Biomimicry: 3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom

The sight of birds flying in a V formation or the feel of sand slowly sifting between the fingers can cause many to pause in intrigue. In the field of biomimicry, this sense of awe is used as inspiration for problem-solving.

What Is Biomimicry?

The firm Biomimicry 3.8, a consultancy and thought leader in the space, defines biomimicry as the practice of “learning from and then emulating nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.” Nature has logged 3.8 billion years of R&D, with 8.7 million species as of a 2011 PLOS Biology study, and countless processes in current development. All of these represent well-adapted solutions or successful “trials.” Though the term “biomimicry” was popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in 1997, the act of turning to nature for inspiration goes much further back.

Consider the ancient Greek myth in which Icarus flies too close to the sun. His flight was made possible using wings constructed by his father, Daedalus, who first turned to nature when faced with the need to fly. While the tale of Icarus is mythical, in 15th-century Florence, the great inventor and polymath Leonardo da Vinci looked to bats and other winged creatures for his flight inspiration. He studied the mechanics of these animals to conceptualize a flying contraption. Though da Vinci’s flying device was never constructed, it was designed only a few short centuries before the Wright brothers created the first successful airplane prototype.

Biomimicry in Use

Human flight is only one of many examples of biomimicry at play. Today, biomimicry is applied across multiple industries, including energy, architecture, transportation, agriculture, medicine, and communications. It comprises form-based, process-based, and ecosystem-based innovation. Form-based innovation mimics the physical properties of natural elements. For example, Airbus applied textured wing and fuselage patches modeled on sharkskin in order to reduce drag on its long-range aircraft, and the company designed lattice-like inner partitions for its planes using slime mold algorithms and the biology of bone growth to allow for lightweight yet durable construction in future designs. Process-based innovation mimics natural processes found in nature, such as photosynthesis providing the basis for alternate energy conversion and fuel production. Ecosystem-based innovation uses the sustainable ecosystems present in nature as inspiration for man-made systems innovation, such as closed-loop industries emulating the rainforest by accounting for resource streams and incorporating recycling mechanisms to eliminate waste.

Some examples of modern biomimicry include:

Interface Carpets

The organized chaos of the forest floor inspired Interface, inc., a manufacturer of commercial carpet tile, to design their i2 line to reflect the organic patterns found in nature. Unlike traditional office carpet tiles, which all share the same pattern and require a specific alignment, i2 tiles are made up of variable patterns and colors that work together regardless of the tile’s orientation or year of purchase. The company reports that this results in a much more sustainable process involving 90% less waste, reduced installation time, and increased recycling.

Kansai University

Materials researchers at Kansai University studied the imperceptible “bite” of a mosquito to understand how to make needles less painful. they successfully trialed a needle that uses multiple vibrating, serrated silicon blades to mimic a mosquito’s proboscis and easily glide into the skin. While still in development, this innovation could provide great relief to those who experience discomfort when receiving injections — especially those requiring daily injections, such as diabetics who use insulin.

Sharklet Technologies

Sharklet technologies has found a way to repel bacteria using pattern alone. The company was inspired by sharkskin, which repels bacteria from the shark’s body in the bacteria-filled ocean — the precise arrangement of the scales on sharkskin discourages microorganisms from attaching. Sharklet technologies studied the distinct diamond pattern of sharkskin scales and reproduced this surface on medical devices and hospital equipment to reduce risk of deadly infections.

René Polin, president and founder of Balance Innovation & Design, explains in a TEDx talk that the challenge with biomimicry often lies in applying a highly technical, biological insight to non-biological design challenges. His colleague Dr. Daphne Fecheyr-lippens, a biomimicist, explains that researchers solve this problem by putting concepts taken from nature through several levels of abstraction in order to discard unnecessary specifics and generalize the original inspiration into a usable format for the design challenge at hand. For example, while conceptualizing a low-cost elevator system, Polin and Fecheyr-lippens studied the ability of certain spiders to quickly retract their webs after catching prey on the ground. Though the web’s specific material and the spider’s ascent process were not directly applicable to the factory or its machinery, Fecheyr-lippens took notice of the elastic nature of the spiderweb, which reduced energy requirements during ascent. This quickly led the team to consider similarly functioning bands using elastic tension and stored potential energy for the factory’s low-cost elevator.

Biomimicry and Teal Organizations

Others may take notes from nature without intending to. In his book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux describes a newly emerging organizational paradigm based on humanity’s evolving consciousness: The Teal Organization. This organizational structure transcends the hierarchical, static, and bureaucratic forms of conventional organization and instead follows three key principles: self-management, which favors equal relationships over hierarchy and control; wholeness, which encourages employees to bring their true selves into the work environment; and evolutionary purpose, which treats an organization as a living organism whose identity and journey its members must consider. Teal organizations foster emotional, intuitive, and even spiritual characteristics in the workplace instead of traditional business values such as rationality, determination, or strength, encouraging employees to be open with their vulnerability and doubt.

A specialist in biomimicry would react to a teal organization like Laloux describes without surprise — after all, facets of teal management have always been evident in nature. Take spring, for example: as the season changes from winter to spring, flocks of birds return to their northern homes, and animals, plants, and insects all surface from hibernation. As Benyus explains in her 2009 TED talk, spring is orchestrated by self-governing systems that continuously sense and react to their environment. The species best able to adapt in this way are those that thrive in changing circumstances.

Biomimicry’s highest order principle is both simple and profound: create conditions conducive to life. Businesses today could benefit by operating with this principle, if they’re in the position to do so. Either way, there is always something to learn from our natural cousins. After all, much like you today, mushrooms were surfing the mycelium network — a fungal, microscopic, vein-like system — long before we came up with our own World Wide Web. ////

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Melanie Levitin

Melanie Levitin

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