Sometimes, the best solution to a problem is not a completely new one, but an old one. Whereas we humans have been around for 200.000 years, nature has been around for a couple of billion years, with which comes the relevant expertise.
This belief lies at the core of biomimicry, which tells us that when we go to the drawing board, we should first look for inspiration in the time-tested products in Nature’s catalogue, rather than start from scratch. Although still relatively new, biomimicry has already led to sustainable and innovative solutions: termite mounds have shown that we can get rid of air conditioning; neural structures have been paramount for developments in computer vision; sharks have inspired the next line of defence against bacterial infections by being resistant against various antibiotics.
According to Janine Benyus, who coined the term in 1997, there are three ways to perform biomimicry. Firstly, nature can inspire form or shape. Secondly, it can inspire processes, such as modelling the network of autonomous vehicles to the way in which ants communicate in a nest. And thirdly, it can inspire larger systems, by looking at ecosystems for example, where waste continuously gets upcycled such that no by-products are left behind.
Vox recently made an illustrative video on the success of Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train biomimicking nature’s form. Because the train travelled so fast, it would make a thunderous supersonic boom each time it exited a tunnel. In 1987, an engineering team was assembled to tackle this problem, and they were in luck: they had a birdwatcher on the team, who brought a different perspective. The penguin’s smooth body shape, with which it glides effortlessly through water, helped lower wind resistance on the rig supports; curved owl feathers, which make these predators silent, inspired the rig that connects the train to electricity wires above; and the nose of the train was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher, which catches fish by diving into the water without making any splash. The resulting design was faster, more efficient and more silent coming out of the tunnel, partly thanks to nature’s design of birds.
As mankind progressed in civilization, it has become increasingly out of touch with Nature. Today, the majority of the human population is living in densely populated cities, far removed from green spaces or animals other than rats and pigeons. However, as said by Michael Pawlyn, Nature provides us with an entire catalogue of products which have all benefited from a 3.8-billion-year research and development period. Given this level of investment, biomimicry suggests it is time to go back to the basis and start looking at nature for our designs and solutions.