Biomimicry: The study of nature’s design is basically the only legal and free of charge form of industrial espionage. I love it! The world’s oldest R&D institution with about 3.8 billion years of experience has the most sophisticated store of design and material performance imaginable. But it also has a substantial range of organisational structures, from symbiosis to wolf pack, from swarm intelligence to life-long loners. You [will] find more on those in a different category soon.
The idea of copying other organisms is as old as humanity and knew a few well known highlights, e.g. in the early attempts of flight by Leonardo da Vinci, who found his inspiration in birds. The term biomimicry as such was coined in the late 20th century and became popular with the 1997 book of US scientist Janine Benyus, who now chairs the Biomimicry Institute and the fantastic source of inspiration for nature’s technical solutions: asknature.org.
Just to give you a few examples how natural concepts still outsmart man-made technology:
Silky Spider-webs: The strongest, recyclable, flexible fibre in the market. Kevlar and other composites might have managed to surpass some sorts in single characteristics, but the combined characteristics of strength, flexibility, weight and recyclability are yet to be copied in a synthetic process.
A termite mount is build over years through a vast swarm of insects that are virtually blind, live on wood and grass and grow just a couple of centimetres long. Instead of engineers and architects, they rely on swam intelligence to build some of the most effective shelters to be found in nature. They feature a constant temperature and humidity without compromising on ventilation. Local availability of building materials is a prerequisite though. And for the ‘magnetic termites‘, a proper north-south orientation is achievable without any instruments and provides ideal adaptation to live comfortably on the sunny side of life.
And a real-life example: Water is the single most important element for life. When civilisation started to process, mine and discharge water for human needs, we cut a few aspects out of the picture: ecosystems for example. Water quality diminished drastically across the industrialized world before rules and regulations brought it back to current, acceptable levels. But water quality is often measured in terms of chemical and physical metrics, but water as such is only a carrier and habitat. So the quality of the habitat is a more important, derived measurement of the quality of water. That was discovered in the professional waste water treatment world a while ago, and engineers and artists together designed a revolutionary system, including flowforms that mimic natural rock cascades. The effect of those mechanic and biologic innovations was that the ecological quality of the receiving stream – that would normally be restored to original levels over a distance of 10 km – was achieved within 300m! The treatment installation (link in Dutch) is one of the first to combine those techniques, mimicking nature in a superior way than conventional technological and chemical treatments could dream to achieve. (By the way, the knowledge is not so modern at all. An old European wisdom states: “Water becomes clean again when it travels over seven stones.”)
To feed your appetite for more, I recommend to nose around and start with this trailer of ‘Second nature: The biomimicry evolution‘