“The lilies of the field toil not, neither do they calculate, but they are probably excellent structures, and indeed Nature is generally a better engineer than man … Nature seems to be a pragmatic rather than a mathematical designer; and, after all, bad designs can always be eaten by good ones.” – from Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J.E. Gordon
Biomimicry is the practice of developing human technologies based on patterns found in nature. It’s a remarkably expedient, and smart, approach to design – human engineering inspired by what millions of years of evolution have produced and fine-tuned – not to mention engineering that functions within the framework of a natural system.
I started getting interested in biomimicry as it pertained to materials science after divesting some time on MIT Media Lab fellow/polymath Neri Oxman’s website when she was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in 2009. Neri is a specialist in material-based design computation; her work adeptly inhabits the interface between materials and the environment, hoping to in make stronger the link between the two in the process. Past exhibitions have featured flexible armor designed specifically for individual frames, and a prototype for an adaptive chaise-lounge that contours to the human body according to discrete skin-pressure areas, aptly titled ‘Beast’ (pictured below).
What initially attracted me to her work is their particularly affecting quality of strangeness within the paradigm of organic reality – they have an otherworldly feel, the innovative solutions to problems of a fantastical human society in a work of science fiction, even as they proclaim fidelity to basic principles of nature. It is hard to believe that, alongside advances in 3D printing, structures such as these may be available to a contemporary consumer sooner than we think. Indeed, many applications of biomimicry exist already in our society, even in the mundane: Velcro is modeled after those nefarious burs that stick to dogs’ hair and our pant legs, and the minuscule hooks that prove them so successfully irritating. An alternative energy design firm ‘WhalePower’ features retrofit turbine blades modified with bumps, or ‘tubercles,’ on the leading edge, that promises enhanced efficiency with less drag – a design feature inspired by the agility-producing fins of humpback whales.1
The topic of biomimicry in a systematic approach, or the ways in which human society can find mechanistic parallels in nature, has come up in a lot of Kalu Yala conversations – and I think it’s a salient perspective specifically on network-wide scale. Livestock intern Amanda Rosenberg and I have talked a bit about some curious news reports of traffic engineers studying the organization of ants and their colony-wide movements to better understand and streamline our own processes of transportation – this is looking at ‘biomimicry’ on a very smart level. Not only do birds wings and fish scales provide useful analogues to our endeavors in materials science, but the organization of ecological populations and communities may teach us about how better to arrange and conduct facets of human society.
So, something I’ve been wondering about recently is the topic of mimicking natural ecosystems in our own community development. In the past week, I have been looking into small-scale preservation case studies on plots similar in scale to Kalu Yala; one particularly successful project in North Queensland, Australia, integrates attention to things like road design and maintenance into more comprehensive, successful preservation practices; the ‘Queensland Main Roads Manual’ (2003) describes how to make roads more environmentally-friendly through improved culvert design, erosion control, faunal crossings, and drainage techniques. The work has lead to greater research interaction between road designers and rainforest ecologists that, when followed, should significantly lessen the threat of roads on tropic ecosystem integrity.2 Inherent in this approach to preservation is the mimicry of natural ‘roads’ constructed and used by many different animal populations; by studying the natural movement of many species, we can further understand and minimize the effects of fragmentation to make better use of space within our own development and that which connects to others.
Secondly, after talking with high school classmate and friend Nik Tyack, currently on a Fulbright research grant in Italy, I started learning about ‘Crop Wild Relatives’ and in situ, or on the ground, conservation of such; this project employs the help of related native plants in agriculture that, as the CWR project manual explains, ‘…are a vital resource by providing a pool of genetic variation that can be used in breeding new and better adapted varieties of crops that are resistant to stress, disease, drought and other factors…[CWR’s] will be increasingly important in allowing crops to adapt to the impacts of climate, thus safeguarding future agricultural production.’ I’m looking forward to potentially collaborating with the Agriculture team to learn more about this project, which has been successfully implemented in five countries already. What attracts me to this project also relates to biomimicry; instead of designing from scratch the solutions to our natural problems or concerns (such as conserving biodiversity), why not utilize the resources that are already there? As the CWR manual explains, the practice of ex situ conservation is becoming increasingly less desirable than in situ – currently, the move to conserve CWR in their natural surroundings (in situ) is preferable as it liberates their populations to ‘continue evolving and generate new genetic variation that is adapted to changing conditions.’3
- Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature. Harper Collins: 1997.
- Leigh, Egbert Giles Jr, and Rubinoff, Ira. ‘Understanding and Conserving Tropical Diversity: Perspectives from Barro Colorado Island.’ Tropical Rainforests: Past, Present, and Future. Editors: E. Bermingham, C. W. Dick, & C. Moritz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 223-250.
- Crop Wild Relatives project manual, linked here.