April 30, 2024

Bio-Inspired design in practice

Bio-Inspired design in practice

Designing in the anthropocene

The great challenge of our time is learning to live in harmony with nature. To adapt to environmental crises, and the social challenges that follow, we must embed an ethos of reciprocity into industries, institutions, neighbourhoods, and systems everywhere. It’s a daunting challenge. 

Thankfully, a growing coalition of changemakers – from activists to scientists, designers, and indigenous communities – is rising to it. Ecological crisis is giving rise to ecological awakening. Footwear is only a small part of this, and barefootwear a tiny part. But powerful movements are built from tiny parts. Reciprocity will emerge from the ground up.

Regenerating human and planetary health has always been Vivobarefoot’s mission, and ESC has allowed us to push this mission further. If we can make barefootwear that thrives in the planet’s wildest places in harmony with nature, surely we can make all footwear in harmony with nature?

Nature as teacher

What does it really mean to work in harmony with nature? For the ESC team, it means four core principles of bio-inspired design.


ESC uses and learns from natural materials as much as possible. Ideally local natural materials that are adapted to the rigours of specific ecosystems and biomes. Sometimes synthetic materials make most sense – like in the jungle, which decomposes anything organic in double time. But natural is the ESC starting point.


Indigenous cultures have lived in close connection with nature for millennia, developing deep wells of biome-specific expertise applied through ethoses of reciprocity. Modern ‘progress’ narratives have long ignored or suppressed TEK. That is changing slowly, but the need for TEK is growing quickly. As part 2 explained, ESC seeks to honour and learn from TEK.


As we learn from TEK, we must also unlearn a colonial mode of exploration rooted in conquest and control. This mindset has traditionally filtered into outdoor kit designed to battle against the elements. What would happen, the ESC team asked, if we instead try to learn from and work with nature, without compromising functionality?


Last but by no means least, the philosophy that drives Vivobarefoot. Barefoot stands for moving naturally and reconnecting with inner and outer nature. All ESC footwear stays true to this, with thin soles, flexible materials, and wide toe boxes – sometimes in stark contrast to footwear traditionally used in certain biomes.

Impure, imperfect, but impressive

ESC doesn’t reject modern technology or try to wind back the clock. But it does refuse to dismiss TEK or nature itself as inferior to modern technology and irrelevant to good design. And it synthesises new material innovation with old ecological wisdom. Bio-inspired design doesn’t mean bio-purism.

Neither is ESC perfect. Like all our work at Vivobarefoot, it’s unfinished business. While we’re really proud of the ESC collection, we know that we’ll discover improved materials, processes, and solutions in the years ahead. We hope to fully eliminate plastics, for example. The best way to get there is by consistently and transparently following bio-inspired design principles.

Though ESC is ongoing, we’re also willing to toot our own horn and say it’s already an impressive collection. To show how bio-inspired design has been crucial to that success, we chatted with ESC designers Lee and Jenny about an example from each biome.

Desert: in the footsteps of camels

You might think the biggest challenge when making a desert boot is keeping feet cool. The ESC certainly did, until they encountered the giant thorns. “The craziest thorns I’ve seen in my life are in the desert,” recalls Lee of the team’s first trip to Namibia. “They’ll mess you up!” 

Finding a puncture-resistance but breathable sole became the pointiest Desert ESC challenge. Conventional wisdom pointed towards cow leather. But thinking locally, Jenny had doubts. “You go, ‘Hang on, we're surrounded by animals who live here: camels.’ I bet their skins are way more suited to these thorns. I haven't seen any cows since we got here.” Lee agreed: “Why try to recreate what nature has already perfected?” 

This created sourcing challenges, as camel leather isn’t as widely produced. But once they found some, lab testing confirmed the hunch: camel leather was denser, tougher, and more puncture-resistant than cow leather – and still breathable. So that’s what the Desert ESC upper is made from.

Forest: the waterproofing myth

Forests generally receive lots of rainfall and hold lots of moisture. Which means any good forest boot needs to be waterproof to keep your feet dry. Right?

Wrong. Forest was the first ESC biome, and the place where the ESC team learned just how powerful the waterproofing myth is. “The first thing we were told by survival experts was to get rid of the waterproof membrane,” says Lee. As our blog on hiking-boot myths explains, waterproofing is generally counter-productive. It stops sweat from evaporating, keeps any water that does infiltrate inside, and makes the boot dry slowly. It’s a recipe for soggy, heavy feet.

Instead of fighting nature, the Forest ESC uses Wild Hide leather for breathability and a high degree of waterproofing. “Treat the leather with any kind of natural balsam and you can create a really waterproof boot while keeping it completely breathable and as natural as possible,” explains Lee. This is why every pair of Forest ESC footwear comes with a free Renapur Leather Balsam. It’s also why the upper is really simple, with just three seams to minimise potential water-penetration points.

Aquatic: going full amphibian

The Hydra ESC isn’t just drainable, but fully amphibious, designed for both trail running and swimming. “It understands that we move between environments quite freely,” says Jenny. “To have a shoe that can do that with you is exciting. Swimrun is an amazing expression of how we move across the planet.” 

The Hydra is designed to dry and drain rapidly and flow through water for seamless exploration in the aquatic biome. But building for aquatic exploration goes beyond drainage or hydrodynamics. The Hydra also needed to be durable for rough terrain, protective against submerged rocks, and light and flexible for natural movement and performance. This amounted to a “pretty chunky design challenge,” Lee says. 

The team found the solution in the multi-functionality of nature, which achieves more with less. “You don’t see a tree trying to protect itself from wind by putting cables down,” says Lee. They realised that a cage overlay for the upper (also used in the Jungle ESC) would combine holes for drainage, breathability, and hydrodynamic performance with ribs for protection and durability – without sacrificing weight or flexibility. The insight unlocked a groundbreaking (and waterbreaking) barefoot trainer.

Tundra: an unexpected insulation strategy

“A lot of people are surprised that the Tundra ESC has a canvas upper with no waterproof membrane,” says Jenny. It seems like a recipe for frozen feet, in Earth’s coldest biome. But the approach was inspired by deer-skin moccasins made by First Nation communities, as well as our bodies’ natural processes.

“What we were taught, and then tried to validate for ourselves, was that as you walk, you create heat,” Jenny explains. “If you get enough insulation around your foot you can generate and maintain enough heat. The important thing becomes that the moisture generated is wicked out.” This is why the Tundra ESC features a 100% wool-felt inner booty, which insulates and wicks effectively.

The breathable canvas then completes the system. “The moisture will work out through the canvas and ultimately form a barrier on the outside of the shoe, which then freezes and becomes your windproof membrane,” says Jenny. “You now basically have an igloo on the outside of your foot.”

Bio-connected exploration

These examples give a sense of how natural materials, TEK, an openness to natural processes, and a commitment to barefoot principles help identify effective, sometimes surprising design solutions for thriving in harmony with the world’s wildest places.

For both Jenny and Lee, designing and field testing in line with bio-inspired principles didn’t just result in good footwear. It also fostered a renewed appreciation for exploring with an ethos of connection, sufficiency, and reciprocity. We’ll venture further along this trail in our next blog, on the relationship between ESC and exploring wild places.