The future of design according to nature

January 27, 2016

Janine Benyus is a science writer and consultant, who teaches writing at the University of Montana. She coined the word “biomimicry,” and her name is closely associated with the idea that humans can thrive best by understanding and imitating nature.


In her 1997 book, Biomimicry, Benyus wrote, “In short, living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their futures.”


It has become cliché to point out that there is no waste in nature, but other organisms maintain and improve their environments in many more ways than recycling.

 

In her consultancy, Benyus answers questions like how does nature insulate, lubricate, or reduce drag. As her practiced evolved, clients began asking for design principles as well as solutions to problems. The goal of imitating nature is to run on sunlight, do our chemistry in water instead of toxic solvents, and make things at low temperatures and pressures out of a small subset of the periodic table. This is nature’s code, or operating manual, for a “guaranteed” method that’s been proven over four billion years of evolution to “let us fit in here, which is, in the long run, more important than quarterly profits.”


Benyus has a series of principles for mimicking nature:


Nature self-assembles. The “brittle star,” a creature related to the starfish, is covered with nearly distortion-free lenses, formed from silicon in seawater. Sea sponges form fiber optics flexible enough to tie in knots. Abalone shell is tough enough to drive a car over. Teams at the University of Arizona and the University of Washington are trying to make ceramics like it. Abalone secretes polymer cells and proteins that coat the cell walls. Using electrical charge, the proteins capture calcium carbonate and shape its crystals. The research goal is to sequence the protein so we can do likewise.


Nature transforms things using the sun. Researchers at Arizona State University and elsewhere are studying how photosynthesis splits water to make fuel. Other researchers have used information gained from plants to replace platinum in fuel-cell anodes with iron.


Nature uses the power of shape. Kingfishers dive into rivers without making ripples. Designers solved the problem of the Japanese Bullet Trains making sonic booms when exiting tunnels by imitating the kingfisher.


Nature quenches its thirst economically. The Namibian beetle drinks from fog, thanks to bumps on its exoskeleton, and pillbugs pull water out of the air. Saltwater fish have membranes that desalinate the water in which they swim for drinking. Benyus predicts water shortages on two-thirds of Earth by 2030, and says these technologies will be necessary for survival.


Nature obtains metals without mining. Microbes chelate metals out of water, inspiring a company called MR3 to put molecules similar to the ones the microbes use onto filters to claim metals from waste streams.


Nature uses timed degradation. The threads that hold mussels to rocks dissolve after two years. We could use the mussel’s secret for packaging that lasts until we no longer need it.


Nature is resilient and self-healing. Vaccines don’t make it to remote places because they can’t be refrigerated that long. One designer imitated “sugar capsules” of the tardigrade, a tiny animal that can survive being completely dried out, and use it to preserve dried vaccines.


Nature rewards cooperation. Plant and animal species support each other in the prey-predator relationship and live together in mutually helpful relationships, such as that between humans and our gut bacteria. Much of the research Benyus cites is being done by cross-disciplinary teams that include biologists, chemists, and physicists. She praises an architect, Michael Valentine, for using biomimicry to save clients money, then proposes to them that they use those savings to reward employees.


Nature taps the power of limits. Benyus says we can learn from our “elders” in nature, and yet still be out of harmony with nature. Eleven years after the Wright brothers built the airplane by watching vultures, planes were used to drop bombs in WWI.


Benyus has a substantial web presence, including Biomimicry.net and AskNature.org, where you can find out how nature has solved design problems. She has two Ted Talks and appears at Bioneers conferences. Together with fellow Bioneer Paul Hawken, she formed One Sun Solar, a company developing thin-film solar cells.

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