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  • 02.24.17

Sex Toys For Flowers, Drone Guides For Birds: Reciprocal Biomimicry Gives Our Ideas To Nature

If we can keep importing design ideas from the natural world, maybe it’s time we give back.

If migrating birds are struggling to arrive at the right place at the right time because of climate change, should we give them GPS? A new exhibit mocks up how the idea might work: A drone flying along with a flock would create an electromagnetic field to guide birds away from their typical breeding grounds and toward somewhere more hospitable.

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The exhibit, opening at Bucknell University’s Samek Art Museum in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on March 7, considers several other adaptations of technology in nature. As urbanization reduces habitat for turtles, their shells could be fitted with the same urban camouflage used on military helmets to protect them from predators. If polluted oceans make it more difficult for light to reach coral reefs, fiber optic cables could direct light powered by wave energy on the surface. If ocean acidification means that sea snails can’t survive in the water, a tiny life support system would make it possible for them to live on the land.

“I guess that I have become sort of a one-person tech transfer office,” says artist, writer, and “experimental philosopher” Jonathon Keats, who studied the challenges facing ecology and modeled how technology in use in the human world might help in the Reciprocal Biomimicry Initiative.

It’s meant more to raise questions about how we approach technology and our relationship to the rest of the natural world than to necessarily advocate for any of these ideas. “I am absolutely not at all convinced that any of these ideas are good ideas in terms of making the world better for other organisms,” Keats says.

He was inspired in part by the design world’s obsession with biomimicry. If humans steal a never-ending list of ideas from nature–bullet trains shaped like the beak of a bird, adhesives that copy the stickiness of gecko feet, boats coated to move like sharkskin–the resulting technologies haven’t always been beneficial for nature.

“That led me to think that perhaps we have been a little bit too greedy,” he says. “Maybe what we should think about is whether reciprocal biomimicry might be a future way of looking at the problem. So in other words, could we reciprocate on all of the IP that we have plundered from other organisms, from other species, by making our technologies available to them in order to improve their lives.”

In one proposal, he suggests that if flowers can no longer be pollinated by honeybees in the future, we could build sex toys for flowers. (In the exhibit, a model shows tiny vibrators attached to plants.) In another piece, he considers how wind power could be converted to energy for trees if pollution blocks the sunlight they need for photosynthesis.

If the proposals seem absurd–and they are meant to–they also aren’t wildly different from real life. Scientists have built drones that can pollinate crops instead of bees; other researchers have proposed using wind power to refreeze melting Arctic ice.

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Keats wants people to consider the cycle of technological innovation spurred by problems caused by previous technology. “It’s equivalent to so many of the projects that I undertake–this attempt at using absurdity as a mechanism for gaining greater clarity,” he says. “When you enter into a counterfactual situation, it allows you to see your own situation from outside. And so in a sense, I’m attempting to find ways in which we can get outside of our cycle of technological development.”

He says he thinks a solution like adding camouflage to turtle shells is “ridiculous, but, nevertheless, at some level possibly it could work. I hope that provokes the question of whether that’s how we want it to work.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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