“Embraced by visionaries, including da Vinci and the Wright Brothers, biomimicry (bios meaning life and mimesis to imitate) is a new discipline. It studies nature’s best ideas, then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Early results have been extraordinary. A bullet train modeled on the kingfisher and owl saves energy and no longer creates thunder-like booms when exiting tunnels. A self-cleaning surface was inspired by the lotus leaf’s structure. A new surface reduces the growth of bacteria using a microscopic pattern that mimics sharkskin.” (Great Lakes Biomimicry, 2016, https://glbiomimicry.org/About/)
Innovation inspired by nature has been proving itself as a viable path to problem-solving, a reason why it is such a trending discussion topic amongst innovators. Different terms are used to characterize the biomimetic approach, and each one conveys a subtle nuance. Bionics might translate a special focus on medical problems, biomimicry is usually for innovation deeply concerned about sustainability and the ecological impact of the Anthropocene. One common feature of these terms would be the process behind any biomimetic endeavor – a process which is becoming increasingly solid, supported by several decades now of tailoring the scientific method to it. That’s why biomimicry is making it in different R&D contexts, academic or corporate/commercial, and we hear more about it.
The most essential premise for biomimicry is that biological adaptation and evolution have led to some pretty good, functional ideas: organisms. Their design allowed survival, at the expense of the failing ones, so what can we learn from them? Besides, life innovation schemes barely overlap with ours. In Biomimetics: its practice and theory (2006, doi: 10.1098/rsif.2006.0127), Vincent et al. highlight the differences between nature and human technology approaches to problem-solving. Humans seem to preferentially explore material (substance) and energy use to improve a product or a system (see figure below). Nature remains conservative about those, rather reshaping the structure or adding more feedback loops of information, to improve performance. What can we learn from this?
Biomimicry shifts the scientific method towards interdisciplinarity. Practitioners cannot restrict their know-how to a highly specialized field of research. It requires stepping out of the comfort zone and learning basic Biology. How will a mechanical engineer realize the decisive importance of trade-offs behind biological design without understanding environment-ecosystem-organism complex interactions? All life forms are multifunctional, which makes biomimetic learning not so simple. However, human products and systems are also becoming increasingly multifunctional and complex, from home appliances to AI-assisted infrastructures. So these new interdisciplinarity-related efforts entailed in biomimicry might be a great – and fun? – opportunity for human knowledge expansion.
Written by Ariana Rupp