Back to nature

May 1st, 2010 Fast Thinking, Features

Looking at nature for design ideas is nothing new, but as Drew Turney discovers, it’s finally coming into its own in saving you money and saving the world.

‘Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain.’

Leonardo Da Vinci said those words over half a millennia ago, and he was referring to what we know now as biomimicry or biomimetics. Even without microscopes, radioastronomy or the human genome Da Vinci knew there was no more perfectly nuanced system than the world around him.

In recent years his words have become gospel again thanks to the growing biomimicry movement, and after two centuries of wasteful, destructive economic development, large numbers of scientists, engineers, inventors and even venture capitalists and lawyers are sitting up and taking notice.

Standards Australia’s Stephanie Pemberton remembers her experience at the 2007 International Council of Societies of Industrial Design Congress in San Francisco well. “The room was full of product designers and manufacturers from Silicon Valley eager to be inspired by the next big thing, and the next big thing was taking design back to nature — literally — and developing sustainable and energy efficient products because they’ve existed in nature for millions of years.”

Pemberton runs the Australian International Design Awards and has seen biomimicry become more popular in recent years, a shift she applauds. “[Biomimicry] has arisen in response to man acknowledging nature, and the fact that some of the world’s biggest problems have already been solved,” she adds.

Janine Benyus agrees. A Montana-based biologist and author involved in several commercial ventures including a website that acts as a sort of clearing house for biomimicry ideas (asknature.org), Benyus is regarded as the patron saint of the biomimicry movement. “There’s an elegant way of living on this planet using a minimal amount of energy and materials,” she says. “It has to do with living in a way that enhances your habitat rather than depleting it.”

Benyus is also quick to counter accusations of calling for a Luddite or devolved approach to life. “I’m not advocating shedding our clothes and eating nuts and berries, I’m advocating making our clothes and designing our food systems differently. Biomimicry is about moving towards sophistication, not the primitive.”

If it enjoys wide acceptance, biomimicry has the power to change all that. Stephanie Watson thinks all it’s taken is for the movement to gain traction has been the name itself. “The practice has existed for hundreds of years, especially among scientists and engineers developing new materials and technologies,” she reports about the entries the Australian International Design Awards has received. “By giving it a specific name it definitely drives more of a following.”

It’s been said that most animals live among nature, whereas humanity lives off of it. We pump polluting gas into the air, litter the earth with plastic and radioactive waste that takes centuries to degrade and wipe out forests. Whether there’s some fundamental difference between us and the rest of life on Earth or it’s just a matter of degree, our recent history is quite different from the ecosystemic re-absorption and re-purposing of resources that created us.

Achieving the environmental gains that built in natural processes offer seems like a huge task after our history of high waste, factory-style production, but it can start with the simple question ‘how would nature do this?’ Next time you turn on a light at home (which probably uses about 120 volts of electricity) consider that the Amazon electric eel can produce three times as much power using chemicals that also are found in the human body.

Commercial uptake

You might have heard stories about small windmills on the rooves of skyscrapers and walls that photosyhthesise sunlight at the cutting edge of product design, but some far more established names are doing their homework. “There’s enormous interest in biomimicry among our clients,” says Benyus of her consultancy Biomimicry Guild, “we work closely with General Electric, Boeing, General Mills and Kraft. I’m talking Fortune 500 and in some case Fortune 50 companies. The novelty of thirty million species with design ideas that haven’t really been sorted through is the number one reason they’re interested.

“They’re also looking to move from old, expensive and polluting technologies to greener processes and products. They want pathways to sustainable business and biomimicry is a way of getting them.”

There’s no doubt the current interest in biomimicry was galvanised in part to address climate change. As biochemistry teaches us, nature wastes nothing. Any material produced in a natural process is fuel for another process downstream. It’s just this state of ‘closed loop production’ that’s being sought in the Kwinana Industrial area south of Perth.

Operating since the 1950s, the site is home to some of the biggest names in resources and processing like Alcoa, BHP Billiton, BP, Fremantle Ports, the WA Water Corporation and Wesfarmers LPG. Perth’s Curtin University of Technology, the Kwinana Industries Council and the Centre for Sustainable Resource Processing work with the companies that occupy the 120 square kilometre site to realise ‘synergies’ that can save waste and costs for those involved. One operation’s waste, the theory goes, is another’s raw material — just like in nature.

The Kwinana synergies project is the most advanced in the world, but after investigating 35 industrial areas round the world for production synergies, Curtin senior research fellow Albena Bossilkov says it still has a long way to go. “It would be a three,” she says when asked to rate Kwinana’s synergy ‘rating’ from one to ten. “Kwinana isn’t even close to zero waste.”

You might think the technical job of retrofitting 1950s-era factories is what’s holding Kwinana back from being a fully enclosed ecosystem, but as Bossilkov explains, the technology can be easy. “Some of the synergies were actually established when retrofits were considered. BP’s synergy with the Kwinana Co-Generation Plant was established because they had to change their boilers. They realised it was cheaper and more effective to have a contractual agreement with a third party to build a natural gas and coal generation plant next door. They provided the land and water and they get the steam and electricity.”

The hold-up in most cases is politics, both government and commercial. Bossilkov credits Kwinana’s success partly with the fact that no two companies occupying the site compete with each other, so they’re far more willing to share information about what their operations both require and produce.

Planet savers

Aside from cost savings, the environmental effects are the reason that gets most attention. Consider the household light bulb, where most of the energy to power it has been lost in transmission across the power grid to our house, and most of the energy in the bulb dissipates as heat rather than the small fraction we need for light.

“When we want to make something we take a bulk material and we carve it down into what we want which is one of the reasons we have the 96 percent waste and 4 percent product kind of statistics,” Janine Benyus explains. “Nature builds to shape. Why can’t we back a truck up to a building and spray a liquid formation on the floor that self-assembles into a carpet the way seashells form? It’s such a different design paradigm to making a carpet out of fibres and then cutting it to fit a room.”

Of course, sometimes the way nature does things is simply better. Famous in biomimicry circles is George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer who took a closer look at the burrs that stuck to his dog’s belly after a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941. He realised the distinctive hook and loop system that secured the burrs to the dog’s hair together would make a great synthetic fastener, and Velcro was born.

Today you can find it across industries. Computer security specialists take cues from immunology to learn how biological viruses propagate to help combat their digital counterparts. If your phone call goes via a British Telecom network in Europe it’s routed according to an algorithm that was based on the way ants find food.

A whole new ball game

Then there’s the effect that follows the tipping point of a movement, such as the creation of a whole new industry around carbon trading we’re seeing at the moment as lawyers, consultants and accountants all find new clients to fund entirely new revenue streams.

Mick Pearce is a Zimbabwe-born architect who was inspired by a nature documentary on TV featuring David Attenborough climbing through the interior of a termite mound, explaining how the network of internal cavities regulates the temperature inside. The result is the Eastgate Centre, an office block and shopping centre in downtown Harare that uses entirely natural cooling systems to regulate the air temperature rather than expensive and environmentally unfriendly electrical units or cooling towers.

Now that biomimicry is becoming the new black, Pearce finds himself at the cutting edge of a very marketable trend. “After almost 20 years of swimming against the tide it’s turned in a big way,” he says. “Biomimicry has been a great marketing tool for me, it appeals to everyone.

Australian scene

As expected, the US is the epicenter of biomimicry. But like our Hollywood stars, advances in sport and mineral industry, Australia is home to a disproportionate amount of activity given our remoteness and far-flung population.

Janine Benyus praises the unusually high number of Australian inventors for their nature-inspired innovations and she thinks it might be in our blood. “There are a lot of bio-inspired entrepreneurs in Australia. I’ve often wondered what it’s about, and I think it’s because you guys spend a lot of time outside.

“Germany has advanced biomimicry because they value the natural world and have very strong engineering competency. It’s also very strong in the UK, I think because it’s where the discipline of natural history began. It’s very common for people to go on British versions of walkabouts and take an interest in nature. So there’s a correlation because of how culture regards the natural world.”

Stephanie Pemberton from Standards Australia agrees we’re in a special position because of the climate challenges we face. “We inhabit one of the oldest and most fragile ecosystems on the planet and could learn greatly from our environment,” she says. “Scientists and product designers in Australia should be looking for solutions to issues like drought and fire nature might have already solved.”

But the challenge remains one of education. A lot of older engineers and inventors have their practiced methods that don’t include biomimicry, seeking it out only when they’re after something new. Like generation Y and the web, students and younger designers are growing up with it.

“For us, the role of the Australian International Design Awards is to keep Australian designers up-to-date, relevant and competitive,” says Standards Australia’s Watson. “We do it by connecting people and companies and educating people on any trends or disciplines we become aware of.”


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