October 19, 2008

Biomimicry: the Next Generation of Technology. [Janine Benyus, Bioneers]

As one who loves to visit natural history museums and who can also appreciate good design, Janine Benyus’ presentation on biomimicry at yesterday’s Bioneers conference immediately caught my attention. As I watched via satellite at the University of Colorado, the images along with Benyus’ engaging intellect and personality where invigorating. I’m one who loves to follow the many ways in which we are working towards sustainability and green-collar jobs and biomimicry have to be my current favorites.

The concept of biomimicry, introduced by Janine in her 1997 book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” is that of a relatively new science that studies nature and its systems then imitates or draws inspiration from those systems to solve human problems sustainably. Her team at the Biomimicry Guild acts as a consulting firm for “bio-inspired” design. This isn’t an entirely new concept, let’s keep in mind what early flying machines looked like, but the level at which biomimicry has advanced is startling and exciting. And the results are sexy and efficient.

The former was showcased to the world through Mr. Michael Phelps at this summer’s Olympic Games. The record-breaking swimmer wore the new Speedo LZR Racer suit, which was developed after studying the fast, streamlined and powerfully muscular (sounds like Phelps to me) bodies of sharks, along with their skins. It was in the skin of sharks that researchers discovered tiny ‘teeth’ whose positioning changes across the body of the shark, making for the most efficient flow of water, and inspiration for one of the most technologically advanced, and fast, swimsuits.

This example was an excellent way to publicize biomimicry, but what’s most exciting to me is how it is being used to solve problems of a planet under stress. Building efficiency is so important for a world with a growing population. Project TERMES scanned and studied a termite mound in sub-Saharan Africa to look at its construction to inspire and change our own. The result? The Eastgate Centre is an office complex in Zimbabwe that stays cool without air conditioning (in Africa!) and uses only 10% of the energy of a similarly-sized conventional building. The honey-comb housing photo below is in Slovenia, where it was constructed as a low-income residence and makes use of solar shading and natural ventilation (via Inhabitat, check them out for other incredible biomimicry articles and photos).

So what’s next in this exciting field that brings us beautiful and essential results? Recently Benyus struck a deal with major architectural firm HOK to see what biomimicry can do for other building structures. Also, launching in November, asknature.org will be a pubic design portal offering a database of nature’s solutions to sustainability challenges with examples from over a million species. And in 2009, Benyus will release a book with Gunter Pauli entitled “Nature’s 100 Best Innovations” via Chelsea Green, of which I can’t wait for young entrepreneurs and designers to get their hands on.

I appreciated how Janine reminded us of nature’s abundance. If we can succeed in emulating nature’s efficiency and zero-waste in our products and structures this could create a huge effect in our ways of consumerism and ultimately in global warming. Plus to me, it’s simply fun! It’s another way of staying connected to nature in our modernized world.

Extra credit for science buffs: I also found an article on something called Constructal Theory which, “can be understood as the inverse of biomimicry. Instead of looking to nature or biology to guide design, constructal theory starts from the understanding of the simple constructal law and extrapolates out a series of structures or designs for that situation. Amazingly, this new law of physics has been shown to describe the evolution of architecture found in nature…Constructal theory not only enables scientists to better understand why Nature looks the way it does, but may give us insight into how we can shape our technology for a sustainable future.” Reflect on that one for a while.

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