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Feature - Issue #5

Biomimicry: Where Innovation and Nature Meet

Where Innovation and Nature Meet Biomimicry educator and author Margo Farnsworth explores how we can mimic the principles and patterns of life - nature’s version of technology - to enhance our own processes.

A Shinkansen bullet train passing by Mount Fuji, Yoshiwara, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan.

The unique design of the 500 Series Shinkansen, known in English as the bullet train, was inspired by a bird. Eiji Nakatsu was the director of technical development at Japanese railway company JR-West. He was and is also an avid birdwatcher. The story goes that one day Nakatsu was watching a kingfisher hunt. He noticed the solidly streamlined bird scanning the depths of the waterway until it found a likely meal. As it dove and hit the water the beak created no wake. There was no evidence of the concentric ripples that form when a rock is plunked into a stream. The water made no argument until the wings hit the surface and the adaptive strategy of that long cone-shaped beak bought the kingfisher just enough time to grab dinner. But when Nakatsu saw that lack of wake he immediately thought of a problem he was trying to solve at work.

Bullet trains operate at such high speeds that air is compressed in front of the train’s nose. When navigating tunnels, this compressed air creates a sonic boom as the train exits. As one might expect, those living near the tunnels were not enthusiastic about this. But what would happen, though Nakatsu, if we designed the rounded nose of the train to mimic the kingfisher beak? By emulating that beak shape, JR-West was able to create a quieter train, running on 15% less electricity and traveling 10% faster. The people living near the tunnels were happy. The company profited. And through the additive effect from the use of 15% less energy use, every time they operated, nature benefited as well. The kingfisher’s beak was a good form to follow.

‘Nature’s rules and patterns are considered at the beginning of the process and as part of the evaluation of success.’

Nakatsu saw a strategy used by a non-human organism and applied that strategy to his work. Increasingly, businesses are doing the same, employing researchers or multi-talented teams consisting of different combinations of biologists, designers, engineers and business professionals to define their problem - then searching for and mimicking a partner in nature who has already solved that problem: a process known as biomimicry.

Although there are numerous historical examples of how humankind has emulated nature in areas as far flung as farming, construction and medicine, it was Janine Benyus’s 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, that codified the way in which business and nature can work together to mutual benefit. Strategies that organisms have adapted to comply with earthly demands - that water and the sun feed life, that gravity is a functional fact, and that balance is motion not stasis - actually present wide opportunities for innovation in the workplace.

Business can operate in a mode of respect by emulating nature in being more energy and material efficient; benign instead of dangerous when components are broken down; and adaptable in the face of changing conditions. By complying with principles and patterns as organisms do - organisms who have been here far longer than humankind - businesses can earn profits while being kinder to the planet.

At the time of Benyus’s book, sustainable business practices being taught in the classroom earned architect and designer William McDonough’s admonition that “being less bad is not being good”. It is past time to innovate, design and build in a net positive manner towards nature. Doing so is certainly more environmentally sustainable, but what has become evident through the practice of biomimicry is that “doing good” for the environment can also yield benefits to people and profits as well. The bottom line of business has become what we now express as the triple bottom line: planet, people and profit.

A WhalePower wind turbine blade inspired by the tubercles found on the flippers of humpback whales.

In the methodology of biomimicry, business professionals intentionally connect or reconnect with nature by observing organism strategies and emulating them. This renews a relationship between humankind and the rest of nature that is more mutualistic than solely hierarchical. The practice of biomimicry can start in one of two ways: one can be inspired by a natural model and seek or recognise opportunities to deploy that model; or one can articulate a functional challenge to be solved and seek organisms who have already developed solution strategies for that challenge. In either case, we can then emulate nature’s strategies at the level of form or structure, process, or at the systems level.

As examples of biomimicry have grown in the marketplace, the mimicry of shape or form has been the most commonly practiced version of the methodology. US biologist Frank Fish and his team at WhalePower Corporation mimicked the tubercles (a technical word for bumps) on the leading edge of humpback whale fins to inspire wind turbine blades operating at 32% greater efficiency. German company CeNano mimicked the waxy protrusions on the lotus leaf because they repel water, dirt and oil, which makes for effective sealants and cleaners. The resulting products have reduced the need for detergents and the amount of water needed for cleaning, and introduced more benign ingredients for sealants. Another German company, Arnold Glas, produced Ornilux bird-protection glass, which imitates the ultraviolet characteristics of certain strands of spider webs and applies the pattern to windows to reduce bird strikes. People see through their windows because they can’t see the ultraviolet portion of the light spectrum. Birds see it and steer clear.

The waxy and rough structured leaves of the lotus leaf, which repels water.

Mark Kerbel and Roman Kulyk chose another route as they worked to create an energy management company addressing waste in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems: they mimicked the emergent processes bees and ants use to conduct their daily affairs.

Though many people still believe the queen bee drives what happens in and for the hive, it is actually emergent principles - a series of short, simple communications among those bees gathering pollen or building their hexagonally-chambered homes, combined with biochemical drivers - that make things happen. Messages such as “gather food” or “build hive” are communicated and strengthened each time they are repeated to create a harmonious hive. Elegant simplicity with a modicum of energy expended is the rule of bee existence.

Kerbel and Kulyk wondered whether energy could be managed in the same way with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, which led to their company, Encycle. With backgrounds in computer science and computer engineering, they had become familiar with emergent principles of bees and ants along with their swarm algorithms. They knew they had to make their invention fit seamlessly into existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems but by emulating those algorithms they knew they could achieve that requirement.

Because building temperatures reflect the cycles occurring outside, energy use tends to be highest when critical temperatures are reached because of sun or cold. Rather than have all the heating, ventilation and air conditioning units start running simultaneously at that point, Kerbel and Kulyk devised small transmitters to mimic the process of individuals communicating with each other like bees. By doing so, the units could coordinate when they would turn on and turn off, reducing spikes in energy and overall energy use by up to 30%. It saved companies deploying the technology so much that Encycle is now a multinational corporation. Although the two didn’t originally want to tout the sustainability aspect of their work, with the energy savings they amassed Kerbel ended up believing biomimicry should be taught in every engineering programme.

Ornilux Bird Protection Glass

Mock-up of what a bird will see, and on the right what we see.

Short of biomimicry, a number of bio-inspired companies exist that draw on aspects of the natural world but are not necessarily held to the “rules” of biomimicry. Bionics operates primarily, but not always, in the realm of medical technology, usually in the territory of emulating body parts or functions, such as artificial limbs. Bio-utilisation is the use of organisms to help complete tasks, and ranges from dogs used to herd sheep all the way to using algae as fuel cells. Biophilia is born out of our innate attraction to nature. Other biophilic business practices include growing plants inside or building gardens outside; biomorphism - using organic shapes or materials for furnishings and design; and maximising access to fresh air and the sounds of nature.

Bio-inspiration can sometimes be hard to distinguish from biomimicry when it adheres to one or two of the principles or patterns of life. However, there has been no firm line drawn as to how many of these must be achieved before the innovation moves from the arena of bio-inspired into biomimicry. What is set is the methodology to achieve biomimicry: nature’s rules and patterns are considered at the beginning of the process and as part of the evaluation of success.

And this goal is what elevates the compatibility between a business practicing biomimicry and the natural world to a partnership. Ever-increasing numbers of business professionals and consumers are recognising the ties between what we build and consume and the health of ourselves and our planet. We have nurtured a psyche of dominion over nature; but our safety - and the planet’s - rests not on dominion, but on a framework of partnership and mutualism.

‘By complying with principles and patterns as organisms do - organisms who have been here far longer than humankind - businesses can earn profits while being kinder to the planet.’

Honey bees festooning, effectively “holding hands”, which they do when in construction mode or swarming.

Nakatsu saw a strategy used by a non-human organism and applied that strategy to his work. Increasingly, businesses are doing the same, employing researchers or multitalented teams consisting of different combinations of biologists, designers, engineers and business professionals to define their problem then searching for and mimicking a partner in nature who has already solved that problem: a process known as biomimicry.

Although there are numerous historical examples of how humankind has emulated nature in areas as far-flung as farming, construction and medicine, it was Janine Benyus’s 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, that codified the way in which business and nature can work together to mutual benefit. Strategies that organisms have adapted to comply with earthly demands - that water and the sun feed life, that gravity is a functional fact, and that balance is motion not stasis actually present wide opportunities for innovation in the workplace.

Businesses can operate in a mode of respect by emulating nature in being more energy and material efficient; benign instead of dangerous when components are broken down; and adaptable in the face of changing conditions. By complying with principles and patterns as organisms do - organisms who have been here far longer than humankind - businesses can earn profits while being kinder to the planet.

At the time of Benyus’s book, sustainable business practices being taught in the classroom earned architect and designer William Mc-Donough’s admonition that “being less bad is not being good”. It is past time to innovate, design and build in a net positive manner towards nature. Doing so is certainly more environmentally sustainable, but what has become evident through the practice of biomimicry is that “doing good” for the environment can also yield benefits to people and profits as well. The bottom line of business has become what we now express as the triple bottom line: planet, people and profit.

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