nature to solve difficult problems. Living things have evolved through time to adapt to their environment to counteract any problems they face. They adapt by changing their structure or the materials they are made from through natural selection over long periods of time. Humans have looked at how animals have adapted to their environment and been inspired to copy these solutions for the problems humans face. It has been a very successful strategy which has solved many human engineering problems, which has in turn helped create a variety of innovative technologies with for example self-healing abilities, environmental exposure tolerance and resistance, self-assembly, hydrophobic properties and harnessing solar energy¹.
As biomimicry has been so successful in solving so many engineering challenges, it would obviously be a very powerful tool to use to help solve environmental problems. Biomimicry could be the key to solving these problems².
Nature’s solution to a problem
There are two forms of biomimicry according to a study produced by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands which analysed the theoretical and philosophical foundations behind biomimetics. They introduce what they call strong and weak biomimicry. Strong biomimicry in where nature’s solution is thought to be perfect and that exact concept observed in nature is copied exactly as a solution to some other problem. Then there is weak biomimicry which is where they observe nature’s solution, identifying the flaws in it, then try to improve upon that solution.
Strong biomimicry runs the risk of assuming nature’s solution to a problem is perfect when that might be the case. Weak biomimicry critically evaluates natures solution and tries to improve on any weaknesses found. Weak biomimicry represents a better model for developing solutions than strong biomimicry for this reason³.
Recommended sources of knowledge
Benyus raised questions such as “What would nature do to design lasting and regenerative materials?” or “How does a river filter fresh water and a spider manufacture resilient fibre?”. Braungart, picking up on the theme, wonders: “Why aren’t we designing buildings like trees and cities like forests?”. These books reminded people that nature is a large network that works together and that working with it instead of overcoming it would create greater opportunities.
The public likes these ideas and “Cradle to Cradle” still sells 20,000 copies annually. Manufacturers found biomimicry techniques hard to master and it is only in the last few years because of the creation of safety standards and more manufacturers trying to use this technique, that it has progressed.
Biomimicry has been used longer than we thought
Indigenous people have used these techniques for a long time as they see nature as a good source of ideas and not just a source of goods or materials. Manufacturers only started to look at nature in this way after these books were published. As they wanted to save money creating product ranges that were more sustainable, used less materials and less energy and less toxins as waste products.
Biomimicry looks at design from the perspective of enhancing not just depleting resources. Benyus for example when considering the design of a water treatment plant would not use chemicals and would instead make it a decentralised facility. This raises the possibility of water treatment plants for each neighbourhood that could be made from wetlands. She would also consider if there could be a multifunctional purpose to the facility to incorporating educational or recreational elements, this mirrors nature which is multifunctional.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart put forward a set of sustainability principles:
- create safe objects of long-term value,
- recognize the interdependence of humans and nature,
- recognize the right of each to co-exist.
These are different principles to the conventional model which recognise no value in a product after its initial use. Instead McDonough and Braungart wanted to use materials in cycles that would have the same value or more value over time. This would be a much more efficient use of resources.
Some examples of biomimicry ideas that help the environment are an oil-repellent coating inspired by water bugs, or using prairies as a model to grow food sustainably⁴.
Benyus sees 3D printing as the future of manufacturing because it can produce products in line with demand which creates less wastage. Instead of shipping goods round the world she would like for there to be 3D printing shops, which you would go to and have your goods printed on demand, using natural polymers and beetle shells for example to make pots and pans. This saves on materials, energy and wastage.
The possibilities of products inspired by nature’s intelligent design are almost endless.
Is biomimicry an answer to our environmental problem?
Biomimicry is obviously very useful in tackling environmental problems but we need to look at the bigger picture. If we only mitigate environmental problems with the use of biomimicry and not the cause of these problems, which is our unsustainable way of life, we only encounter new problems which we will have to fix. So until we can learn to live in a more sustainable way, while using technologies like biomimicry to solve the current problems, we will not be able to solve all of our environmental issues⁵.