In the Business of Biomimicry
By Natalia Huang
Taking a leaf out of nature’s centuries-tested book to offer innovative solutions to businesses
Biomimicry is the study and imitation of nature’s best ideas to help solve human challenges. Nature has had nearly 4 billion years of R&D to create the systems that work well; her designs are resource-efficient and adaptable, and appear to operate with fluidity and joy. Humans, in contrast, have only been in existence for about half a billion years, so it is only natural and sensible that we should turn to her wise and experienced knowledge to seek solutions to improve the way we do things.
The term biomimicry was made popular by Janine Benyus, who wrote the book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, in 1997. Biomimicry is not a new concept – humans have a long history of taking inspiration from nature. One of the very first working models of biomimicry is the aeroplane, inspired by observing pigeons in flight, and it is obvious this has revolutionized the world in addition to creating entirely new industries. One of the earliest examples of biomimicry in Asia may well be in the martial arts where inspiration for fighting moves was taken from animals.
There is great potential in the creation of new materials from biomimicry. One of the best examples is Velcro, a material ubiquitous across the world. Velcro was invented after observing a simple microscopic hook system on prickly burrs that were attached to a pet dog. Bacteria-repelling surfaces in hospitals, and energy-efficient boat skin and competitive swimwear were created by copying shark skin patterns which reduce drag. Self-cleaning surfaces have also been created from studying hydrophobic lotus leaves, with implications such as more efficient solar panels and rain-cleaned buildings. Mussels have inspired better adhesive materials, waterproof glue, and materials that degrade after a predetermined time. These examples alone have many beneficial applications in the world.
Mimicking nature is by no means limited to revolutionary products or materials – incremental improvements can be made to existing products with drastic positive impacts. A common result of copying nature is improved energy efficiency and this is a highly sought after feature in product design. The Japanese bullet train had its nose redesigned to reduce noise and power usage after an engineer watched kingfishers dive at high speeds into water without creating any ripples. Warty ridges on the edge of whale fins have inspired more energy-efficient wind turbines and aeroplanes. By mimicking a termite mound, a building in Zimbabwe uses a ventilation system without air-conditioning and uses only 10% of the energy of conventional buildings.
Biomimicry could also have great ramifications in the developing world where resources are few, and where sensible designs could aid sensible development. Does anyone remember having sea monkeys as pets? They are in fact brine shrimp, an invertebrate that can exist in egg stage in ‘suspended animation’ in order to survive droughts until a heavenly drop of water ‘reanimates’ the egg and it hatches into a wriggly critter. After examining this ability, scientists have created temperate-resistant medication and vaccines that can be dispensed to those in need in tropical countries – medication which previously was unavailable due to its need for constant refrigeration.
Yet another potentially life-saving example of biomimicry is the recent design of a device that creates water out of thin air following the discovery of a beetle that can pull water out of the air. This could have worldwide implications with water as our critical and scarce resource.
In Singapore, a striking and simple example of biomimicry is the group of Supertrees in Gardens by the Bay. Solar panels on some of the trees convert sunshine to energy (as in photosynthesis), climbing plants creep up the giant frames, and water is collected and distributed as it is in the rainforest, making the structures more energy-efficient. Similarly, the Esplanade is biomimicry applied in architecture where leaf-life photoreactive surfaces open and close in response to the sun, controlling the amount of light that enters.
There are opportunities in drawing inspiration from the flora and fauna of Asia for a variety of industries. Paper thin wings of Liana seeds could teach us about efficient aerial distribution or flight. The tough coating on lotus seeds could have long-term storage and preservative implications. Viper bites cause fatalities in Southeast Asia, but could be decreased through anti-venom developed from examining Opossum immunity to viper bites. High impact resistance of the pomelo fruit structure could improve packaging foam and metal foam for engineering. Stable aerial structures could be improved by examining the immovable head of a hovering kestrel.
Once you start looking around you, examples of biomimicry abound, and we can copy nature for almost anything we use, do, need or want. Biomimicry could certainly have many more applications than is currently in use, and infinitely more than we can imagine, especially as we are still learning how nature works. Undoubtedly, taking inspiration from nature will benefit mankind, and offer lucrative short and long-term business opportunities. So if you are thinking about designing a product or service, stop for a long moment, look around you and ask yourself, “what would nature do?”.
Image credit: Lotus leaf with waterdrops by GJ Bulte