Biomimicry: Using Nature to Guide Us

Curt McNamara, P.E.
Electrical Design Engineer and Adjunct Faculty in MCAD’s Sustainability Certificate

Biomimicry is a design discipline that studies nature’s solutions in order to advance human designs and processes. Innovators from all walks of life-managers, designers, business leaders and more-can use biomimicry to create more sustainable designs. When faced with a problem, the solution can often be found in the answer to “how would nature solve this?” For example, Velcro was actually inspired by the cocklebur. There are also many new applications: Lotusan paint which, like the lotus, cleans itself as it rains; tape inspired by geckos climbing walls; cooling that models termite mounds; carpet that echoes the forest floor; and propellers based on the nautilus.

In her book Biomimicry, Janine Benyus extends the concept, defining three ways to use nature as inspiration: as model; as mentor; and as measure. The examples above are nature-as-model-transferring design information from a pattern in nature to a product. Nature-as-mentor is considering: how would nature do this? We create composites using high heat and pressure, while nature, for example, makes stronger materials on the ocean floor using sea water without heat or waste. Finally, nature-as-measure inspires us to compare ourselves to her as nature’s solution is often the most efficient way.

What does all this mean? Is it simply cool products or is there more to it? It turns out “we” are all natural systems of astonishing complexity, and live in a world composed of natural systems. We know intuitively about boundaries, levels, feedback, energy flow, and cycles. To be sure, there is deeper knowledge available. Yet we can start right now and apply what we know.

Examples of Biomimicry

One example is that “waste is food” (aka technical nutrients). Every system around us has unused materials: look at the piles in your garage! The company you work for is the same, and this waste represents lost money. Nature would use this raw material by evolving another system, or by using this waste as the input to another process. In nature, a scavenger uses the waste from one system to fuel another. Who takes this role in our society? As one example, Janine sent “scavengers” (from Goodwill!) into a factory to see what they could use.

Another perspective is interconnection. When we think of the rainforest, we easily see a dense ecosystem with many loops and connections. It got this way through eons of evolution. How can we mimic it? What about starting with your neighborhood? Most connections will be in a household or to city services. What other connections could we make? Consider looking for neighbors who want to swap materials, services, garden space, or training!

A third approach is boundary. A cell takes in food and oxygen while expelling waste. To cross the cell boundary, a molecule has to match up physically, triggering a response. Your systems (family, neighborhood, and work) have boundaries for information, money, and membership. Are you conscious of these boundaries? Have they been updated lately? The world has been evolving-what about your systems and your place in the world?

Finally, living systems continually renew themselves by replacing all cells. The same should be true of your information and ideas!

Read Up

The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along, Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson, Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine M. Benyus, Harper Perennial, 2002.


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