It’s in our nature to want to be near nature.
For a long time, humans have been trying to replicate nature’s intricate designs into our own clothing. But these replicas don’t just have to be aesthetic. A wide variety of technologies we use everyday are directly inspired by the natural world, including common household objects like Velcro.
This is biomimicry, the strategic practice of drawing inspiration from nature’s designs and adapting them into our world to solve human problems. This concept was first termed ‘biomimetics’ by American biophysicist and engineer Otto Herbert Schmitt in the 1950s, but was later popularized as ‘biomimicry’ by biologist Janine Benyus in her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
There are three areas from which we draw innovation from nature: the forms or structures of natural things, natural processes, and ecosystems. Whether it’s in architecture, agriculture, or biomedical fields — to name just a few of the fields that use biomimetic design — these designs are used to optimize technology while maintaining environmentally friendly practices.
Implementing nature-inspired models into our world
The most well-known examples of innovations inspired by nature have been in recent developments in vehicles.
For instance, the shape of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains was inspired by the kingfisher bird in the 1990s. Eiji Nakatsu, lead engineer of the railway design project and avid bird-watcher, was inspired by the kingfisher’s narrow bill and fashioned an improvised bullet train that made less noise when exiting tunnels and used less energy thanks to its aerodynamic form.
Hummingbirds have also served as design inspiration for their ability to fly forward, backward, or even be perfectly stationary mid-flight, unlike other birds. These manoeuvres, along with the flight manoeuvres of dragonflies, have inspired helicopters, drones, and wind turbine technologies.
We also see biomimetic designs as structures in architecture. Like engineers, architects must also solve several problems creatively in architecture, and nature-inspired models can help. Architectural designs have long taken inspiration from nature in both their external features and their internal functioning and maintenance.
According to a 2017 paper on sustainable architecture in high-rise buildings, these biomimetic design elements can include structural solutions that adapt to local climate and water conditions; the use of renewable energy like solar energy and wind; and maintaining environmental consciousness when designing the ventilation and energy consumption in the buildings. For example, pinecones are inspiring engineers and architects to use double layers of wood to respond to changes in heat and cooling throughout the day as a low-cost and electricity-free alternative to other insulation.
Finally, humans have taken many patterns from nature such as leaves and flowers to print onto their textiles. While these patterns were inspired by nature in their shapes, we also depend on nature for feathers, fibres, animal skin and hides, leaves, and more, which we use for protective purposes. Adopting patterns and collecting material from the remnants of nature in the form of things like flowers, feathers, and fibres allows humans to enhance beauty and aesthetic appeal in themselves and their surroundings while using products to their full extent.
Biomimicry as the answer to all human crises and well-being
By its very nature, biomimicry is beneficial to us in many aspects of our lives — including intangible ones. While it has its uses for designing material technologies and buildings, it is also a philosophy.
If more architects, designers, urban planners, engineers, and policymakers began to adopt biomimicry as part of creative solutions, they would be pleasantly surprised as to how ecologically friendly and beautiful their designs would be. Nature has its ways of dealing with chaos and disasters, with complexity and unpredictability that humans can only aspire to.
Biomimicry is not just useful as inspiration for buildings or other material things, but also teaches humans about how to manage our roles and relationships with other people. Learning from different animal herds, or observing ants participating as a single unit, for instance, can give us a sense of community and teach us resilience; each member of a society plays their part, and we’re all working for everyone’s greater good.
Perhaps we need to take a proper look at the marvels of nature once more, and then reassess: how much more are we going to try to conquer it before we finally give in to its expertise and try to learn from it, instead — as nature intended?