“I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be the intersection of biology and technology.” If Steve Jobs were alive today, he might edit this prophetic wisdom to include “and design” at the end. But why should the biggest innovations this century also come from design? Is better design really that important of an issue, considering all the problems humanity is currently facing?
The reason designers, engineers, and biologists are teaming together, is because biology showcases the ultimate master designer’s work, and it’s about time we start copying her masterpieces. The biologist explains to the designer how a certain organism functions, the designer lays out a blueprint for the copied, synthetic version of this organism, and finally, the engineer assembles it and makes it work. But why would you ever want to recreate an insect or flower?
The ultimate goal of biomimicry—the science of copying nature’s designs—is to recreate the work that nature has so wonderfully perfected after 3.8 billion years of research and development. We want to mimic her product not only because it is the most efficient design, but also because it is proactive in giving back to the planet—it celebrates abundance. A tree is not eco-efficient—it does not “use as little energy as possible.” It sucks in as much sunlight as it possibly can each day and then keeps growing higher and higher until it dies. If a tree were made out of commercial building materials, this type of growth would be disastrous. Luckily, it is not. A tree is composed of organic biodegradable material that harbors life for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of organisms when it’s alive, and provides nutrients to the soil and other life forms when it finally dies.
If all the man-made industrial structures on the planet functioned like trees, we probably wouldn’t be worrying about climate change right now (buildings account for 39% of Co2 emissions in the United States). This is why it is so crucial that we tap into modern technology’s amazing potential and start creating bio-inspired designs that will not only be sustainable, but will also open the door to an era of products and structures that are actually beneficial to nature.
While the following designs don’t necessarily showcase “abundance,” they are certainly a huge step in the right direction and provide a great platform for innovation.
Buildings that breathe
The African architect Mick Pearce had a dilemma on his hands when thinking about an office building project in Zimbabwe: how do you create a structure that will keep tenants cool in the hot summer months, but still be energy efficient? In order to solve this dilemma, he looked for help from one of the smallest builders on the planet—termites. The hardy mounds that these accomplished architects create optimize the effects of the sun and maintain a constant temperature inside, despite the drastic temperature swings outside. The termite mound is designed in a way that utilizes maximum sun exposure to its flanks—when the sun is low and its cold outside. At the same time, it avoids solar exposure when the sun is directly overhead and the outdoor temperatures are hottest. The shape of its design—a narrow-like top with a large base—helps it save energy.
Along with tweaking the overall shape of the mound, the termites create holes along the top that connect deep within the inside to allow a draft of air to pass through—utilizing convective airflow from cool to warm. When designing the Eastgate office building in Zimbabwe, Pearce used these tactics to create a passive climate control system. The massive complex is composed of two buildings that surround an interior atrium—the shape reduces heat gain and allows night cooling, thermal storage, and air currents to moderate temperatures. The cool air captured at night via roof vents is stored and then distributed during the day through hollow floors.
With a little help from nature, Mick was able to create an office building that uses 90% less energy for ventilation than conventional buildings its size.
Just like Pearce, but on an even smaller scale this time, Doris Kim Sung looks to nature’s designs for sustainable building ideas. In her TED Talks video below, she discusses how thermo-bimetals can act responsively and self-ventilate like human skin.
Bio-inspired energy flows
You’d never guess in a million years how Caltech students working on wind turbine optimization found their eureka moment. These brilliant researchers studied how schools of fish move fluidly together as a group. They realized that the school aligns itself in a way that allows a fish to follow the kinetic energy pushed off from the leader fish in front of it. Fish have efficient forward propulsion traveling as a school, but if they’re traveling solo, the energy generated from the tail fin is wasted.
Keeping the fish movement dynamics in mind, the students arranged vertical axis wind turbines close to one another, but each in the opposite direction of its neighbor. Just like in the school of fish, efficiency is increased due to opposing spins that lower drag on each turbine. Wind farms based on this design can potentially get up to 10 times more power compared to traditional wind farms at the same location.
Janine Benyus—President of The Biomimicry Institute—discusses how these innovative wind turbines work in the video below.
We’ve already seen various ways humans have mimicked the fauna realm—but what about flora? Flowers—particularly the way they open and close their petals—were the source of inspiration behind Philips’s Sustainable City Lights. These LED street lights are shaped to look like giant flowers with multiple “petals” sticking out at the top. Photovoltaic panels, located on the inside of these petals, gather solar energy during the day. Once the sun goes down, the petals close and this stored energy is used to power the LED lights. This intelligent, solar-powered light system actually creates an abundance of energy—it generates more than enough power to keep the lights on and any excess electricity is fed back into the grid.
Biomimicry and future applications
Where can we look in Mother Nature to gather ideas for future designs? How else can we improve human well-being by copying more of her work? These are the questions many environmental designers, bioengineers, and sustainability scientists across the globe are asking themselves right now. Luckily, technology is advancing at a rate so quick that scientists’ can actually follow through with their imaginative biomimcry ideas—such as buildings created with super-strong material that copies the structure of human bones.
Stay on the lookout for greater inspired-by-nature designs in the near future. The field of biomimicry is just getting started.