For centuries, science has been trying to understand natural systems in various ways. Biomimicry is a relatively new study, but one that has great potential in terms of how we can learn from, and implement natural principles into our designs.
There are obvious connections between biomimicry and sustainability. But how do we actually take some of these lessons and apply them to our modern lives?
First, let’s review. How does biomimicry fit within the scientific canon?
The original models for Western development and design systems can primary be traced back to the first Industrial Revolution and the work of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes. The scientific, mathematical and philosophical contributions of these theorists fostered the development of methods and goals for science that involved mechanization, the domination and control of nature, linear progress, duality (the view that fundamental aspects of reality are split into two, opposing entities), reductionism (the theory that complex phenomena are best explained in terms of their simplest, most basic physical components), and anthropocentrism (the belief that humans are the central element of the universe). These ideas have had a great deal of influence, not only on the progression of various sciences, but on the accepted worldview–a worldview that has remained pervasive, even though the paradigm in the scientific realm has been shifting for some time.
While classical Newtonian physics was based on the premise that only the “material” is real, the new quantum physics suggests that only relationships are real; everything exists because of its relationship to everything else—and everything, at the most fundamental level, is connected. Quantum physics may seem to have more in common with Buddhism than it does with classical physics; however, it doesn’t contradict the laws of thermodynamics and is now accepted by a majority of scientists. What this new physics is revealing has earth-shattering implications–not only for our understanding of the universe, but also for the relevance of the systems and development models that have shaped much of our 20th-century thinking.
As noted above, Newtonin-Baconian-Cartesian notions have been extremely influential in a number of areas; in fact, they still govern much of public policy. But what we are now seeing is that many of the assumptions upon which these ideas were founded are in fact false.
Some fields of study are actually “blossoming” in the sunshine of the new paradigm, since their philosophical underpinnings are now being validated and affirmed. One of these fields, known as biomimicry (or biomimetics), involves examining nature and its processes in order to solve problems relating to design. Although nature’s elegant forms have been inspiring human design for eons, today’s approach to biomimicry is rooted in the firm belief that exploring design through biology produces the best results.
And so far, those results have been astounding! Examples of biomimicry are showing up in many forms.
They range from solar panels (e.g. the “solar leaf”) modeled after the process of photosynthesis…to wind farm designs that exploit wind turbulence by mimicking a school of fish. Wind power is even being harnessed without blades—by means of giant wind “stalks.” These stalks, which have been engineered to compress as they sway in the wind, operate much like a forest would (see the picture below) and create a charge. Even plumbing and electrical designs are changing based on some of nature’s principles. A company named PAX Scientific that manufactures “fluid handling devices” –including fans, mixers, pumps, turbines, and propellers,–began modelling their rotors after strange-looking biomimetic shapes, and soon discovered these new designs showed a 30% improvement in efficiency over the old Cartesian designs!
In the building industry, one model that currently incorporates biomimicry into it’s design approach is the Living Building Challenge. Traditionally (as we’ve noted previously), buildings have been looked at as a mechanistic assembly of parts. According to the Living Building model, however, a building is viewed as an organism; it is therefore symbolized by the metaphor of a flower. Nature, we all know, wastes nothing; Living Buildings follow this example. They take a closed-loop approach to collecting their own energy, capturing their own water, and treating their own waste.
When will Biomimicry take over the world of design?
Not yet, but there is progress. The green-business blog, Triple Pundit, recently described the emergence of a new economic index for biomimicry activity, called the Da Vinci Index. This index tracks the number of scholarly articles associated with biomimicry–along with patents, grants (and their dollar value) that also relate to this topic. From a baseline of 100 in the year 2000, the Da Vinci Index was found to have shot up, by 2010, to 713. Science is leading the way, and the rest of the world is slowly catching up! We can therefore expect that as design and related fields become more holistic, the Da Vinci Index will continue to show rapid growth in the field of biomimicry.