Mother Knows Best: Biomimicry (Part 1)

Mother Knows Best 

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.”
-McDonough & Braungart

By Brett Marlo DeSantis

Mother Nature has been ignored for too long. In fact the industrial age could have taken some of mom’s advice! Some may consider billions of years of evolution as sage wisdom.

How does nature work? Everything is connected through ecosystems, from large to small, to form the conditions for life. An ecosystem consists of soil, air, sun, water, plants, insects, animals and other living organisms. The more diversity of species, the more resilience exists in the community.

In a nut shell, biomimicry literally mimics nature; a process where we look at nature’s solutions to improve our human design problems. In this new era of learning from nature rather than destroying it, we seek sustainable solutions that will make our built environment healthier, more resilient and bring us a better quality of life.

Can biomimicry really help us design and make better products? Is it possible toborrow the blueprints of life?

According to Janine Benyus, who coined the term biomimicry in 1997, there are currently two approaches when applying biomimetic design to designing products: the biology-to-design approach and the design-to-biology approach.

Within that framework, three levels of practicing biomimicry exist. The first level involves designing to mimic natural forms. The second level mimics the natural process of how the form was made. The third level works toward mimicking the natural ecosystems.

The lotus flower provides great inspiration. Employing the biology-to-design approach, designers discovered how small bumps combined with waxy crystals allowed for dirt to be swept away by water. “The Lotus-effect” is now employed in a myriad of self-cleaning building products including glass, roofing, paint and textiles.

Conversely in the design-to-biology approach, the process begins with a human design challenge. In this case, we identity the desired function and then research how this function occurs naturally in organisms or ecosystems.

For example, do we really want the stuff we buy to last forever? Will future generations desire the same goods? Probably not.

Here’s a design-to-biology solution:

How amazing would it be to be able to deconstruct products so that they may easily be used for the product’s evolution? At the University of Manchester, Geim has modeled a tape based on the dry physical adhesion of a gecko. Studying the tiny bristles on gecko’s feet that allow it to adhere to surfaces may allow us to design for disassembly. Gecko glue is on the horizon!

Whether we look for solutions either from a biology-to-design or from a design-to-biology approach, we may encounter solutions simply by looking at what exists around us naturally.

Mother knows best Part 2 will explore biomimetic buildings right here in the PNW!