Natural Life Magazine

Biomimicry - Inspiration from Nature to Solve the Problems People Have Created

Inspiration From Nature to Solve the Problems People Have Created
By Wendy Priesnitz

Imagine if buildings were as self-sufficient as living organisms: if they could gather water, filter air, and adapt to local climate conditions. Imagine if the natural world could teach us everything we need to know about sustainable, efficient design. 

The principle behind the notion that we can solve the world’s problems by copying Nature’s systems, processes, and elements is called “biomimicry.” The term comes from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. By emulating Nature’s patterns, its goal is to create new ways of living and of designing policies and products that are well-adapted to life on earth.

Nature-Inspired Products

An early example of biomimicry (although it wasn’t called that at the time) is the study of birds to enable human flight. Although never successful in creating a “flying machine,” Leonardo da Vinci was a keen observer of the anatomy and flight of birds, and made numerous notes and sketches on his observations as well as sketches of various “flying machines.” Likewise, the Wright Brothers, who finally did succeed in creating the first airplane in 1903, apparently gained inspiration for their airplane from observations of pigeons in flight.

Modern biomimicry research has inspired adhesive glue from mussels, solar cells made like leaves, fabric that emulates shark skin, pigment-free color inspired by butterflies, and a process that harvests water from fog like a beetle. The fastening marvel called Velcro® inspired by the tiny hooks found on the surface of burs, carbon-sequestering cement inspired by corals, roofs that shed water during monsoon season and also store water for use in the drought season – just like trees do in that environment – and energy efficient wind turbines inspired by schooling fish are other examples of biomimicry being used to create better products in the modern world.

Biomimicry is such a good tool for creating more sustainable products and practices – and, more importantly, for adjusting to climate change – because Nature creates habitats where each organism is adapted to its place and its conditions. As habitat conditions change, organisms are continuously developing and changing in synch in order to survive. The maverick American ecological economist Herman Daly has pointed out that as a species, our habitat conditions have changed as our population has grown, but our strategies have not.

The Biomimicry Institute, in partnership with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, holds a design challenge every year inviting participants to address critical global issues with Nature-inspired solutions. In 2017, the challenge is to create a product, service, or system that combats climate change.

The green building sector has also enthusiastically embraced biomimicry as an interdisciplinary way to investigate the design of buildings that move beyond current definitions of sustainability towards regeneration and restoration.

How Nature Deals With Waste

“What is ecology? For me, it is the story of relationships over evolutionary time...the relationships between different types of beings in the inanimate world and the dynamic processes that are ongoing over long, long periods of time. Therefore it can be argued that ecology is the story of relationships which are able to persist in a world in which change is constant. So then, what is ecological design? Ecological design is the application of these relationships to human need and to the integration of humanity with the large natural world that surrounds us. In other words, the intelligence – or the wisdom, if you will – that occurs in a forest, or in a lake, or a river, or a rich meadow.”
  ~ John Todd

The scope of areas where Nature can provide solutions is enormous. For instance, the simple compost pile is an example of biomimicry. Organic materials – such as apples fallen off an ignored tree, for instance – will naturally rot in place (if they’re not eaten by animals) and eventually return to the soil. When we create a compost pile or use a more sophisticated composter, we are simply mimicking that natural process. We might use compost starter, and there are some best practices for speeding up the process, preventing it from attracting rodents, etc., but we’re basically doing what Nature does, rather than trucking kitchen and yard waste off to the dump in plastic bags.

Another long-established example of how Nature can inspire new ways of doing things is in the waste treatment field. A pioneer in that field is Dr. John Todd, an internationally known inventor and early adopter of biomimicry. Todd is a Canadian-born ecological designer whose work began in the late 1960s when he founded the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1976, in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, he designed and built The Ark, an experiment in sustainable building and living that included an early example of aquaculture. Inherent to the project (and to most of what he’s done since then) was what Todd called, in an article in Natural Life Magazine in 1995, “the basic unwritten law: If you generate waste, do something with it.”

In 1980, he founded Ocean Arks International, a non-profit organization for research into the protection and restoration of water. Today, Todd is perhaps best known as the inventor of a solar aquatic system that uses the properties of natural systems to clean waste water, something that originated with those early 1970s experiments.

In 1988, he decided to try and clean up a pond site in Harwich, Massachusetts, which contained toxic cesspool wastes and industrial wastes like heavy metals. He conceived of a solution that involved twenty-one giant “aquariums” connected to each other on a hillside and containing sand, gravel, and over one thousand species of aquatic life forms. The waste was pumped into one end of this series of “marshes” and flowed through the others over a period of twelve days. All the toxic pollutants were removed or sequestered in ways that met drinking water standards, and human pathogens were reduced to levels below swimming water standards. The town built a larger version of the system inside a greenhouse and the technology was eventually approved by the state for septage treatment.

That experiment evolved into Todd’s famous Eco Machine™ – a wastewater treatment system that is being used by companies, schools, laboratories, cities and towns around the world, even by the City of Fuzhou, China.

According to Todd’s company, an Eco Machine’s™ design is that of a river with conflicting flow of water swirls and counter currents and a “contact zone” or particular point where the diverse ecological life system will interact and/or interlock according to their relationship with each other. The process mimics the water purification processes that take place in wetlands and marshes. The recycled water becomes suitable for toilets and irrigation – and, of course, to water the plants in the greenhouse.

The same principles, on a smaller and simpler scale, are behind the design of the natural swimming pools that we featured in Natural Life Magazine’s July/August 2012 issue. Author Ellen Rowland wrote, “It is important to think of a natural swimming pool as a living micro-environment. The aquatic plants enrich the water with oxygen while their root structure filters and breaks down harmful bacteria, excel nutrients, and other contaminants in your pool water.”

Organizational Structure

Nature’s inspiration needn’t be limited to ecology. Biomimicry can also be used to create new organizational structures and systems. As part of Fast Company magazine’s What Would You Ask Nature? biomimicry challenge, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) reinvented its operating structure using biological principles and with the help of design and innovation consulting firm IDEO. They wanted to replace their hierarchical, top-down approach with a more flexible one that created a stronger sense of community and connectedness among members. They found their inspiration in mycorrhiza fungi, which grow in a symbiotic relationship with trees, sharing and circulating nutrients among them.

In a similar manner, biomimicry could inspire solutions to the problems with the way we’re currently governing ourselves. A good place to begin might be to study the way honey bees collaborate as they make decisions about selecting a new hive. They choose the best site through a democratic process that humans would do well to emulate, according to Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley. In his book Honeybee Democracy, Seeley describes the elaborate decision-making that bees use. It is similar to how neurons work to make decisions in primate brains, he says. In both swarms and brains, no individual bee or neuron has an overview but, with many independent individuals providing different pieces of information, the group achieves optimal decision-making.

“Consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them,” Seeley writes. The bees’ collaboration process is being used as a biomimicry model by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who are looking at ways to improve disaster relief efforts.

Transforming Education

One of my areas of work is education. And, in an article that I wrote for Life Learning Magazine in 2011, I described how biomimicry can inspire a different kind of education system. Using Nature as a model, education would be decentralized, self-regulating, participatory, co-operative, resourceful, always adapting and shifting in response to new information and changing conditions, active and always in motion, with built-in feedback mechanisms, and observing those who already have the skill or knowledge they’re seeking. (We might call it apprenticing.)

Clearly, Nature wouldn’t create dedicated school buildings full of desks. It wouldn’t coop kids up indoors all day and even get rid of outdoor play time in favor of sitting at those desks. It wouldn’t create a top-down hierarchy where there is a high ratio of young students to adult “experts,” standardized curriculum, tests, or grades. There wouldn’t be passing and failing or report cards.

In fact, I suggested that such a biomimicry-informed education system would look a lot like what we currently call “unschooling” or life learning. Most people believe that families helping their children learn in that way are pretty radical (some even say irresponsible). However, it’s how people used to learn just a few years ago…before we built our current warehouse-style of schooling. And there are many models in Nature. For instance, it’s how the fringe-lipped bat learns to use frog calls from different species to choose its prey. In a study published in 2006, researchers Rachel Page and Michael Ryan at the University of Texas at Austin investigated the role of social learning and cultural transmission in bat foraging. And they discovered that bats learned to identify the best food when they observed more experienced bats.

Just imagine how sustainable our world could be if we were to get serious about extending this natural inspiration into all aspects of modern life! As biologist, author, and biomimicry proponent Janine Benyus writes, “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.” 

* * * *

More About Biomimicry

In 1960, the term “bionics” was coined by psychiatrist and engineer Jack Steele to mean “the science of systems which have some function copied from Nature.” However, the word’s later misuse in connection with electronically-operated artificial body parts and the 1974 television series The Six Million Dollar Man led to it being dropped by the scientific community. Otto Schmitt, an American academic and inventor, coined the term “biomimetics” to describe the transfer of ideas from biology to technology and it first appeared in the Websters Dictionary in 1974. The term “biomimicry” appeared as early as 1982 but was popularized by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus suggests looking to Nature as a “model, measure, and mentor” and emphasizes sustainability as an objective of biomimicry.

The principles of biomimicry include:

  • bottom up design
  • self-assembling
  • using free energy
  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • adaption and evolution
  • symbiosis
  • form fits function
  • resilience
  • decentralization
  • abundance
  • cooperation and collaboration

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor. She is also a journalist with over 40 years of experience, and the author of 13 books. 


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