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Biomimicry – finding design inspiration in nature


The discipline of biomimicry takes its name from the Greek words ‘bios’, meaning life and ‘mimesis’, meaning to imitate. As its name might suggest, biomimicry involves the study of nature’s designs and mimicking them to solve human challenges. Janine Benyus, one of biomimicry’s pioneers defines it as, ‘innovation inspired by nature.’ an early and well-known example of this process is evident in the invention of velcro. The product’s inventor George de mestral stumbled upon the idea by observing how burrs stuck to his dog’s fur and his clothing. By mimicking the small hooks of the burrs, he was able to develop the product we now know as velcro.

While this new field may seem very scientific, it is of great use and importance to today’s designers. biomimicry operates on the principle that in its 3.8 billion year history, nature has already found solutions to many of the problems we are trying to solve. Based on the ideas and designs which nature has demonstrated to be successful, biomimicry is able to provide a wealth of inspiration for those solving problems, something designers do everyday.

History while the terminology for this subject is relatively new, the practise of biomimicry has been going on for some time. Mankind has learned many things from observing other species and adapting their behaviours for our own needs. Look no further than leonardo da vinci, who was a big proponent of learning from nature and using it as a source for inspiration. His sketchbooks are filled with inventions that are closely linked to designs found in the natural world. Early inventors and engineers also turned to nature for ideas. The Wright brothers and other flight pioneers commonly observed birds. Biologists, researchers and other science professionals have also been practitioners of biomimicry. By applying their immense knowledge of nature and its inner workings to other challenges and subjects, these people are able to make connections between human problems and natural solutions that others wouldn’t.

The science of biomicry was solidified in 1997, with the book ‘biomimicry: innovation inspired by design’ by janine benyus. In this book, benyus demonstrated how biomimicry can be used by designers and other problem solvers to great advantage. Since publishing the book, benyus has evolved the field even further. In 1998, she co-founded the biomimicry guild, which has consulted with architecture firms, design studios and manufacturers in order to equip creators and producers with the lessons of biomimicry. The guild helps these organizations apply these lessons directly to their work, creating new designs, products and services that are inspired by nature. On September 15, 2008, the biomimicry guild formed a permanent alliance with the global architecture firm HOK, to expand the mainstream application of bio-inspired design through the firm’s projects.

Looking at nature biomimicry advocates looking at nature in new ways to fully appreciate and understand how it can be used to help solve problems. This is achieved by looking at nature as model, measure and mentor. Nature as model means emulating nature’s forms, processes and systems to solve human problems; this is the act of biomimicry. Nature as measure means evaluating our designs and solutions against those of nature. This involves asking if our current methods are as efficient, simple and sustainable as those found in nature. Nature as mentor implies a shift in our relationship to nature. Instead of acting like we are separate from nature, we need to accept that we are part of it and we should be behaving accordingly.

By changing our perspective on nature, biomimicry hopes to improve our world through designs that take advantage of nature’s ingenuity. These designs can do this on a number of levels. The most obvious and common type of biomimicry is the emulation of nature’s form or function. The invention of velcro is an obvious example of this. Emulating nature on the process level is another form of biomimicry, which involves learning from the way nature produces things or evolves. The third variety of biomimicry looks at nature’s systems. This area examines how nature deals with things like waste and regeneration inside closed-loop lifecycles. These three areas of investigation combine to paint a holistic picture of nature’s system and can be directly applied to our human systems.

Application in design biomimicry allows innovators and problem solvers of all kinds to create more intelligent and sustainable design through the emulation of nature. Designers and architects are poised to benefit greatly from the integration of biomimicry in their design process. Understanding this, the biomimicry community developed a process created especially for designers. ‘the design spiral’ is a guide which helps ‘biologize a challenge, query the natural world for inspiration, then evaluate to ensure that the final design mimics nature at all levels—form, process, and ecosystem.’ this design process will not only help designers integrate biomimicry into the physical design of their projects, but also covers the manufacturing process, packaging and entire lifecycle of their design. The spiral form was chosen to ‘emphasize the reiterative nature of the process.’

Applying biomimicry in design can be done in two ways, proceeding from design to nature or going from nature to design. The design to nature approach works by identifying a design problem and turning to nature for a similar problem and solution. This approach is immediately valuable to designers looking for inspiration. The biomimicry database is helping make this very simple to do as well, by cataloguing examples of nature’s unique designs. However, designers can also work in reverse, applying biomimicry by studying nature and imagining human applications for nature’s designs.




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