Biomimicry: "innovation inspired by nature"

Martin H. Villet

Imagine that you could swim as efficiently as a shark. How would that feel? Well, you could find out if you had a skin designed like that of a shark, because that skin is part of the secret of sharks’ languid grace. Humans are now making swimsuits covered with minute scales similar to those on sharkskin, and these scales help to overcome turbulence and streamline the swimmer like a shark. This is also an example of the academic field of biomimicry.

Biomimicry is a branch of invention that looks to the technology of nature for its inspiration. Although humans have been doing this for centuries, it became a conscious, named principle of design in the 20th Century. There are now design institutes dedicated to biomimicry, and the subject has a growing philosophy underpinning it.

The aspect of biomimicry that is most easily related to is the adopting and adapting of designs found in nature, the short-term activity of mimicking form and design. It has been called the emulation step. A level up from here, in terms of complexity and time invested, is the analysis of natural process, particularly for what makes them sustainable and how they can be integrated into the larger environment in which they must function. This has been termed the evaluation step. This topic is allied to the field of green technologies. Finally, there is a level that is about the practitioner of biomimicry, about values and attitudes, and way of viewing and valuing nature, the step known as ethos.

Biomimicry 101

Let’s start at the bottom. Most of us have come across comparisons of how technology has copied nature, from examples as spectacular as flight (copied in 1903, more from the gliding albatross rather than from the flapping duck) and sonar (copied from bats), to more familiar devices like loudspeakers (copied from eardrums) and velcro (copied from cockleburs in 1941). Less obviously, one could improve the manufacture of concrete by studying how corals build their reefs.

My interest in biomimicry was piqued by reading how the microscopic texture of cicadas’ wings gives them an anti-glare property that helps their camouflage and at the same time destroys bacteria by breaching their cell walls. Imagine using that on the lenses of spectacles! Other inventors have learned to mimic the surfaces of lotus flowers to create paint and traffic light lenses that reject dust and wash clean in the rain, the wing surfaces of desert beetles to collect water from damp air, and the surfaces of sharkskin to make boat hulls (and swimsuits, of course) more efficient.

The field of biomimicry goes beyond physical designs to understanding natural processes too. Studies of ants examined the way that these insects build their nests and forage for food. The research discovered principles underlying the efficient organization of workspaces and rules in the behaviour of ants searching for food that could be used to search databases efficiently too. Biomimicry provokes thinking about ways of doing things: if migrating birds save energy by flying in V-formations, could passenger aircraft do this too?

So, as its most basic step, biomimicry examines and emulates biological models of forms, process, systems, and strategies to solve human problems. The Biomimicry Guild and its collaborators have developed the Biomimicry Design Spiral*, a practical design tool for mining nature for inspiration.

Looking Deeper: Biomimicry 201

The key to the next level is to understand the particular process of how nature came up with so many good designs, to understand the design process itself. One of the central epiphanies of biomimicry is the realization that ever since life first appeared on the planet, organisms have faced problems that humans are just starting to grapple with, and that natural selection has already sorted many of the good designs from the poor ones. Since the origin of life on Earth about 3.4 billion years ago, a process of trial-and-evolution has seen that the poor solutions are fossilised and better ones are kept in the race. Sustainable solutions tend to persist while unsustainable ones are weeded out rapidly by the passage of time, and 3.4 billion years is a very long bench test!

As much as the issue is about design, it’s even more about sustainability. At the heart of the evolutionary process is the issue of sustainability, which is also about efficiency and fit with the environment. Designs that have withstood the test of time are inherently sustainable because they don't undermine themselves by using up the resources from which they are created. So, by the very nature of its philosophical starting point, biomimicry seeks out efficient, sustainable designs that don’t significantly harm or deplete the planet.

Examples of the principle of selection for efficiency include studying whale flippers to design turbine blades with drag reduced by 32 percent and lift increased by 8 percent; and studying termite mounds to improve climate control in very large buildings. Termite mounds inspired the structure of the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, which includes vertical internal ducts for air convection and a large concrete slab that stores and radiates heat by interacting with the convecting air, providing an air conditioning system that uses only 10% of the energy and none of the water that would be required to regulate a conventional building of similar size.

Beyond seeking inspiration for physical designs and models of sustainable processes, Biomimicry looks for examples of integration. How can different designs be integrated into the environment in which they must function? For instance, in the Western Cape there is an initiative to work out how wetlands clean the water flowing through them, with the long-term goal of using environmental engineering to integrate the demand for clean water and the production of contaminated water sustainably. The growth of cities is also about integrating processes of transport, which is equally about supply and removal, an integration of flows structured around local functions, such as homes, industries and agriculture.

In short, biomimicry uses nature to provide an ecological standard to assess the sustainability of inventions. This is the evaluation step of the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Design Spiral.

Biomimicry 2.0: Reimagining Ourselves

Perhaps the next obvious step is to consider how we can use biomimicry to redesign ourselves. The sustainability of humankind is a very topical issue!

The most profound insight of biomimicry is that the sustainability of any design comes from its efficient integration with its environment. In terms of humankind, this comes down to the understanding and recognition that people and nature are not two separate identities, but are in fact one densely linked, deeply intertwined and vastly interactive system.

Specialists in biomimicry have suggested that the most effective way to redesign ourselves for sustainability will require us to change the way that we perceive the world. Currently, we tend to see our surroundings as a resource that serves us, and focus on what we can extract from the natural world. Biomimicry encourages us to see ourselves as integrated with our surroundings, and to ask what we can learn from the natural world, and consider how we can fit in with it.

At its heart, the actual practice of biomimicry is about this imperative to “fit in” on earth, and that is not just something for scientists to do. We can all become ecologically literate, and a fulfilling way to do that is to immerse ourselves and our children in nature. Reader interested in a deeper introduction to biomimicry can visit, and for the more technically minded, the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics is dedicated to publishing the latest research in the field. Investors and inventors will certainly be interested in the details of some of the projects that are happening in South Africa through institutions like Biomimicry SA.

More Background Reading

* Martin Villet is Professor of Entomology at Rhodes University