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The Wild World of Biomimicry

when tech mimics nature

The planetary systems that human beings radically disrupted took millions of years for nature to create. Often referred to as “circular economies,” they are paragons of efficiency, using everything they contain to minimize or even eliminate waste. In a human-built world that is quickly revealing itself to be unsustainable, they are the natural models we ignore at our peril.

THE LIMITS TO GROWTH WAS ACCURATE

Fifty years ago an international team of researchers based at MIT conducted a study of the sustainability of human activity on earth. The non-technical report of their findings, published in 1972 by the Club of Rome under the title The Limits to Growth, was conclusive: The earth’s interlocking resources—the global system of nature in which we all live—cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if even that long.

Although the conclusions of The Limits to Growth were taken seriously by enlightened thinkers in the 1970s, they were widely ridiculed by the political and corporate establishment of the time. But recent scientific reviews of The Limits to Growth confirm that humanity is on track to play them out almost exactly as predicted.

In fact, the 33rd Report to the Club of Rome published in 2014, which draws on the work of the world’s leading mineral experts, forecasts that “industrial civilization’s extraction of critical minerals and fossil fuel resources is reaching the limits of economic feasibility, and could lead to a collapse of key infrastructures unless new ways to manage resources are implemented.”

As Nick Heier, one of the guests on this episode of “Future Perfect Tech,” put it: “People started out living in nature as part of an ecosystem. Then we self-elected out of the ecosystem and started destroying it.”

The planetary systems that human beings radically disrupted took millions of years for nature to create. Often referred to as “circular economies,” they are paragons of efficiency, using everything they contain to minimize or even eliminate waste. In a human-built world that is quickly revealing itself to be unsustainable, they are the natural models we ignore at our peril.

Stream the “Future Perfect Tech” Biomimicry episode

BIOMIMICRY IS THE DEEPEST DESIGN THINKING

The discipline of biomimicry offers to teach us by example, and proponents of biomimetics have an expression for this: “Ask nature.” That idea, and the entire field of biomimicry, was first introduced to the world by Janine Benyus when she published her groundbreaking book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997.

Shana Longo, whom we first met in our Smart Buildings Ecosystem webinar, spent years in corporate sustainability before becoming enchanted by the idea of applying design patterns from nature to architecture, technology and product design. Now a graduate of Arizona State’s program in biomimicry, Shana is the other guest on our podcast. She explains that biomimicry, which thinks about nature at a deep functional level, goes far beyond biophilia, which describes the superficial features of natural forms, appearances, colors, etc. Biomimicry reminds us that nature evolved those forms for a reason.

When designers accept that distinction, it forces them to deal with the constraints that reality always places on design. Nature doesn’t build with four walls, but it does build with structure. What scientists now call the “Wood Wide Web” consists of interconnected underground root systems, integrated with fungi, that transmit subtle messages across entire continents. Much of that structure is based upon stimuli and sensors and signals that look a great deal like the networks that human technologists design with electronics. When humans try to build digital IoT-enabled smart buildings, the forests of the world give them a model that’s been time-tested much longer than human beings have existed.

As Shana and Nick explain in our conversation, nature has been solving problems like this with functions and mechanics and chemistry for at least 3.8 billion years. That’s a great deal of research and testing and trial and error in the evolutionary process to realize something as elegant as a bird in flight or a lobster that crawls the sea floor in near-total darkness.

A FEW REAL-WORLD TECHNOLOGY EXAMPLES

Most technologists appreciate the intricacies and subtle power of the evolutionary process, and for decades they have been looking to nature for design inspiration. One of Shana’s favorite examples of biomimicry is the “beak” on the front of Japanese bullet trains. It was modeled on the literal beak of the King Fisher not because the bird “looks cool” but because the King Fisher can move from very low densities to high densities very quickly. This ability was the secret to fixing the sonic booms that occurred when early prototypes of the train forced air from tunnels.

The blue wings of butterflies get their color not from pigments but from the way their nanostructure reflects light. Those structural properties have inspired many innovations, from light reflecting technologies that don’t use harmful toxins to new catalytic converters for managing pollution from giant smokestacks.

The ability of coral to grow into reefs by making calcium carbonate inspired Stanford professor Brent Constance to invent a way of making concrete that does carbon capture. Building insulation inspired by mushrooms, blemish-free grippers inspired by geckos, non-toxic underwater adhesive inspired by mussels, anti-bacterial film inspired by sharkskin…the list goes on and on.

Shana and Nick walk us through many examples of biomimicry and why it matters—not just to product, tech, building and corporate design, but to innovation and our relationship with the natural world. If we’re going to survive as a species we must get in better lockstep with the natural world, not more out of sync with it. We must get closer to, not further away from, the harmony of nature. ◆


This essay is supported by our Innovations PDF “Biomimicry in Tech Innovations.”

Fill out the form below to download it for free.

Biomimicry in Tech Innovations cover


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