In the 1940s, while out for a hike one day, Swiss engineer George de Mestral observed how burs got stuck to his clothing. Shortly after this experience, he patented one of the most useful adhesives in the world, Velcro. While it took some refining to reach a finished product, the inspiration for the idea and the vast amount of research and development that followed had been provided to Mestral via biology. The story of Velcro is just one of many where nature has been adapted to fill a need or solve a problem. This approach has gained in popularity in recent years and is now known as biomimicry.
Biomimicry is the modeling of materials, structures, and systems on biological entities and processes. Since Mestral’s initial discovery, our understanding of nature and improvements to our technology have allowed for much more complex adaptations. Biology represents a treasure trove of innovation, from using shark skin as inspiration for better swimsuits to building more efficient building ventilation based off termite dens to applying the shape of whale fins to wind turbine blades.
Hunting for inspiration
Innovation is a long and iterative process. After the initial inspiration, there is a lengthy back and forth process—from planning to trial—for any invention. This research and development can take weeks, months, or years depending on the complexity of the problem you are trying to solve.
However, none of this is possible without that initial idea, the inspiration for a solution to a given problem that leads to a brilliant innovation. While many of the great innovators of the past and present have a multitude of ways of drawing inspiration, a growing faction has been looking to an old source: The natural world.
It may seem odd to look for solutions to engineering or construction problems, for example, in a forest or in the ocean, but there are many examples of brilliant solutions and ideas sparked by flora and fauna. All it takes is an open mind and the skill of seeing how a problem that evolution has overcome can potentially relate to a human concern that may not seem relevant.
The 'roots' of fungi have inspired many innovative designs for packaging, clothing, and more due to their flexible and compressible structures.
Architecture is an excellent example of a field that has benefited from employing biomimicry. From material selection to structural design, living organisms adapt to their surroundings to maintain steady conditions. By incorporating this incredible ability into building design through the use of novel insulators and cooling systems we can develop far more efficient and long-lasting buildings. Using insulation in construction at all is a form of biomimicry as animals use fat and fur/hair to retain heat in much the same way.
However, animals aren’t the only inspiration for improved building insulations. Some companies now provide insulation and building materials made from mycelium, which can be stretched, extruded, or 3D- printed into desired shapes. Indeed, research has found that bricks made of mycelium offer strong thermal performance. The “roots” of fungi have inspired many innovative designs for packaging, clothing, and more, due to their flexible and compressible structures.
The benefits of biomimicry
Not every natural innovation or idea inspired by natural structure is going to pan out in a useful way for humanity. However, the sheer volume of evolved traits that are present in both extant and extinct species suggests that for every dead end, there could be just as many potentially useful innovations.
Being a source of inspiration and innovation is only the tip of the iceberg for the utility of biomimicry.
Biomimicry also offers benefits in the form of sustainability. By its very nature, any solution or innovation that develops in the natural world is likely to be sustainable. When we look to biology as a place to generate ideas or help us problem-solve, we will be presented with options that are most likely environmentally friendly and infinitely more sustainable than the synthetic options we might build ourselves.
There are numerous instances where society’s solutions are laughably inferior to nature’s. Take mining, for example—where humanity has traditionally used brute force techniques to extract minerals from the earth, recent research has found that microbes accomplish the same feat with varying degrees of efficiency and vastly less damage. While mining with microbes (referred to as biomining) isn’t fully feasible yet, it is an area of increased interest. Another example can be found in cleaning supplies. We have historically spent hundreds of thousands of dollars producing harsh chemicals, but nature has already developed compounds that have similar functions and are much safer for the environment.
We often focus on reducing our environmental impact and carbon footprint, but most natural systems do better than net zero output. Many photosynthetic organisms absorb more carbon dioxide than they produce, yielding a net positive in carbon capture. Instead, natural systems are often providing results that improve everything around them. Biomimicry isn’t just a chance for us to find solutions–it is a process that can help change our perspective and build infrastructure that will yield net positives, rather than just neutral results.
Finally, there is the benefit of time. From an evolutionary timescale, humans have been innovating and inventing for no more than the blink of an eye. Natural selection has been working on many of the same problems for millions of years. The iterative process of discovery can be slow and arduous, with research and development cycles that can last years. The biological processes that are functioning effectively today have been honed over millions of years of evolution. This refined springboard is available to us now and lets us take advantage of strategies and strengths that have already been tested. The question becomes, how can we find and co-opt them to be useful to us?
Discovering, adapting, and utilizing natural solutions is a challenge that many naturalists and researchers have already begun tackling. We see the results around us everyday, from developing better traffic control systems by examining how ants move to novel adhesives developed from observing the toes of geckos. The world around us is a veritable bounty of ideas, solutions, and inspiration. It’s up to us to take advantage of this incredible resource. The next great idea or discovery could be right outside our window.