The gap between the world as we know it and the world as it actually is—namely, the natural world and the industrial world—is forever growing, a chasm that some might argue is causing more harm than good. That would be a fair assessment, as rapid industrialization pushes us further and further away from the values of nature, all while seemingly connecting us more to each other. Still, that’s not to say that the two don’t meet, and often for the better. The values of one can inform the other, and in the context of innovative design, some of the best ideas have been around us and under our noses all along.
What is biomimicry?
Taking design cues from nature is a practice called Biomimicry. For an industry that is almost exclusively focused on innovation, nature provides a spectacularly evergreen rubric. According to the Biomimicry Institute, the purpose of the approach is to “seek sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies”, treating the natural world like a blueprint that serves as a seemingly endless well to pull from.
Take Japan, for instance. Their Shinkansen Train, known colloquially as the bullet train, services nearly 370 million people every year, but in 1989 they had a problem. Their earlier models were efficient and fast, pushing 170mph, but their rounder tipped exterior caused an issue every time they exited a tunnel. The momentum caused by the train would push waves of atmospheric pressure out the other end, creating a sonic boom that could be heard from up to 400 meters away. These trains went through residential areas, making the intensity of the noise an issue to say the least. Enter Eiji Nakatsu, the General Manager of Japan Railway Group’s Technical Department who had a brilliant design concept born not from his expertise as an engineer, but rather from his hobby: Nakatsu was an avid bird watcher.
Effectively, different elements of the redesigned Shinkansen bullet train were based on different birds. The curvature of owl feathers helped influence the rig that connects the train to the electric wires above; the supporting shaft on the rounded bottom of the train was modeled after a species of penguin; and the beak of a kingfisher was the basis for the train’s new nose, in that its shape was the key to creating a more aerodynamically silent silhouette.
The scale of its implementation can also vary. Biomimicry has served in the design of hotel air ventilation systems, inspired by prairie dog burrows; antibacterial plastic surfaces for hospitals have been modeled on the surface-resilient textures of shark skin; and wind turbines have been arranged in the same wind-resistant patterns that groups of fish swim in.
So many design ideas are born largely out of, well, other people's design ideas. Take a look at a design firm’s inspiration board, and you’ll see an entire wall of magazine cutouts or product mock-ups for other human-made products. But specialists, such as Janine M. Benyus, who coined the term “biomimicry” in her game-changing 1997 book, believe that human solutions don’t always benefit from human answers. Her idea was for designers to get in the habit of bringing biologists to the table, and allowing them to lead innovation ideas in three main ways:
- Form or Shape
Imagine designing a type of paint that, when dry, would create curvatures, allowing rainwater to turn spherical and roll right off. Much like the lotus leaf, this would allow the water to collect dirt and would make the paint self-clean a car, for example, in the process.
Consider the ways that ants mobilize. The efficient way in which groups of ants find sources of food or places to live demonstrates a type of communication is already seen all the time in the form of software. The future of self-driving automobiles, for instance, might hinge on those same processes, talking to one another while they work around city.
Perhaps no element of nature is more important than the natural systems that break down elements of one thing to appropriate elsewhere. A log on the floor of a forest becomes part of the fungus that consumes it, which is then ingested by a mouse, which in turn is eaten by a hawk, and so on. The circular economy, which aims to disrupt the make, use, dispose way of the industrialized world, could stand to learn a thing of two from nature’s efficiency.
It’s difficult to imagine a world different from the one we’re in. That is a fundamental roadblock in our ability to make a better future: the fact that it’s hard to conceptualize. But every day we hear about new strides taken in industries we never knew could even be disrupted. Meanwhile, all around us, an entire institutional system has been working efficiently and designed with purpose, just waiting for humans to take note and maybe learn a thing or two.