I love what I do. The problem is that I can be a little too focused on work and need to remember to take breaks. My kids and wife are super helpful in that regard, as well, I love the outdoors. I have a mountain bike crew that keeps me grounded as well as a men’s team that I meet around a fire bi-weekly. I have also got a great company that makes sure we use our vacation time and that greatly supports a work-life balance. So even though I am deeply passionate and excited by my professional life, I have key things in place to ensure that it doesn’t usurp my personal life.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
I think it’s the challenge of getting clients to adopt a biomimicry approach. Biomimicry can be confronting to status-quo processes and it takes courage and a commitment to want to push the paradigm from clients. Although we have been lucky, and we are seeing a growth in interest in applying biomimicry, I still get a bit discouraged when I have to both communicate what biomimicry is and convince people that it’s the best path forward. However, I know that that’s my job and I’m happy to take it on. I just look forward to the day when the whole world recognizes the value of a nature-based approach.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I want to keep seeing the practical application of biomimicry. Through my consulting, I have a personal goal of designing 50,000 ha of land development based on biomimicry principles by 2030. Through the Biomimicry Commons, I expect to see 50 CEO’s adopting biomimicry into their companies by the same time.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
It’s not necessarily a skill, but I think his integrity is important. This includes integrity with yourself, meaning, finding out what you love to do, what you want to do, or what you’re good at. I believe that when you align with these things, you are more apt to be productive and find flow. This was the case for me with biomimicry. I found something I was deeply passionate about and even though there were no jobs in biomimicry, I stuck to it. It’s been a long and sometimes very difficult journey, but it is starting to pay off. And I couldn’t be happier to have stuck to this vision I had for the future.
For my particular position, I have to know what I’m good at and what I’m not good at and learn how to effectively delegate, automate, or delete it. This is called the “D.A.D.” process. I only have so much time in a day and in order to get all the things I want to get done, I have to know what things I need to do and what things I can’t do. And I have to surround myself with people who are way more capable at the other things that are required for our vision.
And to do this work effectively, I need to communicate clearly. I have to realize that my team doesn’t have the same thoughts, biases, or ideas as me and if I want to work towards a vision for the future, I have to effectively communicate this vision and enrol people in this idea. I have to make extra effort to make sure that what I am saying is clear to both myself, and to them.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
For biomimicry you don’t need any special degrees. Biomimicry applies to anything, so you can just focus on what excites you, what you’re passionate about, and learn how to apply nature’s best ideas to that area or field. In our courses through the Biomimicry Commons, we have people without degrees; we have people in university, professionals, bankers, and artists, designers, business leaders, technology leaders. What I usually suggest to young people is to get a degree that you’re passionate about. Enough of my friends, and enough of the people I know that have gone through college, don’t do what they did their degree in. Engineering has worked out for me because I really enjoyed numbers and systems.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
I think it goes back to integrity. I love to see people who know what they want to do and are unapologetic about doing it. I think that’s a really powerful thing. It’s not an overzealous passion. It’s a strong confidence. I find that it’s an important characteristic for biomimicry professionals because your context (how you show up) will be very important in conveying a lesser known idea to a group of people who might be critical to your way of thinking.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
No, I don’t think so. I truly believe it’s like it’s been a long journey. But no, I think with everything, there are trials that helped define who I am today, how I behave, and how I see the world. So I wouldn’t change anything.
The advice that seems to stick in my head often is from Thoreau – “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams and live the life you’ve imagined.”