How can metaphors from nature solve our problems?
Similar to the 3 system of spaces defined in Design Thinking, to solve any problem in nature, 3 essential elements of Biomimicry exist in the form of (Biomimicry 3.8, 2015):
1. Ethos element — It forms the essence of our intentions and intentions, and our underlying philosophy as to why we practice biomimicry. It represents our respect for, responsibility to, and gratitude for our fellow species.
2. (Re)connect element — It helps reinforce the understanding that even though seemingly separate, people and nature are deeply intertwined. We are in fact nature. It is a mindset that explores this relationship and ensures that we are connected with other living species.
3. Emulate element — It brings the patterns, strategies, principles and functions found in nature to inform design. It is about being proactive in achieving the vision of humans while being sustainable on earth.
“How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”— Janine Benyus
The Design Thinking Process
While Design Thinking emphasizes starting the design process with focus on empathy for human users, and biomimicry extends that concept to include all life forms. The “ideate” step depicted in the following figure searches nature for inspiration i.e translating strategies by considering nature’s unifying patterns, before implementing it in solutions and inventions.
Figure 2: The process of Design Thinking inspired by Biomimicry
In one of our ‘Foundations of HCI’ readings, Thinking by Tim Brown, the author states that “people outside professional design have a natural aptitude for design thinking, which the right development and experiences can unlock”. This design thinking process can help develop a design thinker’s personality profile, be it a student who doesn’t have his/her own design process, or an educator interested in sharing biology in ways that create interest with non-biologists and be helpful in solving their respective problems. (Brown, 2008)
Creating the Design Lens
“Perhaps you didn’t realize you were designing, but when you create some new form that did not exist, that makes you a designer.” (Biomimicry, n.d)
Using the Biomimicry Design Thinking process, the following Design Lens framework was created by Biomimicry 3, a bio-inspired consultancy which refers to a “designer” as anyone responsible for conceiving of, creating, and implementing ideas. These ideas can affect human cultural, technological, social, scientific, or financial systems at a small or big scale. This resonates with our class reading, Translations, which talks about design thinking encompassing not only the design of things, but also activities, services, systems, and environments related to the generation of a creative idea. (Arts ed collab, 2020)
Figure 3: The Principles of Life connecting events from nature to understandable and usable design principles
Take for example, Japan’s early version of Shinkansen Bullet trains. They were making a loud boom on travelling through tunnels at nearly 186 mph, causing structural damage. The team of designers noticed that kingfisher birds have specialized beaks which allows them to dive into water to hunt and make a minimal splash. So the engineering team studied this bird’s head for understanding high-speed streamlining, and created the next generation 500 series trains. These trains were 10% faster, consumed 15% less electricity, and did not create any “tunnel boom”. (T-hub, 2020)
Figure 4: The front end of a bullet train was redesigned to mimic the bird’s beak.
Therefore Biomimicry Thinking helps transition from simply following the shape of a Kingfishers’ beak, to carrying out a decrease in the sound impact created by the trains. (AskNatureorg, 2019). Here, the design lens depicts nature as a model that promotes learning from the best adapted models that inspire solutions to human challenges for long-term survival.
This also signifies that in order to allow for new possibilities to arise in a design space, we need to re-examine our current assumptions. This can be done by unlearning these assumptions via defamiliarization, as discussed in one of the class readings ‘Making by Making Strange’ by Mark Blythe. (Blythe et al., 2005)
We can now ask ourselves questions like “What is the kingfisher for?” and instead of saying “the bird is for admiring vivid colours of nature”, we can make it ‘strange’ by stating how “the bird is for helping combat tunnel booms!”.
Biological ecosystems on earth have been in constant evolution, doing ‘R&D’ for over 4 billion years, going through phases like climate change, tectonic disasters and even cosmic rage. But nature still found its way and designed numerous life and non-life forms to resist, adapt and eventually thrive. The following are some of the most intriguing innovations obtained by mimicking nature’s different forms, processes, systems and degree of precision:
Imitating Nature’s forms
1.Wind turbines inspired by Whales: Whales are aerodynamic, and one of nature’s best swimmers. The swimming efficiency of humpback whales has inspired serrated-edge wind turbines, which are much quieter than the regular blades. (Summachar, 2021)
Figure 5: LHS: Flipper of a whale, RHS: Surface of a turbine
2. Daily usables like tape and velcro, inspired by a plant and a lizard — Burdock Plant has seeds with tiny hooks to stick to things with loops like cotton fibers of pants. This led to the creation of “zipperless-zipper” or Velcro brand hook and loop. Similarly, Gecko Lizards stick to the surfaces without adhesives, due to hair on their toes. When the direction of the hair is changed, they are able to break the grip without any sticky residues. This led to the creation of Scotch tape. (Summachar, 2021)
Figure 6: LHS: Burdock Plant, RHS: Velcro, which has uses ranging from
hanging a picture to the moon landing.
Imitating Nature’s processes
1.Robotics inspired by Swarm Intelligence — It is the collective behaviour displayed by living organisms, to effectively coordinate their activities via decentralized control. This includes ant and bee colonies, hawks hunting, bird flocking, animal herding and fish schooling. This concept is being used by NASA in deploying swarms of tiny spacecrafts for space exploration, and by the medical community in deploying swarms of nanobots for precision delivery of drugs. (Simonsen, 2018)
Figure 7 & 8: LHS: A swarm of nanobots, RHS: A swarm of bees
2. The human processor model: The basic working of a computer is described using the IPO or input-processing-output model. This information processing metaphor has been inspired by the way our human brain thinks. (Rebus, n.d.)
Figure 8: How a basic computer program works
Figure 9: How a basic human thought works
This reminds me of another interesting discussion done in a ‘Foundations of HCI’ class by our deemed instructor Sai Shruthi Chivukula — The model human processor. Created by Card et al.’s (1983), it was a cognitive model of the user that aimed to provide a basis via which quantitative predictions could be made about user performance, when interacting with different kinds of interfaces. (Rogers, 2012)
Imitating Nature’s Ecosystem
Factory as a forest: “If nature designed a company, how would it function?” This is what Carpet manufacturer Interface questioned and decided to make its factories more regenerative, like a forest’s ecosystem.
Figure 10: The 4 steps followed by the company to transition
from a factory floor to a forest floor, and reach true sustainability
Imitating Nature’s Precision
The Golden Ratio: Equating to 1.618, the ratio was calculated by the famous fibonacci numbers — a continuous sequence of numbers starting with 0 and 1, and continuing by adding the previous two numbers. It is also called the divine proportion (Φ), because of its frequency in the natural world, starting from a spiral galaxy in space to the sunflower seeds back on earth. (Abigail, 2020) Architects worldwide use it to bring proportion and balance to their structures.
Figure 10: LHS: An Ancient Greek Temple, RHS: The Eiffel Tower
Figure 11: LHS: The Fibonacci numbers, RHS: The Golden ratio in nature
We aren’t the only species capable of innovation. Designers aren’t the only ones capable of design thinking. We just need to open our minds to the possibility of an untapped potential both in nature’s resources and in the problem solving ability of human beings who have an expertise in different fields of study. Also, simply getting motivated by nature is not enough. Translating biological inspiration into a practical solution is the most integral part of biomimicry thinking.
Future scope: Role of Biomimicry Thinking in Sustainability
Bringing nature onboard to help solve world problems sustainably has been recognized as a viable approach. Take for example, termites build earthen mounds which are well-ventilated with holes. An energy efficient building in Eastgate Centre, Zimbabwe is based on this phenomenon as it internally regulates temperature with only 10% AC system requirement. (Grist, 2019)
Ecophilia thinking further combines biomimicry thinking with biophilic design — a concept used to keep inhabitants of a building ‘close’ to their natural environment. It depicts a practice of being attracted to environment-friendly practices, and highlights humans’ innate tendency to connect with nature, as stated before in one of the biomimicry thinking elements. (Kanwal, 2020)
Figure 11: Eco-Philia Thinking Framework for sustainable innovation
This framework would enable organizations to bring about sustainable changes in their product and process design for a circular economy, which aims to tackle global challenges like the 17 Sustainable Development goals stated by the United Nations. (UN, n.d.)