What does it take to be an inventor? You might think that, to be an inventor, you need to create something that is 100% brand new. In fact, nearly everything that can be created has already been created in nature. Inventors are more like chefs, taking ingredients that already exist (usually within nature!) and fashioning them into something wonderful.
‘The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Biomimicry is an example of how we can use plants to solve our problems. Nature has a set of models and systems that exist and evolve as needed, and this has worked since the dawn of time – therefore, we know that we can learn from, copy and build upon these systems to improve our lives.
The benefits of biomimicry
Design with longevity
Our natural world is built on cycles that have endured and developed over billions of years. However, many of the things we create have a relatively short lifespan (think fast fashion, cars, single-use plastics). By working with plants, we could eventually create designs that are regenerative and sustainable, lasting lifetimes rather than a few short years (or less).
Empathy towards and understanding of nature
Not only can we improve our own lives by studying nature, but we can also improve our impact on nature itself. We know that we are using up our natural resources at an unsustainable rate and ravaging the habitats of other species; this could be improved if we spent more time learning from nature and empathising with it.
What happens to waste in nature? It gets recycled! As humans, we produce billions of tonnes of waste each year, and much of it takes too long to decompose. Even worse, some of the ways in which we dispose of our waste are harmful to the planet (landfills and incineration). With the help of nature, we could improve these methods of waste disposal and even give back to the planet by turning our waste into something useful.
Examples of biomimicry
Biomimicry isn’t new – we’ve been copying plants for centuries. Even some Ancient Roman structures have been shown to be based on the structures of plants! However, here are some examples that will make you go ‘hmmm!’:
Just like a leaf, solar panels absorb energy from the sun and turn it into electricity to power homes and more. The first commercial solar panel was created in 1881 by Charles Fritts, although it was very inefficient compared to the products we have today. Solar energy is one of the cleanest sources of energy; current panels can last for several decades, and generate four to five times the amount of energy used to produce them.
BONUS FACT: One plant in particular absorbs energy with great efficiency! Codariocalyx motorius, or the dancing plant, moves its leaves at speeds perceivable to the human eye, in order to track the light of the sun.
Have you ever got a burdock burr stuck on your clothes? You might have simply seen them as a small annoyance, but Swiss engineer George De Mestral saw them on a trip with his dog to the Alps in 1941 and subsequently created the ‘hook and loop’ fastener, otherwise known as Velcro!
Ever seen a lotus flower? They’re pristine! This is because their leaves are coated in ultrahydrophobic architecture, which means that when water hits the surface of a leaf, it rolls straight off, taking any dirt and debris with it. German company IPSO have created a paint which utilises the ultrahydrophobic properties of the lotus flower to keep walls looking clean!
There are many examples of biomimicry in architecture, but one particular building that stands out for its very unusual, but efficient, design. The design of Singapore’s magnificent Esplanade Theatre is based on the Durian fruit. Each ridge (just like the spiky ridges on the skin of the fruit) features louvers (sets of angled shutters) which shift throughout the days to adjust the amount of natural light that passes through into the theatre.
Newlight Technologies has spent over a decade developing a plastic that could absorb CO2. Named AirCarbon, the plastic is produced by converting greenhouse gasses into solids, a bit like how a plant absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen in return. Unlike other plastics, AirCarbon is actually carbon-negative, because it removes more pollutants from the atmosphere than it produces.
Ondrej Vaclavik: A designer inspired by biomimicry
Ondrej Vaclavik is a China-based Czech designer with Harman Kardon who bases much of his designs on biomimicry. He observes organic forms and applies their intelligence to his own designs, allowing nature and function to guide form.
Take a look at his interview with In, below:
Which systems or materials in the plant world do you think could be replicated and adapted for our benefit? Let me know in the comments below!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.