Biomimicry: Knowledge by Nature


The other day on the news, there was a woman walking up the side of a building using paddles modeled after gecko’s feet.

There’s a building in Zimbabwe that doesn’t require air conditioning and uses only 10% of the energy of other buildings its size. It was built using technology borrowed from termite mounds that are as well ventilated as a honeycomb even though they are underground.

There’s a company working on harvesting wave energy by studying how giant kelp absorb the constant shock of waves without breaking into pieces.

If you buy a kitchen cabinet anytime soon, it will likely contain glue that was manufactured based on the mussel’s ability to cling to rocks.

The name for this technology is biomimicry. And however new it might seem, it isn’t. The first airplanes attempted to mimic birds (and sometimes it even worked). Velcro was developed by a Scottish inventor who began to study the burs that stuck to his dog’s coat. What is new is that the idea is being actively studied and promoted by a new generation of designers in order to help us break out of our present pattern of harvest, use up, discard, pollute.

Because the coolest thing about biomimicry is just that: It’s mimicry, not pillagry. That glue wasn’t taken from the mussels, nor were the gecko’s feet dissected in a laboratory. Instead the study of natural systems is taken on in a measured and explicit way. The best known organization currently promoting the discipline is the Biomimicry Institute founded by Janine Benyus, author of the book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

One aim of the institute is to help people see how crucial natural systems are to our survival and hopefully work harder to protect them. The institute has developed a design spiral that works in loops of continual evaluation at every stage in the process from the first phase of identifying the problem to the last of figuring out the manufacturing process, packaging, distribution, and disposal. This type of life cycle analysis is crucial in developing any new products and technologies if we are ever to get out of the mess we’ve made of the world and advance as a species.

If you think about it, it’s a pretty good idea to look to nature for our R & D, because as Benyus says, “after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”

For more on the vast intelligence of nature, check out Sara’s post on biophony, or how animals have evolved sonic niches within their ecosystems.

Image: Just Chaos

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.