Starting with the classic example of Velcro developed in the 1950's, biomimicry has inspired a plethora of modern examples such as Michael Phelps' shark-inspired swim suit and many of the features on the new Airbus 380.
In the future, with engineers and designers looking for ever more efficient and sustainable solutions, will biomimicry play a more important role in innovation? How do ideas currently flow from biology to design? What tools and institutions enable this? To debate this, on the 5 July 2012 Nesta is hosting an event 'Biomimicry: Biology inspires innovation'. A short blog introducing the event can be found here. The following material is a series of links to background information, resources and videos.
Biomimicry is to use Nature with its 3.8 billion years of trial and error, as inspiration to find solutions to today's problems and creative processes. One famous example is Velcro - developed in the 1950's by Georges de Mestral who observed the sticking of burrs (seeds) from Burdock to his clothes and his dog.
The story that lead to his initial idea for Velcro, the long road to building a workable prototype, and the eventual global success of Velcro Industries following the use of Velcro on the Apollo missions is recounted here.
In an even earlier example, keen gardener and architect Joseph Paxton was inspired by the structure of veins of the giant water-lily leaf when he designed Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Furthermore, Leonardo DaVinci studied birds to create plans for 'flying machines'.
Biomimicry found popularity following Janine Benyus' book 'Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature'. Some of the examples from the book, as well as a general introduction to biomimicry can be found in this article in ECOS Magazine.
Some further introductions to biomimicry can be found in these excellent short talks by Janine Benyus here, with a more recent talk here - advocating why inventors and designers should always look to Nature first.
Another short talk by Michael Pawlyn, author of 'Biomimicry in Architecture', can be found here.
Scientist Trevor Cox explores biomimicry in this Radio 4 broadcast.
Form allows function
This photo gallery from Wired magazine highlights some interesting recent examples of biomimicry - flexible self-repairing concrete modelled after skin, painless needles modelled after the Mosquito, and surfboards modelled after the fins of Humpback whales.
Some features of the Japanese Shinkansen series 500 high-speed train were inspired by the Kingfisher and the Owl. In this Japan for Sustainability Newsletter, engineer Eiji Nakatsu recalls the story of a chance lecture he attended where he met an aviation expert who had an interest in birds as the spark behind the design modifications to the train.
Airbus, the aircraft manufacturer, has a brief introduction to biomimicry, especially in relation to flight and some of the features incorporated in its aircraft. There is an interesting interview with David Hill, the head of the company's Policy Development, here, as well as Norman Wood, an engineer at Airbus, here.
The Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, was designed by architect Mick Pearce working with engineers at Arup Associates to be very energy efficient when it comes to climate control, taking its form and inspiration from African termite mounds.
CNN highlights some of the inventors using biomimicry in this article.
The swim suit that Michael Phelps wore during the 2008 Beijing Olympics was designed by Speedo in collaboration with experts at the Natural History Museum in London. The designers were able to produce a fabric that was modelled on the tiny microscopic 'dermal denticles' used by Sharks to decrease drag and turbulence around their bodies. The swim suit was eventually banned in 2009 by FINA - the world governing body for swimming.
Tools and organisations
Biomimicry 3.8 is a US-based non-profit that has been promoting biomimicry through education and through their consultancy work with numerous organisations. Partnering with Autodesk, the organisation has put together a biomimicry design portal called Ask Nature.
Also in this space are UK-based BIONIS (Biomimetics Network for Industrial Sustainability) and Germany-based BIOKON (Competence in Biomimetics).
Biomimicry is a major focus of The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.
Biomimicry and sustainability
Advocates of biomimicry point out that borrowing from Nature should not just end at product design, but feed into more sustainable processes. In her book, Janine Benyus outlines several basic observations of Nature that she feels underpins the concept of biomimicry such as only 'using the energy it needs' and 'recycles everything'. In her own words: "Nature knows what works, what is appropriate, and what lasts here on Earth".
As we innovate to reduce our environmental impact and invent ever more efficient solutions, is biomimicry going to play an ever greater role in design? This interview in the Telegraph with architect Michael Pawlyn certainly makes the point that more could be done to incorporate biomimicry in building sustainable solutions and highlights some flagship examples. Michael advocates in this article for Wired magazine on having a biologist at the design table at an early stage.
Biomimicry and sustainability is also the subject of this interesting photo gallery in POPSCI, highlighting for example a company in New York that 'grows' packaging.
Image: Castilleja flava – seed, from Seeds, time capsules of life, Rob Kesseler, Wolfgang Stuppy, Papadakis Publisher.