Sustainability is all over the news these days. Green this, eco-friendly that, recycle everything, buy the twisty lightbulbs, and “Aren’t you going to compost that?” Much like good compost, sustainability is hot, and it’s finding its way not only into our households, but also into product design. Principles like using low-impact materials, energy efficiency and designing for reuse and renewability are increasing in importance. In ever-greater numbers, designers are looking to nature for inspiration as they create the next generation of innovative and sustainable products. It’s a burgeoning discipline called biomimicry.
Biomimicry is a fairly new term, coined in 1997 by Janine Benyus in her book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature.” But the general idea has been around as long as there have been humans inclined to look at, and take inspiration from, nature’s solutions to problems. For example, Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers studied birds in flight while designing their flying machines. You also might’ve heard the story about how the invention of Velcro resulted from an epiphany someone had after removing sticky burrs from a dog’s fur. As defined by the Biomimcry Institute, biomimicry is “the science and art of emulating Nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems.” It’s copying nature’s homework, basically. And companies with as diverse of product lines and design goals as Boeing, Ford, General Electric, Herman Miller, HP, IBM, Kraft, Nike and Patagonia are taking advantage of biomimicry and inviting biologists to the design table to elbow up against the usual designers, architects and engineers. Copying nature is quickly becoming a cornerstone of modern, sustainable design, and the ideas they’re coming up with are inspiring. Here are a few examples of biomimicry in action:
Sticky gecko feet
Ever taken a nice vacation somewhere warm and looked up to find a small lizard scampering down the wall toward your head? Yeah, not so impressive at the time if you squealed like I did, but, once your heart stopped racing, you had to marvel at the little guy’s climbing ability on such a smooth surface. As discussed in an article by Andrea Rinaldi, the secret to sticky gecko feet lies in the structure of the foot itself, where each toe pad is covered with millions of keratinous hair-like bristles called setae. Each of these branches out into hundreds of flat tips called spatulas, which are what enable the ultra-close contact with surfaces and adhesion primarily via “non-covalent van der Waals forces between the spatulas and the surface.” The gecko feet solution is being considered for applications in robotics (climbing robots!) and temporary adhesive systems. One current practical application is Gecko tape, which uses directional adhesion to mimic the effects of the setae and spatulas on gecko toes.
Shimmery butterfly wings
If you’ve been lucky enough to get close to a butterfly, you probably noticed the beautiful iridescent shimmer on its wings. This comes from extremely fine scales, each only 100 micrometers in length, which cover the wing membrane. When light reflects off the scales and combines with other light, you get the resulting iridescence. JDSU, a provider of communications and optical products, took inspiration from this effect when designing their ChromaFlair color system. Their refractive paints are made of microthin film flakes, each less than one-tenth the width of a human hair. By adjusting the thickness of the individual flakes, you see a replication of the butterfly wing effect, creating the shimmery, color-shifting paints brands like Cadillac and L’Oreal have jumped at introducing into their products.
When you look at fallen leaves, a grassy prairie or a field of wildflowers, you can easily see the colors don’t all match, but they’re completely cohesive and often quite attractive. Designer David Oakey took this idea to introduce a new solution for carpeting, called Entropy. Where dye lots used to be critical, and any variance from a desired shade was considered a defect that often led to discarded product, each Entropy carpeting tile is intentionally varied and distinct. But, when laid down in any configuration together and viewed as a whole, they seamlessly blend into a cohesive pattern and color flow. Because Entropy tiles can come from multiple dye lots and be laid down in any direction, it reduces waste during production and installation.
Travel efficiencies of kingfishers
The West Japan Railway Company boasts the fastest train in the world, the Shinkansen Bullet Train. It travels 200 miles per hour. Sounds great, right? But there was a problem – whenever the train emerged from a tunnel, the air pressure changes would create large thunderclaps audible over a quarter-mile away. They got complaints. So, they looked to nature for an organism that already could travel quickly and smoothly between two different mediums. They found their answer in kingfishers, which dive from the air into water with very little splash. They remodeled the front-end of the train after the beak of the kingfisher, and not only got a quieter train, but also 15 percent less electricity usage. Oh, and the train traveled 10 percent faster, too. Thank you, kingfishers.
Those are just a handful – there are hundreds of other ideas documented on AskNature.org, a project of the Biomimicry Institute. Amazing ideas like automotive anti-collision circuitry based on a neuron present in locusts (they don’t collide in flight, even when huge populations are present), anti-adhesives based on the slippery interiors of the pitcher plant, and a redesigned ice axe modeled after one of nature’s most efficient hammers: the woodpecker. The list goes on and on. And frankly, I find it absolutely delightful. Nature, you ROCK.
The hope of biomimicry is that the mindshift in design strategies toward emulation of natural solutions could help solve some of the major problems associated with global industrialization and depletion/exploitation of natural resources. There is also the potential resultant benefit of viewing nature as a source of innovation and partnership, not just of raw materials. Skeptics are reasonably concerned that, while getting inspired by nature is all well and good, it’s an entirely different proposition to scale up a promising idea into a commercially viable production operation. Some of these biomimetic solutions just might not be feasible on any meaningful scale.
Still, for me, there’s something honorable, respectful, and quite smart in looking to nature as a source for solutions to our modern problems. After all, Mother Nature’s got over four billion years of R&D in the bag. She’s likely learned a thing or two.
- Rinaldi, A. (2007). Naturally better. Science and technology are looking to nature’s successful designs for inspiration EMBO reports, 8 (11), 995-999 DOI: 10.1038/sj.embor.7401107
- “Biomimicry: Nature-Inspired Designs.” Kate Rockwood. Fast Company. October 1, 2008.