“Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world – that’s the switch. That’s the profound switch.” – Janine Benyus
From the development of agriculture, to the invention of the combustion engine, to the growth of sprawling modern cityscapes – we enjoy the fruits of human ingenuity in every aspect of our lives. Human design has enabled the advancement of modern civilization, but as our society grows more complex, so too do our problems. Whereas our ancestors worried about staying warm during the harsh cold winters, we now worry about the noise pollution of wind turbines and their effects on neighbouring residential areas.
While we rack our brains trying to come up with modern solutions to our modern problems, a simpler answer may be hidden in plain sight. Although humans have been inventing for thousands of years, nature has been doing it for millennia through the long and slow process of natural selection. Given that design problems in nature are a matter of literal life and death, the living systems that still exist today typically represent the most successful, efficient, and self-sustaining arrangement possible within the constraints of their system.
In many cases, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, we can draw inspiration from tried-and-true designs found in nature. This idea is not a new one – for example, Velcro was famously invented by Swiss inventor George de Mestral when he noticed how tightly plant burrs would stick to his dog’s fur. This concept can also be applied to improve existing designs, as is the case for the Japanese bullet train. The original bullet train created disruptive sonic booms every time it exited a tunnel due to the build-up of compressed air by the rounded nose of the train. Japanese engineer Eiji Nakatsu was able to apply the principles behind the kingfisher’s beak that allows the bird to pierce through water with nary a ripple, and redesign the shape of the bullet train’s nose such that it can pierce through air and prevent the formation of sonic booms.
The practice of emulating strategies found in nature is termed “biomimicry”, popularized by American biologist Janine Benyus. Biomimicry aims to create sustainable solutions to human problems by adapting designs from nature into human products, processes, and policies. Identifying parallels between human design challenges and problems in nature have led to a number of innovative design solutions across a broad range of fields.
With the ever-mounting concerns of global warming, there is a strong incentive to decrease our reliance on fossil fuel and switch to renewable energy sources. In Canada, wind power is one of the fastest growing renewable energy sources. Wind power technology is rapidly evolving and one area of development is the design of the wind turbine. In 2019, Toronto-based company Biome Renewables developed PowerCone, a turbine attachment that redistributes airflow over the rotary blades to reduce turbulence and noise output, which is expected to increase energy production of outfitted wind turbines by up to 13% annually. PowerCore is inspired by how a kingfisher’s beak can slice through water with little disturbance and how maple seeds glide through air along the path of least resistance. By borrowing the shape of the kingfisher’s beak and the maple seed, PowerCone’s design helps wind turbines capture more wind to increase their energy generation efficiency.
The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, is designed by architect Mick Pearce, who sought to incorporate ecological designs to create what Pearce refers to as “sustainable architecture”. This shopping centre and office building complex is modelled after the passive airflow system observed in termite mounds, which involves the opening and closing of air vents to regulate temperature. Instead of a conventional fuel-based air-conditioning and heating system, Eastgate operates on a ventilation system that takes advantage of the high thermal capacity of the building’s material and cycling fans to maintain a stable internal temperature within the range of 2°C. During the day, hot air is drawn in by low volume fans and the heat is absorbed by the building, distributing cooled air throughout the complex. At night, high volume fans push cold air rapidly through the building, dissipating heat accumulated during the day. Compared to other building complexes in the city, Eastgate consumes 35% less energy annually.
The use of coloured compounds such as dyes and pigments have introduced a rainbow of colour into our daily lives, however these colours can wear off and the compounds may be toxic or harmful to the environment. A new type of colourant is being developed that resolves both of these issues, and is inspired by the vivid blue hues of the Morpho butterfly. These butterflies achieve their colour through parallel, regularly-spaced nanoscales that reflect only one wavelength of colour to our eyes – in their case, blue – rather than through pigmentation. This phenomenon is termed “structural colour”, and the company Cypris Materials has developed self-assembling polymers that harness this property. These polymers create a coating of colour once dried, and can be modified to reflect any wavelength of light to produce any colour. This technology has the potential to replace traditional pigments, with other unique applications as well. For example, polymers that reflect infrared light have been developed for use on building surfaces to reduce heat absorption and energy consumption related to space cooling.
The Future of Design
Although humans have only been around on Earth for a short period of time, we have greatly influenced the environment around us through our capacity for design and innovation. We are always looking for ways to improve, and the push for sustainable solutions is the new future of design. As Benyus puts it, “When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.” By shifting the perspective from what we can extract from nature to what we can learn from nature, biomimicry serves as a new framework to facilitate the integration of naturally sustainable designs into human innovation.
Biomimicry Institute. (n.d.). What is biomimicry? https://biomimicry.org/what-is-biomimicry/
Velcro Companies. (2020). A mind-blowing biomimicry example. VELCRO Brand Blog. https://www.velcro.com/blog/2020/07/a-mind-blowing-biomimicry-examples/
Jones, HT. (2018). Nakatsu’s kingfisher; or how biomimicry beat the boom. Medium. https://medium.com/bells-whistles/gooddesign-baddesign-nakatsus-kingfisher-or-how-biomimicry-beat-the-boom-a91287d2d831
Natural Resources Canada. (2017). About renewable energy. Government of Canada. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/renewable-energy/about-renewable-energy/7295
Biome Renewables. (n.d.). PowerCone. https://www.biome-renewables.com/powercone
Church, RA. (2017). PowerCone wind turbine development accelerated with simulation. Ansys. https://www.ansys.com/blog/wind-turbine-accelerating-simulation
Pearce, M. (n.d.). Eastgate building Harare. Mick Pearce Architect. http://www.mickpearce.com/Eastgate.html
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Wilcox, M. (2020). A butterfly’s brilliant blue wings lead to less toxic paint. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-butterflys-brilliant-blue-wings-lead-to-less-toxic-paint/