The fast-growing field of biomimicry encourages innovators to look to nature-in all its wonder and weirdness-for solutions to our trickiest problems.
Author Tiffany Meyers Illustration Alex Eben Meyer
ONE AFTERNOON IN Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dayna Baumeister stands in a room full of Herman Miller employees, next to a trunk filled with seashells, feathers and other natural miscellany, and hands a sea cucumber to Carolyn Maalouf, a blindfolded R&D engineer. Don’t guess what the object is, Baumeister says. Guess what it does. Maalouf takes a shot. Well, it’s spiky, she says. Maybe it needs those spikes to ward off predators? Another blindfolded colleague, meanwhile, is holding a swatch of sharkskin. With some guidance, he eventually deduces, correctly, from the smooth surface that his object is designed to move fast.
That they stumble through the exercise is pretty much the point. By eliminating sight—the sense that would instantly provide the “right” answer—the exercise succeeds in what Baumeister calls “quieting our cleverness.” This is crucial. Baumeister is the cofounder of The Biomimicry Guild, a group that promotes the increasingly popular notion that many of the best solutions to problems facing humanity can already be found in nature. “Biomimicry represents a paradigm shift away from the belief that we humans are the cleverest and most perfectly evolved,” says Baumeister. “When people believe that humans are the cleverest species, they might say, Why would I bother trying to learn from nature?”
At the core of biomimicry is the idea that nature has already solved many of the problems that stump us humans, and that innovators who cheat off biology’s crib sheet stand to gain an edge, since its solutions have been optimized over 3.8 billion years of focus group testing (otherwise known as evolution). “It’s a way to create breakthrough technologies,” says biomimicry mastermind Janine Benyus, who wrote the seminal 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, before cofounding The Biomimicry Guild with Baumeister in 1998. (Since then, the group has worked with clients like Boeing, InterfaceFLOR, The Coca-Cola Company and Colgate-Palmolive, recently launching an alliance with global architecture firm HOK.)
Of course, nature-inspired innovation isn’t exactly new. Leonardo DaVinci’s flying machines were informed by bird studies, and the idea for Velcro came in the ’40s when engineer George De Mestral noticed the burrs that clung to his dog’s fur after a walk in the woods. But what Benyus and Baumeister have done with the guild is establish biomimicry as a formal science, creating processes and tools that allow the ideas to be widely adopted. Innovators the world over, and not just clients of the guild, are using nature’s ingenuity to devise game-changing solutions: efficient wind turbines that mimick whale fins, a Japanese bullet train that passes quietly through tunnels at super speeds by emulating the kingfisher’s beak, self-cooling buildings that imitate termite mounds. Three universities—Arizona State, Ontario College of Art & Design and Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City—now offer a biomimicry minor, and the guild has begun offering a master’s-level certificate program and soon, online classes through a new “Professional Pathways” program.
Biomimicry success stories abound. When German botanist Wilhelm Barthlott set out to find out how nature cleans itself, he came upon the “superhydrophobic” lotus leaf, on whose surface water beads up and carries away dirt. Partnering with Barthlott to mimic that molecular structure, Sto Corp, manufacturer of specialty construction products, developed its patent-protected StoCoat Lotusan, an exterior coating that effectively makes buildings self-cleaning. Here’s another: When Kaichang Li, a science professor at Oregon State University, discovered that the blue mussel’s sticky fibers resemble soy flour’s proteins, he developed a nontoxic, soy-flour- based adhesive, called PureBond Technology. For Columbia Forest Products, manufacturer of hardwood plywood and veneer, it was the end of a competitive scramble to find an alternative to the pricey, carcinogenic industry standard: urea- formaldehyde-based glue.
Nature-inspired design might even correct our overindulgences. The intemperate use of antibiotics has given rise to drug-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a “superbug” that causes difficult-to-treat, drug-resistant infections and beleaguers hospitals. In 2005, MRSA killed more than 19,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. The cure? Sharks. When scientist Anthony Brennan was researching alternatives to toxic antifouling paints that discourage the growth of barnacles and other crusty life forms on ships, a Galapagos shark swam by. Its skin was squeaky clean. Brennan investigated and discovered that the microscopic pattern on the creature’s naturally bacteria-resistant scales can be replicated. Harnessing that discovery, Sharklet Technologies launched SafeTouch skins last year. Bacteria growth is reduced by 80 percent on these adhesive-backed surface coverings—which can be placed on everything from hospital countertops to bathroom doors—than it does on other surfaces. “Rather than trying to conquer nature, we’re learning from it,” says Sarah Eder, a vice president at Sharklet.
Even nature’s freakier features can serve as inspiration. Take the case of the tardigrade. The microscopic animal enters a state of anhydrobiosis when dehydrated, suspended in a seemingly dead state for years. When exposed to water, however, it revives and walks away. Scientists Judy Müller-Cohn and Rolf Müller founded biostability company Biomatrica in 2006, off ering a suite of products that, mimicking anhydrobiosis, stabilize biological lab samples at room temperature. Why is this important? Scientists customarily preserve DNA and RNA samples in freezers, which can malfunction, wreaking havoc on research. This new approach will preserve them far more effectively—and at less cost. Stanford University estimates that conversion to room-temperature sample stability could save the university $16 million over 10 years.
Practitioners of biomimicry stress that nature, unlike humankind, never does anything unless it’s conducive to life. Nature runs on sunlight, it turns waste into food, its systems include built-in backup plans, and it uses local, nontoxic materials to self-assemble useful things. These principles act as a sustainability filter for biomimetic ideas. In other words, if the factory in which you produce your biomimetic widget discharges carcinogenic slurry, you’ve missed the point. So while biomimicry can drive innovations that prove beneficial to the bottom line, Baumeister says, “the ultimate return on investment is the survival of the human species.”
TIFFANY MEYERS, who writes about design, advertising and business, is presently shopping around for a pet tardigrade.