Biomimicry 101: Mother Nature’s Guide To Sustainable Development

The first time I mentioned that I was going to pen a piece on Biomimicry to my colleague Tairat, the expression etched on her faced mirrored her obvious confusion.

Biowho?” she asked. Biomimicry I finished with a laugh. I understood her exact feelings because prior to a couple of weeks ago I would have had the same look on my face if someone mentioned the word to me.  Biomimicry is one of those terminologies that many of us may have had a vague idea of but never really knew there was an English word for.

The term is coined from two words. Bio and Mimicry (Duh! I know right). Bio derives its origin from the Greek word bios which means life and mimicry which is the action or skill of imitating something or someone. When fused together, we can surmise that biomimicry involves an action of imitating someone or something from life. In more refined terms, it may be defined as the design of structures or systems by drawing inspiration from existing biological entities and processes. Also known as biomimetics, the Biomimicry Institute describes it as an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.

According to the institute, the objective of biomimicry is to create products and processes that are well adapted to life on earth. It encourages us to fend for solutions to disparate global challenges ranging from droughts to clean energy by observing how things have worked over an extended period of time. Over the next paragraphs, I will share three examples as to how inventors have come up with ingenious and revolutionary designs simply by observing how nature.

The Japanese Shinkansen Bullet is the fastest train in the world. It has a maximum operating speed its 320 km/h. Despite its design and ground-breaking solution in the transportation sector, it had a major flaw. Noise. Each time it emerged from the tunnel, it caused a change in air pressure which resulted in a thunderous sound that could be heard ¼ of a mile away. This was a nuisance. The train’s chief engineer who was a bird watcher decided to make the train more aerodynamic by tailoring it to the kingfisher’s beak which resulted in a quieter, faster and more energy efficient model.

The first reaction when I thought of a termite’s den was ick! However, according to the architect Mick Pearson, it is one of the most comfortable places to live in. He deployed his studies of the cooling chimneys and tunnels of the den to design the Eastgate Centre in Harare. This resulted in a building that consumes 90 percent less energy for heat and cooling down in comparison to its traditional contemporaries. The building has large chimneys that naturally draw in cool air at night to lower the temperature of the floor slabs which retain their coolness during the day and supplement the need for air conditioning.

Perhaps the most popular and my personal favourite of the biomimicry innovations is the Velcro. Growing up as a child, I loved my first pair of Kito sandals. They were not only trendy but most importantly easier to wear than lace-up or buckle-ups shoes. The straps on the Kito sandals known as the Velcro strap was invented in 1941 by a Swiss Engineer called George De Mestral. He did this after he removed burrs from his dog’s fur. In the bid to understand how it latched on to the dog, he found a tiny hook at the end of the burr and this inspired him to invent what we all know as the Velcro today.

Biomimicry has inspired the design of sharkskin-like swimsuits and house paints inspired by the structure of the lotus flower. The concept gives us a new pair of eyes to not only look inwards but also outwards for inspiration. It reaffirms the fact that the solutions to the biggest challenges are within our grasp. And so next time you feel like you need a surge of inspiration to make the world a cleaner, healthier place for all to reside in, remember the answer you seek may be locked somewhere in the shape of an ugu leaf or the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.

I leave you with these words from Steve Jobs who said, “I think the biggest innovations in the 21st Century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.”

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Olabanji Jackson
Banji is an Environmental & Social Risk Analyst whose work involves reviewing the E&S implications of large scale projects and making a case for integrating sustainability in business models. He is passionate about micro-finance, financial literacy and growing social enterprises. In his spare time he loves to dabble in photography and creative non-fiction writing.