Bio-inspired innovation: towards a circular campus by learning from nature

Approach used to sharpen vision of sustainable buildings

By studying how nature solves problems, we can create a society that truly cares for the earth. Jaco Appelman, researcher at Utrecht University, is sure of it. At the university, this approach, summarized in the term ‘bio-inspired innovation’, is being put into practice. The university's Corporate Real Estate & Campus office is working with Appelman and PhD candidate Katharina Hecht, among others, to give the concept a place within the future development of the Utrecht Science Park.

Inspiration from nature has been used for some time to make processes more efficient. Take, for example, biomimicry, the science that looks to nature to solve technological challenges.

Illustratie van het concept van bio-inspired innovation

While biomimicry is part of bio-inspired innovation, Appelman explains that bio-inspired innovation has a broader objective. Appelman: "Thanks to bio-inspired innovation, we can arrive at solutions to human problems that work within ecological boundaries."

Feeding nature

By approaching challenges from a different angle, it becomes possible to take a step towards a circular society. Appelman: "At the moment, people often look at how something can be made less bad for nature. But we need to take it one step further and look at how something can nourish nature, rather than damage it."

Thanks to bio-inspired innovation, we can arrive at solutions to human problems that work within ecological boundaries.

According to Appelman, there is no need for us to keep trying to reinvent the wheel ourselves. Appelman: "Nature has billions of years of experience in solving challenging problems. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that."

Ecosystem services

Katharina Hecht is a PhD candidate at the Department of Biology and the Corporate Real Estate & Campus office and is supervised by Appelman, among others. Her research focuses on ecosystem services, services that nature provides to people and all other organisms within an ecosystem. For example, ecosystems sequester CO2, provide food and purify water. Hecht investigates how ecosystem services can be integrated into urban areas.

Hecht: "In urban areas, we face many pressing challenges, such as climate change and pollution. My question is how we can learn from ecosystems to deal with these challenges. What processes play a role within ecosystems and how can we mimic and integrate them into buildings and cities? Right now, buildings and cities primarily use resources and energy. But we want these places to provide ecosystem services as well, so that they actually produce raw materials, information and energy."

The construction sector is already addressing certain ecosystem services, such as generating energy, capturing water and encouraging biodiversity. But according to Hecht, things can be taken a step further. Hecht: "Ecosystems are very complex. So you really cannot just focus on one service without thinking about the other factors."


Hecht wants to bring together the construction sector and the academic world. According to the PhD candidate, there is much to be gained by doing so, as many potential solutions for challenges in construction are already available. Hecht: "These solutions are hidden in scientific papers. But no one in the construction industry is going to read these articles, extract what they need and then put the solution into practice."

How can we learn from ecosystems to deal with pressing challenges like climate change and pollution?

That is why Hecht is working on a database that building professionals can use to find design strategies that will help them incorporate certain ecosystem services into buildings. Hecht is also developing and giving workshops for building professionals, where she informs about ecosystem services and how they can be integrated into building plans.

On campus

The principles of bio-inspired innovation are now being put into practice at the university. Alex Ziegler is head of the Corporate Real Estate & Campus office, which is dedicated to establishing and ensuring the quality of the university's real estate development, both on a technical and functional level. The office contributes to the development of new buildings, to redevelopment and renovation projects, decommissioning projects and energy-related projects of Utrecht University, both in the city centre and on the Utrecht Science Park.

Ziegler and her colleagues spoke with Appelman and Hecht about their research and their ideas. That way, the researchers contributed to the new, second version of the Ambitiedocument Toekomstbestendige Gebouwen (Ambition document Future-proof Buildings).

We are a university. You have to make use of the knowledge we have in-house and the developments that are going on here.

Ziegler: "In recent years we have been working on a solid implementation of sustainability in our real estate projects. Four years ago we drew up the first ambition document on the future-proofing of our buildings. This mainly concerns circular buildings, healthy buildings and functional and energy-generating buildings. Since then, we have been busy implementing these ambitions."

Ziegler explains what the researchers contributed. Ziegler: "The feedback from the researchers helped us a lot in sharpening and updating our ambitions regarding climate-adaptive and nature-inclusive building. Climate-adaptive building is even a completely new theme in the plan. This involves, for example, buildings that can withstand extreme weather conditions, such as heat."


For Ziegler, involving researchers in projects is only logical. Ziegler: “We are a university. You have to make use of the knowledge we have in-house and the developments that are going on here." Hecht does point out that collaborating with building professionals was not always easy. Hecht: "I got the idea that the professionals had quite a negative opinion of scientists. In their eyes, scientists are difficult to talk to and to work with. There may be some truth in that."

In the end, the building professionals and scientists manage to find each other. Hecht: "In these workshops, I not only provide information about the ecological background to the professionals, but they also give me feedback about the practical feasibility. It is very nice that this interaction is taking place. And I notice that a flame is starting to spread. That is very nice to see, as it is more than I had really dared to hope."

Master's program

Have you been inspired? For students, there is the master's program Bio-inspired Innovation, which Katharina Hecht also did.