Biomimicry: Learning from Nature

Ever since the dawn of time, humans have turned to nature to find food and shelter. As our civilization progressed, nature’s role grew to be more complex and intricate; it became a source of inspiration and useful ideas. Through observation, people have gathered invaluable information about how ecosystems function around the world. A more in-depth study of nature reveals robust systems whose performance is as close to perfection as it can be. Natural selection, evolution’s primary driving force, has given rise to organisms that exploit resources both efficiently and sustainably.

Although applying knowledge of natural systems in human society is no novel practice, the term describing it, is relatively new. Biomimicry, meaning “imitation of life”, was popularised by biologist Janine Benyus in her book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” Since the publishing of the book in 1997, the term has gained worldwide recognition and has prompted numerous studies.

A historical analysis reveals just how intertwined civilization and nature are – houses of indigenous people mimicked animal burrows and nests, Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine prototypes were inspired by the bird wing, and the design of the Eiffel Tower was based on the structure of the human femur [1,2]. As science advances, our understanding of natural processes deepens, which pushes biomimicry to copy progressively more complex structures and products. While the first biomimetic designs were mainly based on shapes of animal parts, recent studies have investigated biomimicry at a molecular level and thus have widened its applications.

The fields where biomimetic principles have already been established include architecture, aviation, ventilation systems, engineering and textile and fiber production. Bamboo, being one of the toughest natural materials, was the inspiration behind new models for composite fibers. Imitating this plant’s structure provided positive results which have already been applied in modern engineering [3]. Furthermore,fashion has relied on nature not only for patterns and colour combinations, but also for creating durable materials that bear a striking resemblance to spider webs and by-products of insects[4].

Internet hosting centres achieve a dynamic and effective distribution of their servers using a strategy, borrowed from foraging bees. The technique of bees is under constant evolutionary pressure to increase their fitness by gathering as much nectar as possible. Observing how bees achieve an optimal distribution amongst flower patches was key to creating a pattern for servers to follow [5]. Another example of biomimicry in the sphere of IT is the development of a new algorithm for search clustering. It has shown impressive results and its secret is an imitation of the breeding strategy of the common cuckoo [6].

Architecture and city planning have a lot to learn from nature too. Termite mounds are marked with perfect ventilation and air circulation systems. They sustain a constant living temperature and do so with no loss of energy. Heating buildings is a substantial contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore climate change. Buildings that regulate temperature in a sustainable manner may indeed revolutionise the reduction of the carbon footprint of our buildings [7].

The aforementioned examples demonstrate that biomimicry has already provided solutions to complex problems in architecture, city planning, ventilation systems, and textile and fiber production. Although these contributions alone are of marked significance, it is the possibility of future discoveries that has rendered biomimicry a field of peak scientific interest. Learning from nature has the potential to give society a much needed balance, allowing it to operate in a safe and sustaining manner [8].

Since the establishment of biomimicry, however, it has deviated from its underlying principles on many occasions. Following the creation of biomimetic military equipment, surveillance cameras and industrial nanomachines, biomimicry and sustainability are no longer synonymous. This imitation, cleverly disguised as the utmost compliment, has now turned into disrespectful ‘biopiracy;’ stealing from nature for profit [9]. The ambiguity surrounding the term “biomimicry” has facilitated its vastly different interpretations. As far as sustainable development is concerned, biomimicry is not enough. While it is indisputably a useful tool, its consequencesdepend on the mindsets with which we utilise it. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, our perception of nature has shifted towards it being a resource for us to benefit from. It certainly won’t be easy to change this paradigm.

Problems cannot be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them, as Albert Einstein suggested. Biomimicry ought to be approached from a different angle – or more precisely from all angles. Natural systems do not function in isolation, but compliment and support each other. Current biomimetic practices lack holism in their approach to problem-solving and have thus lost their inherited sustainability [10]. An alternative path to technological advancement is ecomimicry. Ecomimicry encourages the use of ingenious natural processes in a manner sustainable to both the environment and society. It will be comprehensible to everyone and will strengthen the connection we have with nature [11].

Mimicry, be it bio- or eco-, can pave the way to a prosperous and sustainable culture. Walking the way, however, is not only a matter of scientific discoveries, but also of creating a personal philosophy to follow [12]. And whilst we do so, we ought not to forget that us mimicking life is really an oxymoron in disguise. Because we, as humans, represent life just as much as plants and animals do: perhaps it is time to not simply mimic it, but to truly live it as conscious and responsible creatures.

References

[1, 8, 9, 11] Marshall, A., & Lozeva, S. (2009). Questioning the theory and practice of biomimicry. Int. J. of Design & Nature & Ecodynamics, 1.
[2] Vincent, J. F., Bogatyreva, O. A., Bogatyrev, N. R., Bowyer, A., & Pahl, A. K. (2006). Biomimetics: its practice and theory. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 3(9), 471-482.
[3] Li, S. H., Zeng, Q. Y., Xiao, Y. L., Fu, S. Y., & Zhou, B. L. (1995). Biomimicry of bamboo bast fiber with engineering composite materials. Materials Science and Engineering: C, 3(2), 125-130.
[4] Eadie, L., & Ghosh, T. K. (2011). Biomimicry in textiles: past, present and potential. An overview. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 8(59), 761-775.
[5] Nakrani, S., & Tovey, C. (2007). From honeybees to internet servers: biomimicry for distributed management of internet hosting centers. Bioinspiration & biomimetics, 2(4), S182.
[6] Goel, S., Sharma, A., & Bedi, P. (2011, December). Cuckoo Search Clustering Algorithm: A novel strategy of biomimicry. In Information and Communication Technologies (WICT), 2011 World Congress on (pp. 916-921). IEEE.
[7] Turner, J. S., & Soar, R. C. (2008). Beyond biomimicry: What termites can tell us about realizing the living building. Industrialised, integrated, intelligent sustainable construction, 233-248.
[10] Reap, J., Baumeister, D., & Bras, B. (2005, January). Holism, biomimicry and sustainable engineering. In ASME 2005 International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition (pp. 423-431). American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
[12] Mathews, F. (2011). Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. Organization & Environment, 24(4), 364-387.

Image credit: http://www.hoklife.com/tag/biomimicry/

Gergana Daskalova is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh majoring in Ecological and Environmental Sciences. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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