Biomimicry: Why Nature Is The Ultimate Innovator
Humans have been designing and innovating for 100,000 years, but nature has been doing so for 4.5 billion years. Turns out we still have a lot to learn from nature, and biomimicry is the science of using nature to inform innovative design. Here are some great examples of this new and maybe world-changing design philosophy.
I live a little less than a mile away from some train tracks. Which means from time to time I get to enjoy a nice train rumble in the background.
It’s not a problem or anything. It doesn’t happen very often, and when it does it’s just a light background noise. But that’s not true for the people who live right next to it.
I always wonder how loud that must be. But even that is nothing compared to some people in Japan in 1989.
Japan is a world leader in high-speed trains, especially maglev trains that cut down on friction and travel at hundreds of miles per hour.
So fast, in fact, that they were causing a kind of sonic boom.
Okay, not like a real sonic boom because they were breaking the speed of sound or anything, but when the trains exited tunnels, they were moving so fast that they compressed the air in front of the trains, causing them to explode when they exited the tunnels.
So yeah, imagine living in an apartment right next to the opening of the tunnel and basically hearing a cannon go off multiple times a day.
People complained – obviously – and the trains were forced to slow down, which totally defeats the point of a high speed train.
Engineers set forth working on the problem, most of which required redesigning the tunnels which would have been massive construction projects.
But one engineer named Eiji Nakatsu had a different solution. Turned out that he was also an avid birder, and one of his favorite birds was the Kingfisher.
Kingfishers eat fish – hence the name, and they do it by flying over the water, finding a school of fish, zeroing in on the one they want, and then dive-bombing into the water at full speed. It’s actually kind-of insane.
And these birds are designed to do this, and create as little splash as possible to make this hunting more effective. And Nakatsu recognized that these birds are kind-of doing the same thing that these high-speed trains were doing. They were moving from one medium to another.
Birds obviously were going from air to water but the trains were moving from low pressure to high pressure; similar idea.
So he used the shape of the Kingfisher’s beak and used that as a model to redesign the nose of the high speed train. And it worked. Not only was it quieter but it was 10% faster and 15% more efficient.
This an amazing example of lateral thinking but it’s also a prime example of a design philosophy known as biomimicry.
If you think technology is advancing at a rapid pace, you’re correct. In fact, we’re experiencing a technological revolution that begin a few hundred years ago.
Just looking at just what humans have created since the Age of Enlightenment is mind-boggling.
- Telescope (1608)
- Submarine (1776)
- Interchangeable Parts (1797)
- Coffee Pot (1806)
- Plough (1814)
- Sewing Machine (1833)
- Power Tools (1837)
- Skyscraper (1885)
- Television (1927)
- Artificial Heart (1982)
We could spend all day listing inventions since the 1600s. In fact, pretty much everything around you as you’re watching this could fit in this category.
Once again, I’ve made the argument that the singularity that we keep hearing about is happening right now. Has been for a couple hundred years.
That especially makes sense when you consider that homo sapiens have been on Earth for about 300,000 years. This all happened very suddenly.
Whatever innovations we’ve created, from fire to file sharing, are just a blink in the eye to nature, which has been testing and refining itself for billions of years.
Earth has existed for around 4.5 billion years. Life first appeared on our planet around 3.5 to 4 billion years ago.
Multicellular organisms began to appear approximately 610 million years ago, and plants and fungi showed up around 500 million years ago.
After that came anthropods (400 million years ago), amphibians (300 million years ago), mammals (200 million years ago), and birds (150 million years ago).
Then us, of course. We’re just little babies in the history of life on Earth.
During all these millions of years, nature has been doing its own research and development, engineering solutions to help it survive and thrive.
There’s just no way we can compete with this knowledge, this deep level of trial and error nature has conducted on itself.
Whether you believe in a creator who intelligently designed the universe and our planet or believe it’s just a process and time is the ultimate creator, we can learn a lot from it.
This is the basis for biomimicry, which is a way for us to find solutions through nature.
Or, “the practice of applying lessons from nature to the invention of healthier, more sustainable technologies for people,” as defined by the Biomimicry Institute.
“Learning about the natural world is one thing,” said biologist and the institute’s co-founder Janine Benyus. “Learning from the natural world—that’s the switch.”
So, when it comes to designing solutions for our challenges, it seems wise to consult with the greatest innovator we have: nature.
There are several examples of nature-influenced innovations. Here are a few of my favorites.
Let’s let’er rip and start with one that is kind of…. sticky.
I’m talking about velcro, which Swiss engineer George de Mestral invented and patented in 1955.
He was hunting with his dog in the Swiss Alps about 10 years earlier and noticed burs sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur.
Taking the burrs home, he studied them under a microscope and noticed thousands of tiny hooks that could bind themselves to any fabric or fur they came into contact with.
Eventually, he created a way to mass-produce the hooks and found a company to produce the fabric they would bind to.
And thus, Velcro, which is a portmanteau of “velvet” and “crochet” (“hook” in French).
Velcro wasn’t an immediate success.
But when NASA came along looking for a way to keep objects attached to the walls of its spaceships while in orbit, it was suddenly cool.
So cool that French fashion designer Pierre Cardin became obsessed with it, incorporating Velcro into many of his outfits.
And of course they’re quite popular with the sneakerheads as well.
While they often instill fear in swimmers and may cause the need for a bigger boat, sharks have inspired technology that helps reduce the spread of bacteria.
Dr. Anthony Brennan is a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Florida.
In 2002, he visited the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor to help the military find new antifouling strategies for its ships and submarines.
He noticed one submarine returning to port covered in algae and said it looked like a lumbering whale.
Brennan then asked which slow-moving ocean animals don’t attract algae. There was only one: sharks.
He took an impression of shark skin, specifically the dermal denticles, and discovered that they’re arranged in a diamond pattern with tiny riblets.
These riblets are rough and help keep microorganisms from attaching themselves to the shark’s skin.
Like most organisms, bacteria look for the path of least energy resistance when trying to establish biofilms on surfaces.
The shark’s skin pattern requires too much energy for bacteria to take root.
Sharklet Technologies is one company that has created products based on this natural innovation.
The company’s research has shown that its antibacterial film inhibits the growth of S. aureus, P. aeruginosa, E. coli, and other microbial species that may cause illness or death.
Maybe the newest example of biomimicry is microfliers.
A paper published in the journal Nature just a couple months ago in September proposes flying microchips the size of a grain of sand.
It was proposed by engineers at Northwestern University, and the idea is that these microchips can be carried by the wind to monitor things like pollution levels and airborne diseases.
And they based their microfliers off of the maple tree’s propeller seeds.
These propellers cause the seeds to spin like a helicopter through the air before landing. And these microfliers do the same thing.
“Our goal was to add winged flight to small-scale electronic systems…” John A. Rogers, who led the device’s development, told Northwestern Now. “We were able to do that using ideas inspired by the biological world. … We borrowed those design concepts, adapted them and applied them to electronic circuit platforms.”
There are two parts of the microfliers: millimeter-sized functional electronic components and the wings.
As it falls, the wings interact with air to create a slow and stable rotational motion.
The electronics’ weight is distributed low in the center of the flier to help prevent it from losing control and tumbling to the ground.
The engineers didn’t just turn to nature for inspiration. They also found it in children’s pop-up books.
They fabricated precursors to flying structures in flat, planar geometries before bonding them onto a stretched rubber substrate.
When the substrate relaxes, a controlled buckling action happens and the wings pop up into precise 3D forms.
And if you’re worried that all these microfliers will create a lot of electronic litter, don’t be.
Rogers and his team are working on a way to have the microfliers harmlessly degrade and dissolve into groundwater over time.
Speaking of wind, let’s talk about humpback whales. Wait, what?
Humpbacks have little bumps on their flippers called tubercles, and it’s thought that they help make the fins more efficient in the water.
To test this, a West Chester University biologist named Dr. Frank Fish put a four-meter-long flipper from a dead, beached whale in a wind tunnel.
Anyway, Frank Fish found that the flipper was fairly aerodynamic.
Those bumps on the flippers help the whales catch bigger and faster prey by channeling the water over the flipper to prevent the loss of forward movement.
This helps the whales turn and move quickly underwater.
Interesting finding. But what can you do with that?
Well Fish and his team realized that they could use this same property to build more efficient and quieter wind turbines by reducing vortices and increasing lift.
So they tried it, and it turns out wind farms can produce up to twenty percent more power and twenty-five percent more airflow when using these blades.
According to MIT, the blades help generate the “same amount of power at 10 miles per hour that conventional turbines generate at 17 miles per hour.”
But it’s not just engineering and structural challenges that may benefit from modeling nature. There’s also a lot we can apply to society in general.
For example, we can better understand traffic flow by watching ants.
A study published in eLife in 2019 showed that ants adjust their behavior based on their circumstances when moving along a path.
Mimicking their strategies may help us better optimize self-driving cars so that we can avoid having traffic jams.
With bees, we can understand more about social learning.
When worker honeybees find a new food source, they return to the hive and perform a “waggle dance.”
This dance communicates where the food source is and works to influence the other bee’s behavior so that they’ll try the new food source.
Another larger group of bees will explore the new source, and they’ll return to the hive and do the dance, too.
The cycle happens a few times and reaches a tipping point where the whole bee colony makes a decision and moves together toward the food source.
“Adopting habits is a very conservative process that seems to be driven very largely by social learning, by seeing other people doing the same thing,” says MIT professor Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science.
Because the bees in the hive are open to the idea of where a new food source is, they’re able to continue growing the colony.
Bees, ants, and even fungi can teach us about elections and democracy, too.
Our governmental system in the U.S. is based on hierarchy and helps maintain the status quo. It doesn’t lead to much flexibility, resulting in the dreaded “red tape.”
But for organisms like fungi, flexible intelligence has helped them adapt and survive for millions of years.
Fungi decisions are made from a bottom-up approach, responding to real-time conditions and actively seeking out diverse information.
“Collective intelligence and distributed leadership are evolutionarily proven strategies for success,” evolutionary biologist Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker wrote in an article for the Biomimicry Institute. “Diversity and independence, networked by transparent and truthful transactions, allow the wisdom of the crowd to go to work. With flat networks, we can innovate better, make more accurate decisions, and enjoy far greater resilience.”
But maybe the biggest lesson we can learn from nature is that it wastes nothing.
Nature is the definition of sustainable. Our current way of living is the definition of unsustainable.
Maybe by taking some cues from nature, we can design a society that will last indefinitely into the future.
One of the goals of biomimicry advocates is for designers and engineers to first ask, “How would nature solve this problem?”
And I think that’s a smart approach. Nature has been here far longer than we have. We have a lot to learn from it if we want to be around along with it.