Biomimicry: Learning from Nature’s Genius
By Samuel Wines
Nature has been the ultimate designer and engineer for billions of years. Over this extensive period, it has perfected methods and processes to survive, adapt, and thrive in various environments, and these ingenious solutions have long served as inspiration for human innovation. Turning to Nature for ideas and solutions, this approach is at the heart of the concept known as biomimicry1.
The Origins of Biomimicry
Biomimicry, a term coined from the Greek words’ bios’ meaning life and ‘mimesis’ meaning imitation, is a multidisciplinary approach to innovation that involves studying and emulating Nature’s best ideas to solve human problems. It is not about copying Nature verbatim but rather abstracting and applying the underlying principles to human designs and systems.
Interestingly, this is not a new concept, even for humans. We’ve been utilising biomimicry, sometimes unwittingly, throughout our history as a species, from the ancient Greek’s replication of bird flight in myth and architecture to the more recent invention of Velcro inspired by the hook-like structure of burdock burrs. However, biomimicry has become a formalised discipline in the last few decades, primarily credited to biologist and author Janine Benyus.
These columns at Luxor Temple imitate the form of a papyrus bud. Image Source
In her fantastic book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Benyus explores how the conscious emulation of Nature’s genius could provide sustainable solutions to our most pressing challenges. The brilliance of biomimicry lies in how it transcends traditional human-centric design thinking, venturing into the living library of the more-than-human world, allowing us to access the tried and tested strategies of Nature that have existed and persisted since life first emerged some 3.5 billion years ago.
Biomimicry can be applied at three fundamental levels: form, process, and ecosystem. The first form involves copying a natural model’s physical shape or structure. One classic example is Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train, whose design was inspired by the shape of a kingfisher’s beak, reducing noise and increasing efficiency.
Shinkansen: The bullet train inspired by Kingfishers
At the process level, biomimicry involves mimicking biological methods or functions. A notable example is the creation of self-cleaning surfaces inspired by the nanostructures found on lotus leaves, which cause water to bead up and roll off, carrying dirt and contaminants with it.
The ecosystem level of biomimicry is arguably the most profound, where we emulate the holistic systems within Nature. Natural ecosystems, after all, are closed-loop systems where there is no waste, and every by-product is efficiently reused. Biomimicry at this level might involve designing cities to function like forests, turning waste into a resource and enhancing biodiversity.
A render of a city designed to function as a forest with biomimicry architecture – Generated by Dalle 2
Applying biomimicry doesn’t just benefit the environment by encouraging sustainability; it also makes good business sense. Companies utilising biomimicry can achieve greater efficiency, resilience, and competitive advantage. Moreover, biomimicry could hold the key to significant advancements in areas as diverse as energy production, ecological restoration (Yarra Riverkeeper’s manta ray-inspired microplastics filter), architecture, agriculture, health and medicine, transport, and materials design (see Biomason, or our member Alt Leather and our alumni Great Wrap).
However, successful biomimicry doesn’t involve simply taking from Nature. It must be rooted in a deep respect for the natural world and guided by a commitment to sustainability and regeneration. Biomimicry inherently encourages us to shift our perspective, seeing Nature not as something to exploit but as a mentor, model, and measure.
It also necessitates a transdisciplinary approach. The best biomimetic solutions come from cross-pollination between biologists, designers, engineers, and business strategists. This collaboration echoes the interconnection and diversity found in ecotones, the liminal space between natural ecosystems, reminding us that innovation often emerges at the margins of disciplines, industries and worldviews.
As we grapple with increasingly complex global challenges, from climate change to resource scarcity, the wisdom encapsulated in Nature could provide us with the strategies we need to navigate these issues. After billions of years of research and development, Nature holds an encyclopaedia of solutions to many of our pressing problems that are just waiting to be discovered – yet another reason to protect and preserve what’s left of our precious biosphere!
Further Reading / Watching
- Biomimicry Institute
- Janine Talking About Biomimicry at TED
- Ask Nature: Innovation Inspired by Nature
- Biomimicry in Architecture
- Benyus, J. M. Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by Nature. (Harper-Collins, 1999).