What has the fins of a whale, the skin of a lizard and the eyes of a moth? The future of engineering

By Melissa Baird

Faced with designing products and cities that are sustainable and able to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of climate change, engineers and scientists are turning to nature – and learning from its endless innovations that enable life to thrive in all of its five kingdoms.

Biomimicry is the practice of learning from and then emulating nature’s genius, and the brightest designers are latching on to what they can learn from species in order to create sustainable solutions for human living. All of nature is locally attuned and responsive and does not ever create more than what is needed; all waste is re-assimilated into the system and energy is generated by the organism that needs it.

There are short feedback loops so that adaptation can happen, and collectively, the principles that enable nature to function ensure the most effective use of resources and the survival of biodiversity.

As the stressed environments of the human built world are buckling, and resources like water and oil are becoming more depleted – the principles of biomimicry can be a vital guide to creating a future based on products and systems that are more adaptable, functional and resilient.

We are already seeing products and services that have been transformed as a result of applying principals of biomimicry to design innovation. Consider the carpet company that designs flooring solutions that mimic a dappled forest floor. If a section of the carpet becomes damaged or needs replacing – then all that needs to be done is replace a section of it, rather than an entire room. This reduces maintenance costs, waste and the need for toxic adhesives. A glass manufacturer uses spider web designs to manufacture glass birds will not smash into. The aerodynamics of the box fish has informed the design of an automaker’s new energy efficient vehicle. A manufacturer of wind turbine blades has based its design on the propulsion mechanism of a southern right whale’s dorsal fins. The shock absorption capabilities of a woodpecker is causing flight engineers to redesign the black box recorder, which holds vital information after aeroplane crashes. The remarkable camouflage mechanisms of the octopus has got the US military interested to the tune of a US $ 6 million grant for further study.

(Watch an octopus literally disappear from sight)

The principals of biomimicry can also be used in creating behaviour change campaigns for and devising communication strategies. One of our key challenges is communicating messages about water consumption and use. How could we communicate – like nature does – to as many people as possible?

So I asked nature how communication happens amongst organisms and from the myriad examples chose the communication methods of stromatolites and ants as a guide.

Stromatolites have an astounding way of spreading messages and responding, as a collective, to change.  Affluent communities are the least responsive to change and tend to care less about the impact of their lifestyles on the environment. By considering the feedback loop as an integral part of engendering a change in habit we devised a communications campaign that will have short feedback loops and resultant messages that will positively impact behaviour change. A key factor is to show connectivity of all parts of society so individuals feel part of the solution, i.e. an integral part of a functioning ecosystem.

Nature recycles, re-uses, re-constitutes all its waste and is highly energy efficient. As we need to move out of critical stage and into a regenerative phase we can learn tremendous lessons from the natural kingdom.

The lexicon of biomimicry and the way in which it enables human conundrums to be solved by interrogating the function, form and life friendly chemistry of an object will have profound impacts on cities and products of the future.