Engineers and designers are always searching for innovative solutions to the problems they face. Are there more efficient, less polluting ways to make things? How can cars be stronger, lighter and more fuel efficient, all at the same time? Humans in the business world are increasingly looking to nature for solutions to these and many other problems.
Life on earth has been evolving solutions for billions of years, innovating every step of the way. Growing on land, plants and animals need to conserve water to avoid drying out. Aquatic species have evolved a variety of strategies and forms to move efficiently through water. Plants take the energy of the sun, and produce useful energy in the form of sugar, all without any emissions, and actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Many of nature’s solutions were described in the visionary book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus, first published in 1997. I was captivated by this fascinating book when I first read it, and I still am. Biomimicry relates the answers that nature holds to many of the challenges facing businesses. The stories are many, all incredible. Where chemists use extremes of heat and nasty solvents to cook up Kevlar, spiders create webs of as strong as steel (for the same weight) at whatever temperature they find themselves. While human ceramics produced with high heat remain relatively brittle, abalone hidden under coastal rocks produce shells that surpass human efforts, all without much ado. The list goes on.
Biomimicry is much more than a book today. When I was working on "75 Green Businesses" I had the good fortune to speak with Janine Benyus about the growing impact of biomimicry on the business world. Biomimicry is a way of "learning from, and then emulating a natural design, a blueprint from the natural world," said Benyus.
This process of looking at nature and using what you learn is being adopted more and more broadly. Benyus opened the non-profit Biomimicry Institute and the Biomimicry Guild consultancy to work with businesses, bringing "biologists to the design table" to attack the problems that companies are grappling with. Looking for a new design for an impact resistant bumper? What kind of solutions has nature come up with that provide impact resistance, from craniums to walnut shells? Need to keep a surface clean? Look to the leaf of the lotus plant offer for inspiration, as have producers of glass, roofing tiles, and paints.
Benyus and her Biomimicry team have now created a database of nature’s solutions at Ask Nature, sponsored by Autodesk. A free, on-line searchable database, you can search Ask Nature by completing the phrase "How would nature...". I queried the phrase ‘How would nature conserve water?’ for example and got back 430 results, reflecting the great variety of solutions that nature has come up with to this common problem faced in industry.
If you are scratching your head over a design problem, looking for innovative solutions, this is the place to start. Once you find something, you might need to bring in one of the biomimicry biologists to sit at your design problem with you and understand the solution that nature provides.
Joel Makower comments on the Ask Nature site on his blog, saying that while the database was not yet complete, "Like the vast world it covers, AskNature.org will grow and mature over time." That’s the great thing about nature really - it does not rest on its laurels. Nature is always innovating, always finding new solutions. Maybe businesses can find nature’s secrets for this trait as well.