Lecture 14: Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

Pius Leuba dit Galland, Tongji University
Prepared by Jennifer Rae, RMIT University

Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of nature’s genius – mimicking, not taking from nature. It is a field of study that questions what we can learn from nature to create a more sustainable world. It studies nature as a coherent whole instead of its parts – as a model, mentor and measure. Human and non-human species are reliant on nature, but nature has fragile limitations of resources to which we are dependent – water, atmosphere and landmass. Humans can live only 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food.

Pius’ presentation led the group through evolution compressed into one year, with humans only arriving at 11:36pm on the 31st December followed by agriculture and the industrial revolution occurring just before midnight. In this very short period, humans have compromised the sustainability of all life on earth.

Pius followed his introduction with a facilitated and interactive session to demonstrate the vulnerability of species in the earth’s ecosystem. In the first exercise, we were each asked to select 2 other participants to be our ‘prey’ without them knowing. We were instructed to move around the room keeping an equal distance from each other – in the form of a triangle. As your ‘prey’ moved to stay in proximity to their ‘prey’, the group weaved around each other in consistent and chaotic movements. In nature, species move and follow food sources for survival. We were then instructed to try and stand between each of our ‘prey’ in a straight line. This resulted in the entire group standing almost in a straight line demonstrating systemic organization in nature. Pius then selected four participants to leave the group to signify their ‘extinction’. If your ‘prey’ was one of the four ‘extinct’, then you were required to leave the group. In rapid succession, everyone left the group, demonstrating how rapidly an ecosystem can collapse if a few species (often keystone species) are removed.

Following the demonstration, Pius explained that there were three main ways of mimicking nature: Form, process and systems. Form is the easiest as it is simply measuring something from nature and imitating it.  For example, the shape of the high-speed train is based on the beak of a Kingfisher – to minimize drag, noise and movement, thus improving performance and energy efficiency. We can mimic processes from nature for a variety of purposes, such as creating tough adhesive bonds (e.g. Geckotape). And lastly, we can learn from systems in nature such as organization. For instance, how bees communicate through their ‘bee dance’ and pheromones, or how slime mould forms efficient links to food sources that can inform transport planners in the design of rail networks.

The implications of biomimicry for sustainable design have far reaching possibilities in product design, organization, engineering and planning that may foster a more sustainable world for future generations of humans and non-human species.