I’m a biologist who has spent most of my career as a wildlife ecologist. So why is a biologist writing blog posts for MAKE? In the last nine years, I’ve been bringing biology to the world of design through the growing field of biomimicry. Makers are innovative designers and many designers are discovering that nature is a vast source of inspiration. What drew me to biomimicry is being part of a growing movement of people who are making a difference in the world through sustainable innovation. If I turn some people onto biology along the way, well, that’s just a bonus.
Biomimicry is sustainable innovation inspired by life’s 3.8 billion years of tested “research and development.” It looks at how living organisms have adapted to life’s challenges, many of them the same challenges we face: how to capture and clean water, attach two parts together without toxic glues, capture energy and minimize the amount needed, build without waste, be resilient to changing conditions. Then you look for organisms or systems that have to do the same thing.
Biomimicry caught people’s attention with the 1997 publication of Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Biomimicry looks not just at forms in nature, like how burrs inspired Velcro, but also materials and processes that nature uses and how nature functions within systems.
The easiest way to explain biomimicry is to give some examples. One of my favorites is a glass window that mimics spider webs to prevent bird collisions. Hundreds of millions of birds die every year in North America from collisions with buildings. The solution came from studying spider webs.
Some spiders incorporate UV-reflective silk strands into their webs. After spending hours building the perfect web, the last thing a spider needs is for some bird to mistakenly crash through it. By adding those strands—visible to birds but not insects—the spider saves critical energy and time. A company called Arnold Glas created ORNILUX, an insulated glass sheeting that uses a special UV-reflective coating almost transparent to humans. This technology can significantly contribute to bird conservation efforts.
The Shinkansen Train, also known as the “bullet” train, in Japan is another example. The train used to have a rounded nose, which would cause a pressure wave to build when it entered a tunnel. Upon exiting, the train emitted a sonic boom that exceeded legal noise limits and annoyed local residents. A pantograph, a power-collecting device on the top of the train, also made an irritating noise. To decrease the sound generated by the trains, Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer with JR West, studied how kingfishers dive into water without a splash and how owls fly so silently.
The redesigned train’s nose is now close to the shape of the kingfisher’s beak while the pantograph incorporates serrations like those on the owl’s flight feathers. As a valuable side benefit, the new designs also decreased fuel usage.
In 2007, other biologists and I started gathering stories of adaptations in nature, like the kingfisher beak, with lessons that could be applied to sustainable designs. This was a dream job for a biology geek. We put those stories onto a free website called AskNature.org. AskNature currently houses more than 1,600 biological strategies with potential applications to design. It also has almost 200 brief biomimetic case studies, like the Shinkansen train, that show how designers have created products, processes, and systems based on life’s lessons.
Doing biomimicry requires understanding not what your design will be but what it needs to do. Therefore, we organized nature’s strategies according to functions that innovators might want to accomplish. So when people come to AskNature, they’re looking for the answer to “How does nature______?”
In my next post, I’ll reveal some examples of AskNature strategies that can inspire new approaches to your designs and inventions. By learning from nature’s strategies, you almost can’t help creating something that leads to a healthier environment. That’s what nature does and the things we make, the processes we use, and the systems we set up should do the same. After all, we humans are part of nature, too.
How Does Nature Make It? is a collaboration between MAKE and the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, a non-profit dedicated to equipping innovators with the tools to solve sustainability challenges using nature’s designs and core principles. The most popular of those tools is AskNature, the world’s most comprehensive catalog of nature’s solutions to human design challenges. By understanding how these adaptations work, makers can mimic ideas that have thrived in balance with Earth’s complex systems. This series explores these adaptations.