How Would Nature Solve This?

“We are surrounded by genius,” asserted Janine Benyus at the TED Global 2009 conference in Oxford, England in a talk highlighting recent innovations in biomimicry and asking designers to look to the brilliance of nature for inspiration. Benyus, co-founder and board President of the Biomimicry Institute, briefly introduced the new discipline of biomimicry and explained simply why human-created design should strive to function as the natural world does: “Imagine designing spring. Imagine that orchestration. […] Imagine the timing, the coordination, all without top-down laws, or policies, or climate change protocols. This happens every year.” The focus of biomimics—those studying and implementing biomimicry—said Benyus, is function. “They ask themselves, “What if, every time I started to invent something, I asked, ‘How would nature solve this?’”

One solution grew from Galapagos sharkskin. “Hospital-acquired infections are now killing more people every year in the United States than die from AIDS or cancer or car accidents combined, about 100 thousand,” Benyus said. Sharklet Technologies has developed what they call skins for use in places such as hospitals where there is a need to reduce bacteria. The firm has also produced the innovative materials without using chemicals or toxic components. The company has copied the functionality of Galapagos shark fin denticles, which enable the animal’s surface to remain bacteria free despite the fact that it is a slow mover. Not only can human-produced patterns similar to shark denticles help Olympic swimmers break speed records, they could also potentially reduce infections—Sharklet’s Web site notes “research shows that the Sharklet pattern reduces bacteria growth by 80 percent.”

Water filtration and desalination is another important area of inquiry. According to Benyus, we currently use membranes which frequently clog and use a lot of electricity to filter water. Aquaporin, a company named after a protein which makes up the pores in membranes of biological cells that control the flow of water, is developing more efficient desalination membranes based on this natural technology. Indeed, nature knows how to minimize materials. “Trees and bones are constantly reforming themselves along lines of stress,” Benyus informed the audience. “This algorithm has been put into a software program that’s now being used to make bridges lightweight. G.M. Opel used it to create the skeleton you see in what’s called their bionic car.”

While praising recent developments in biomimicry design, Benyus urged for more research in particular areas, including materials optimization. For example, chitin—a component in many organisms, including beetle exoskeletons—embodies multiple uses. “One of the major inventions we need to be able to do to come even close to what these organisms do is to find a way to minimize the amount of material, the kind of material we use, and add design to it.”

In another example, social insects are becoming major “consultants” for smart grids. In the field of swarm technology and intelligence, the company Regen, Benyus mentioned, is “looking at how ants and bees find their food and their flowers in the most effective way as a whole hive. They’re having appliances in your home talk to one another through that algorithm, and determine how to minimize peak power use.”

Utility efficiency has been an increasing concern in recent years. Benyus referred to research at Cornell University which led to the creation of a synthetic “tree” that simulates the capillary action of actual trees, which pull water from the ground and transport it to leaves in a process known as transpiration. Several applications exist for this technology, including heat-transfer for cooling small machines or buildings without pumps, soil remediation, and, in academia, the study of liquids in a meta-stable state.

Another exciting focus for Benyus is city planning. The Biomimicry Guild—also co-founded by Benyus with Dayna Baumeister—and HOK Architects are now collaborating on urban design. In one masterplan for Lang Fang, China, under development, the idea is to model natural water self-reliance through a retrofitted landscape. Referring to related biomimetic urban plans in World Architecture News, Baumeister stressed that “the built environment is one of the most fertile grounds for biomimicry from a sustainability perspective…our greatest collective impact will come from applying biomimicry to the planning and design of buildings, communities and cities.” This collaboration allowed Benyus, Baumeister, and colleagues to ask a crucial design question: “Shouldn’t our cities do at least as well, in terms of ecosystem services, as the native systems that they replace?”

In that vein, the Biomimicry Guild and HOK partnership created a set of Ecological Performance Standards, metrics which measure “ecosystem services such as carbon fixation, water purification, air cooling, biodiversity maintenance, soil building, erosion control,” explained Baumeister. “The buildings and eco-structures will support themselves and then some, creating more fertile soils, cleaner air and water, and safe passage for native species.” With the use of these standards, we will be able to look back and say, “we have created a human settlement that is functionally indistinguishable from the local ecology.” Benyus told World Architecture News, “making a bio-inspired product is one thing; making a bio-inspired city begins to change the world.” 

This year, the Biomimicry Challenge incited some of that change through a competition which paired biologists with selected firms to answer the question: “What Would You Ask Nature?” According to Fast Company, Mexico City-based Taller de Operaciones Ambientales (TOA) took on Portland’s Brightworks problem of understanding how sustainability issues along the edges of ecodistricts in Portland—such as utilities, transport, and buildings—“could be more effectively addressed throughout each district to encourage green, sustainable growth that spread beyond its borders.” Based on observations of natural areas and in-house knowledge of fungal organization, TOA proposed an unusual funding scheme: with their new ecological mindset, the team decided to allot over 50 percent of funding to ecodistrict borders. “Most urban designers would say that a town square or Main Street would be the most vital part of a neighborhood. But the team didn’t see that pattern in nature. ‘If you think about…plants, they have edges that are made to be so colorful and attractive,’ says Rodríguez. ‘Even without knowing the exact percentage, you know that their most radical strategies happen in their border.’”

“The design challenge of our century,” posed Benyus in Oxford, is that “we need a way to remind ourselves of those geniuses, and to somehow meet them again.” She is unsurprisingly part of a team working on a way for anyone to meet these geniuses virtually. Uniting with the Encylopedia of Life, Benyus and collaborators have created a new Web site,, to “organize all biological information by design and engineering function.” This compilation of knowledge will facilitate innovation in biomimicry: Benyus hoped that “any inventor, anywhere in the world, will be able, in the moment of creation, to type in, ‘How does nature remove salt from water?’ And up will come mangroves and sea turtles, and your own kidneys.”

Through biomimicry, Benyus argues, “people are beginning to remember that organisms, other organisms, the rest of the natural world, are doing things very similar to what we need to do. But in fact they are doing them in a way that have allowed them to live gracefully on this planet for billions of years. And hopefully, with their help, we’ll learn how to live on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”

Watch Benyus’ TED talk

This post is by Laura Kendrick, ASLA 2010 advocacy and communications intern.

Image credit: Galapagos Shark /Flickr

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