Cultures have been deriving inspiration from nature for thousands of years. However, since the industrial revolution we have been catapulted into the non-natural world of technology.


Is the practice of biomimicry bridging the gap between innovation and nature today?


As the name infers, biomimicry is a technique used to mimic biology. In particular, it sets out to imitate nature for the purpose of creating sustainable products and strategies to help solve human quandaries. Janine Benyus is a US biologist and leading expert in biomimicry. Her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, published in 1997 gave credence to the term and influenced a movement that has sparked some ground-breaking innovations. Benyus has been pivotal in supporting industries to enterprise by using nature’s designs, “It’s not a slavish mimicry,” says Benyus. “It’s taking the design principles, the design genius of the natural world, and learning something from it.”


Shortly after publishing her book, Benyus co-founded the consulting company Biomimicry Guild. Then in 2005, recognising the importance surrounding education in biomimicry, she co-founded the Biomimicry Institute. In 2010, the consulting firm and educational branch were combined under the enterprise of Biomimicry 3.8. Biomimicry 3.8 outlines three elements paramount to biomimicry practice: ethos, re(connect) and emulate. Ethos denotes the idea that we should respect and help to preserve all life forms, while re(connect) acknowledges the interconnectivity between humans and nature. Finally, emulate is the action of using natural design to create industry solutions that are sustainable to life itself.


The principles of biomimicry were not created on a whim. In fact, they’re derived from 3.8 billion years of successful adaptation and evolution of the natural species. In a Darwinian sense, biomimicry tries to emulate how nature optimises growth, adaptability and energy to evolve into a stronger species. These design principles are then transposed into industry practice to create new products and strategies that are sustainable, cost-effective and profit enhancing.

While Benyus’ book benchmarked a new way to innovate, the concept of copying nature’s designs is not a new practice. Take for example the origins of the igloo. Purported to be thousands of years old, the Inuit tribe designed the “igloo” by observing the hibernation habits of the polar bear. The “igloo” (“igloo” being the Inuit word for house) successfully traps heat and insulates its dwellers from sub-zero temperatures. Likewise, in the renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci observed birds and bats in flight to produce his seminal work on the ‘flying machine’. In 1951, Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, pioneered Velcro by copying the structure of burdock burrs that he found in his dog’s fur after a hunting trip.


Throughout history, nature has demonstrated its versatility in design. Therefore, it’s no surprise that biomimicry is translating to industries as diverse as agriculture, architecture, climate change, energy, industrial design, transportation and medicine. Like the igloo, the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe is based on an architectural design derived from nature. By observing how termites erect their habitat to keep internal temperatures consistent, architect Mick Pearce, built the Eastgate Centre so it does not rely chiefly on electricity for heating and cooling.

To house their colonies, termites build fascinating mounds which can extend over seven metres in height. The design ingenuity, however, resides in the internal structure. To regulate temperatures and maintain their food source, termites construct chimney-like tunnels within these mounds. As air passes through vents at the bottom of the mounds, it moves through wet mud and is cooled. As internal temperatures rise the hot air is expelled via the chimney system. Termites routinely close and re-open the vents to aid regulation.


Relaying this design to a man-made structure, Eastgate Centre boasts a multi- layered atrium with air vents that allow external air into the building. This air is either cooled or heated by the masonry walls depending on the external temperatures. Fans also help to push the air through a ducted system in the building, and stale or hot air is expelled through ceiling vents.

While Eastgate Centre is architecturally inspiring, the cost and energy savings speak for themselves. Pearce reports, “Eastgate’s ventilation system costs one-tenth that of a comparable air-conditioned building and uses 35% less energy than comparable conventional buildings in Harare.” Not only was the cost of constructing the building 10% more cost-effective, but the flow-on effect means that rent in the centre is 20% less.


Biomimicry case studies

Carbon dioxide is a modern day nemesis, but what if we could harvest and recycle the gas to produce recycled products? Calera, a US based company, used biomimicry principles

to innovate a way to capture carbon dioxide emitted from industry and convert it into calcium carbonate by combining it with sea water. As a result, Calera has created sustainable manufacturing products such as cement, bench tops, pots and seats. Company founder, Brent Constantz, engineered the product after observing how coral reefs convert minerals and carbon dioxide into calcium carbonates to form exoskeletons. The products are lauded as being both environmentally and economically viable.


The lotus flower, a familiar icon associated with peace and tranquillity, has even more to offer than just beauty. Its leaf design has provided design inspiration in the way of a durable paint that lasts longer than conventional finishes. While visibly smooth, on closer inspection the lotus leaf has a coarse surface that is notoriously resistant to both dirt and water. Originally discovered by German botanist, Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Barthlott, the leaf’s properties have been harnessed by German company, Sto AG. The company has created a range of exterior paints that mimics the antiseptic and water-resistant elements of the lotus leaf. The tagline “building with conscience” is said to apply to all of Sto AG products.


Using an unlikely source for its inspiration, Sharklet Technologies Inc has also created a product with antiseptic elements. The company has created antibacterial surfaces for hospitals and clinics by mimicking shark skin. The diamond-shaped pattern on shark skin is integral to keeping the species free of bacteria and parasites. Sharklet Technologies mimic this patterning on film, which can then be used on a variety of surfaces. Their products are proving to be vigilant in guarding surfaces against microbes while eliminating the need to use harsh chemicals to clean surfaces. Furthermore, these products are said to assist in preventing the spread of tenacious bacterial strains, which means less money needs to be spent by hospitals trying to contain and treat outbreaks.


Another prime example of how biomimicry practices are aiding the medical profession is in the area of biological matter. Biomatrica, based in San Diego in the US, has created SampleMatrix technology, a process that enables biological material to survive for long periods in arid environments. Biomatrica innovated the method by studying how tardigrades (microorganisms) use a process called anhydrobiosis, which allows them dry out only to be “re-animated” by water. SampleMatrix technology can be utilised on a variety of biological matter. The technology has offered a breakthrough in terms of vaccines, notably in developing countries where refrigeration is either unreliable or not available. Now vaccines can be dry stored in fluctuating temperatures and reinvigorated simply by adding liquid, all the while maintaining their integrity.


What do Audi, Renault, Ford, Nissan, Volvo and Google have in common? Well, they’re all currently working on innovating self-drive cars. Volvo has committed to having at least 100 cars on the road by 2017 and Nissan expects to have the vehicles on the market by 2020. In terms of mechanical design, Nissan has been taking its cues from bumblebees and fish, studying the way these species navigate terrain in sync known as “swarm mentality”. Nissan hopes to translate these natural mechanics across to their self- drive vehicles in order for the vehicle to self- navigate and avoid collisions.


While the engineering feats of self- drive cars may be attributed to biomimicry, one could argue that in the absence of ecological features, the design ignores some of the critical elements of the practice. This is probably one of the main criticisms of biomimicry. While businesses and enterprises are seeking design inspiration from nature, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being sustainable. In her book, The Nature of Investing, founder and CEO of Honeybee Capital, Katherine Collins, talks about how biomimicry principles in action can be related to the bee. Collins believes that businesses need to be resourceful, ecologically driven, adaptable, local-centric, and evolve bearing in mind that we are not just one species but co- exist with a myriad of others.

At a TED Talk held earlier this year Benyus spoke about 12 sustainable design ideas from nature, commenting, “These organisms have figured out a way to do the amazing things they do while taking care of the place that’s going to take care of their offspring.” Benyus is adamant that businesses can be both financially and environmentally effective using biomimicry practice, believing it is this practice that will sustain human existence for the long-term future.


Originally published in the Touch Magazine.