Biomimicry: How does nature do something?

Friday , 10, July 2015

In June I went to a talk by Dayna Baumeister at Utrecht University called ‘The evolution of biomimicry as sustainable innovation practice‘. I know about the concept of biomimicry for awhile now, since reading the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus. According to wikipedia ‘Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems’. Baumeister and Benyus both founded the consulting company Biomimicry 3.8, where 3.8 stands for the 3.8 billion years of research and development which led to all the amazing ways lifeforms adapt to their surroundings.

Biomimicry tries to connect the scientific (biology, ecology) and the design disciplines. These are traditionally different worlds with different questions. What if you would look at nature from the perspective of a designer? And what if you would look at design from the perspective of a biologist? This is exactly what Baumeister and Benyus try to do with their Biomimicry 3.8. I’m not a designer but last year I watched the talk ‘Cities that Function Like Forests: Biomimicry Maps a Sustainable Future‘ by Benyus which made me think my background working with geographical information might also allow me to hook up with biologists. Wouldn’t that be cool!

In her talk Baumeister mentioned that biomimicry is not only about emulating nature, it is also about reconnecting to nature. I guess you can only learn from nature when you are embedded in nature, not when you are behind your computer like I am at this moment of typing. And finally she noted that ethos is required: we need ethics, asking questions if we should do or not do certain things. She seemed to be, for example, against genetic modification.

She also talked about, a website I really like. You can find answers to questions like ‘how does nature produce clean water?’ The idea behind this website is why to reinvent the wheel if nature already provided an answer for free? We humans can learn a lot from the non-human inhabitants of our planet, but we westerners seem to have forgotten this skill. In her talk she told a beautiful story of how native Americans asked nature. Being nomadic, when they moved into a new valley in the summer they didn’t know yet how the winter would be like. So they ‘asked’ the squirls. How can you ask a squirl? Well they noticed that the underground holes where the squirls lived were, let’s say, dug 20 cm deep. So this 20 cm was then exactly the thickness of the walls of the dwellings people were going to build.

One great example of mimicking nature is the Eastgate Centre building in Harare, Zimbabwe. It is mimicking the way a termite hill works. Why is this interesting you may ask? Well termite hills are built in such a way that they are able to create a stable internal temperature, independent of the weather outside. According to Baumeister the building in Harare didn’t end up fully mimicking nature and so scientists went back to study the termite hills further and found the structures more or less resemble lungs (the video above explains this further). This led to another attempt to mimic the hills resulting in the CH2 building in Melbourne, Australia.

Victoria Amazonica at the Botanical Garden of the University Museum Utrecht

Victoria Amazonica at the Botanical Garden of the University Museum Utrecht

What I consider to be the take home message of the talk is that biomimicry is about asking the ‘how’ question when observing nature. I got a chance to ask this question the next day when visiting the botanical garden of the University Museum Utrecht. There I bumped into a Victoria Amazonica. It has these huge leafs floating on the water. The leafs are so strong that people take pictures of their babies lying on the huge leaf. So how does this work and could we use this design to create floating buildings at sea? That might come in handy for the Sea Steading initiative. Luckily there is which has a page about this plant explaining how it functions in more detail. Awesome isn’t it?

After the talk it was mentioned that the Utrecht University Biology faculty is working on a new MSc called ‘Bio-inspired Technology and Society’. And Juli 8 the Academy of Ecosystem Services was launched which is supposed to have a biomimicry component. These efforts look very promising to me. I do feel though that it is very important to focus on the local environment where you happen to live. Is ‘local’ also a biomimicry principle? The answer is yes: ‘be locally attuned and responsive‘. All these courses and scientific research happen physically in the city of Utrecht by people in their labs or behind their computers looking out of their windows seeing the Dutch landscape. Could a bit of this intellect be dedicated to green Utrecht and make it function like a forest?