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Solving Design Challenges Through Biomimicry

Updated: Mar 1

What do camouflage, velcro, and wind turbines all have in common? They’re all occurrences of a concept called biomimicry. 


According to the Biomimicry Institute, biomimicry is “a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges—and find hope.” While many may not realize it, biomimicry is prolific in our urban environments; simply put it is when design mimics concepts found in nature, and this inspiration can range from structures created in nature to the makeup of natural organisms themselves. Biomimicry is a vital aspect of the environmental justice movement because it offers a framework for just ecological design, centers practices of traditional ecological knowledge used in Indigenous communities, and models conservation by mirroring what ecosystems already know how to do: survive and thrive. 


There are a plethora of examples of biomimicry in a variety of fields. One example is sharkskin-inspired swimsuits, notably worn by Olympian Micheal Phelps in the 2008 Olympics. These swimsuits take inspiration from the overlapping scales found on shark skin called “dermal denticles”; these indentations allow water to pass through the skin more quickly, something applicable to the speed needed in competitive swimming. Additionally, velcro is a commonplace instance of biomimicry. Velcro, invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1941, mimics burr needles, because the small hooks at the end of their tines are incredibly effective in adhering to other things. Biomimicry is also commonly applied in architectural design. The San Francisco Mint is a building with a design influenced by the Bay Area’s local biome and is net zero energy and zero water.



Around the Bay Area, biomimicry in design is abundant. One San Francisco organization rooting biomimicry as an essential principle of their mission is Matter of Trust. Matter of Trust uses hair mats to decontaminate polluted water. These mats are made of donated hair that is compacted together to form thick, rectangular blocks. Matter of Trust has leveraged the wonders of human hair and its richness in naturally occurring oils and turned it into an incredibly effective agent for soaking up petroleum and collecting litter. “Hair doesn’t swell up like a sponge, instead the oil coats the entire surface area of the hair, and because of the sheer volume, it is a very efficient material,” the organization stated in a 2023 Time article. Matter of Trust leads workshops to teach others about their mission, offering several youth-led programs. 


In addition, at the University of California, Berkeley, there are several design programs in place to teach students about the real-world possibilities of biomimicry. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design has hosted experts like Janine Benyus to give a talk about how nature can inform architecture and environmental design. Benyus popularized the term biomimicry in the 1990’s and is a co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute. UC Berkeley also has a site called the UCB Center for Interdisciplinary Bio-inspiration in Education and Research, (CIBER) where students can focus on bio-inspired design. Student-created designs even have the potential to influence the architectural approaches within the university’s campus!


Beyond the Bay Area, Indigenous communities around the globe have incorporated the concept of biomimicry into their practices for centuries. Living in harmony with nature and mimicking the natural systems that are proven to be successful is a central belief of many indigenous tribes. The Inuit, for example, build igloos out of ice blocks that mimic animal burrows. Melissa Nelson, a professor of Indigenous sustainability at Arizona State University and co-host of a podcast about biomimicry from an indigenous lens, commented on the intersections between biomimicry and indigenous customs in a recent interview. “These time-tested Indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the Earth are sources of inspiration for biomimicry as it attempts to transform Western science and design modern cultural systems based on the intelligence of natural processes,” she said. It is vital to acknowledge the histories of these communities in the overarching study and practice of biomimicry. 



I was lucky enough to interview two representatives from the Biomimicry Institute, Collin and Rubin, to get their perspectives and expertise on biomimicry. “When I tell people who have never heard about it [biomimicry]…every single person is like ‘that is both so logical and also so mind-blowing’,” Rubin said. Both Collin and Rubin echoed the idea that biomimicry is omnipresent and has the potential to be an incredibly helpful tool in tackling the climate crisis. “Biomimicry has the potential to create the day-to-day stuff that we do like transportation, or buildings more efficient and less harmful to the environment,” said Collin. 


The Biomimicry Institute offers several youth programs that encourage adolescents to synthesize biomimicry knowledge and brainstorm future solutions. Their organization is working towards educating and uniting the next generation of activists in implementing these ideas. “There are many ways to address the challenges in this world and we want young folks to understand that this [biomimicry] is another tool in that toolbox,” said Rubin. 


In addition to imparting knowledge about the traditional ways that biomimicry is present in our society, Collin also provided a broader example of how it can be present. “It [biomimicry] can also be applied to the workplace culture. If you look at social animals and social insects, for example…you can learn a lot from how they get along,” she said. Biomimicry as a concept extends beyond just architecture and design; the basic principles of biomimicry can be incorporated into our ideals as a society. The ideas of sharing resources, equal distribution of power, minimizing waste, and adaptability that we find in a plethora of organisms can be applied to our economies, political systems, and so much more. Biomimicry puts a name to the idea that we must look to nature, and where we come from, to create a better future for our world that ensures longevity and equity. We must put systems in place to understand biomimicry so that we can connect those principles to all areas of our lives.


 

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