Biomimicry: Nature-Inspired Sustainable Design

Biomimicry: Nature-Inspired Sustainable Design

Lena Blake

For almost 4 billion years, the natural world has been evolving refined mechanisms to survive gracefully on Earth. Organisms have perfected these systems to meet their needs through natural selection and species competition. Natural systems have been “designed” to recycle, decompose, and purify entirely by organic and non-toxic means. A sustainable world already exists; we have just recently begun to realize that answers to modern human problems are already all around us.

Biomimicry is seeking solutions to human problems by emulating nature’s patterns, strategies, and models. In the field of biometrics, engineers are taking cues from organisms in nature and applying those concepts to new technology that is conducive to life. Not only does biomimicry provide us with sources of new ideas for sustainability, but also there is great potential to achieve restorative solutions that are advantageous to conditions for life to flourish.

Biomimicry is a relatively new discipline that launched in 1997 with Janine Benyus’ book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature. However, the concept of innovating based on designs from nature is nothing new. Early examples can be found revolving around studying birds to inspire modes of human flight. Around 1500, Leonardo da Vinci studied birds that inspired his sketches, observations, and applications for “flying machines”. The Wright Brothers are another famous example, having succeeded in flying the first plane in 1903, after observing pigeons.

A little jump to more contemporary times, and biomimicry has inspired a wide range of products:

  • Porcupine quills have inspired new vaccination needle designs so that they enter the skin easily and with less pain.
  • African termites have inspired energy-saving designs for desert buildings with build in airflow.
  • Velcro was inspired by the tiny hooks found on plant burrs that would latch onto the fur of the engineer’s dog.
  • Gecko’s sticky feet are inspiring new types of adhesives.
  • Humpback whale flippers inspired more efficient airplane wing aerodynamics.
  • The first bullet trains had problems because they would create a sonic boom when they exited a tunnel. Engineers found inspiration from the kingfisher bird. With a specialized beak, it seamlessly dives into the water without splashing. By remodeling the train after the kingfisher, Japan’s iconic bullet train solved their excessive noise problem, as well as decreasing energy usage by over 10 percent.

Examples of biomimicry are increasing in popularity as we are realizing the importance of sustainability. Biomimicry has huge potential to fill the gap between the natural and build environments. By blending the disciplines of biology and engineering, biomimicry has become especially popular in the design disciplines of the build world. Arizona State University has also recently introduced a Biomimicry Center. Applications of biomimicry could transform architecture, medicine, transportation, technology, and so much more. Biomimicry influences life in these practical areas but could radically transform bigger processes at work.

The Biomimicry Institute announced an annual Global Design Challenge inviting anyone to center biomimicry as a path to thinking about sustainable solutions to global problems. If the possibility of changing the world isn’t enough incentive, there is a $100,000 prize. This year, minds are collaborating over food security. There is still time to participate; submissions are due Aug. 3, 2015.

In order to advance the environmental justice movement, we need to shift how we think about sustainability to include solutions like biomimicry because it provides countless opportunities for improving our world. There is room to improve our buildings, products, and processes to optimize energy use, decrease waste, perform more efficiently, and be cost effective. Our world’s finite natural resources are depleting, and it is becoming increasingly urgent to find sustainable solutions to global issues.


photo cred: Flickr

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