It is argued that the human species is the most intelligent species to roam the planet. We communicate in depth, we have extraordinary cognitive abilities, and we build and expand like no other species – but, we build our complicated designs and stable habitats in an ever changing environment. There is indeed something that we lack in the way that we operate.
What are we missing?
While we create endlessly fascinating (and endlessly complicated) iPhones, computers and robots, human design is actually missing a giant, and somewhat obvious, piece of the puzzle. Throughout time, the human race has involuntarily created such a deep separation between ourselves and nature that we have forgotten it’s true genius. We have dominated the environment we inhabit to such an extent that we think ourselves separate from it; nature has become a place we travel to, instead of something we are apart of. We have created a separation between the man-made, and what is natural and sustainable. This is where the human psyche falters. We fail to see that nature is the answer. Because of this disconnect, we see it fit to address our challenges with fossil fuels and exploitation and an unnecessary amount of energy. Nature solves complicated challenges every day with ease, and it is time that we looked to her for guidance. “Humans are clever, but without intending to, we have created massive sustainability problems for future generations. Fortunately, solutions to these global challenges are all around us” (Biomimicry Institute 2017). Humans face the same challenges daily that mother nature has been solving with ease for millions of years. The ultimate mentor has been right under our noses this entire time. Why not ask nature?
In 1997, Janine Benyus brought this idea of asking nature’s advice to everyone’s attention with the release of her book based on the concept that nature and technology are not so different. The term for this new science, Benyus deemed, is “biomimicry”. “Biomimicry is learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable design” (Benyus 2012). Essentially, biomimicry is a way for us to make human design something that is innovative as well as something that is sustainable by looking at life’s genius. For example, the shape of a Kingfisher bird’s beak was used as inspiration in creating the high-speed, aerodynamic Shinkansen train in Japan (AskNature 2016), and the ridges of the humpback whale’s pectoral fin were considered in the making of wind turbine blades to reduce drag (Bloomberg 2015). In our everyday lives we face various design issues (as well as flooding, erosion,etc); what can we learn from nature about handling these situations? How does nature do it?
A key concept of biomimicry is that the design is sustainable. Nature is able to operate to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations; nature does not exploit itself. If we are to look at and learn from nature, shouldn’t we learn to operate sustainably as well? Human design has been known to use what Benyus calls the “heat, beat, and treat” method (CBID 2014), basically meaning that our designs typically use an excess amount of fossil fuels and energy, and also usually create toxic, non-biodegradable products. In order to emulate nature’s brilliant methods, we must also adopt its ability to function with the future in mind. A few things to keep in mind is that biomimicry designs typically follow the life’s principles presented in Fig. 1; its based on evolving to survive, it has integrated development with growth, it has adapted to changing conditions, it is locally attuned and responsive, it uses life-friendly chemistry, and its resource efficient. The life’s principles serve as a guide in creating sustainable biomimicry design, which, hopefully, is the primary design method of our future.
Biomimicry is an incredible alternative to the current way us humans decide to create. As arguably one of the smartest species on earth, we must look at what it was that created us in the first place. If we ask nature’s advice, we will genuinely be able to be innovative and efficient in our work. Biomimicry thinking is something that everyone is capable of; all we need to do is go outside and get inspired.
I happened to go outside and get inspired last year as an intern at the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. On board, we are very mindful of marine debris and try to collect as much as possible during our travels. However, we face the big problem of some not-so-big debris: microplastics. Microplastics are just about impossible to retract from our oceans, and yet they are taking over our waterways. Picking up microplastics, ranging in size from 1-100 nm (Royal Society of Chemistry 2016), with a standard fishing net would be unachievable.
With this in mind, as well as the animals and environment I was there to research, I asked myself, “what would nature do?” (WWND, if you will). There are hundreds of species of filter feeders on our planet that are faced with this task everyday, picking out what they want and leaving what they don’t. Humpback whales, a common species of whale that migrates through our Cape May area each year, are expert filter feeders–so I looked to them for help. In the way that they are able to filter salt water from a concentration of krill, I wanted to filter out salt water from a concentration of microplastics. The natural behaviors of the humpback whale led me to the idea for a filter; a filter based off of the structure of whale baleen. I was also inspired by work done at UC San Diego, where undergraduate researchers built a sustainable surfboard by shaping and hardening algal oils, and also by work done at Cambridge University where they discovered artificial spider silk (hydrogels made from 98% water and 2% silica). I combined these ideas of life-friendly chemistry and applied them to the idea of the baleen filter in order to insure sustainable design. This idea was something that could be implemented as a net, or something that could even be expanded on and placed as a filter in homes or waste-water treatment centers. It all stemmed from simply viewing how nature would solve the problem at hand.
In summary, biomimicry thinking is something both extremely attainable and extremely accessible-all we have to do is ask, “WWND?”. If we open our minds to this idea, we’ll also be opening doors of endless possibility when it comes to human design and energy use. I urge you all to go outside, get inspired, and come up with your own biomimicry projects for your community!
-Alayna Robertson, University of Charleston ’21