For any idea to become a tangible product, it must cycle through some form of a design process. The standard design process consists of several basic steps: define the problem, brainstorm ideas, design a solution, prototype, review, revise, and repeat until you have an elegant solution to the problem.
Nature also follows a series of design processes, which we call evolution and natural selection. Through these processes, the characteristics of every organism have been tried and perfected over millions of years to yield the most successful outcome. The success of an organism, however, takes into account much more than its survival alone. To better understand the scope of a successful design according to nature, the Biomimicry Life’s Principles outline six basic requirements for creating a truly sustainable product:
- Evolve to survive
- Use resources efficiently
- Adapt to changing environments
- Integrate development with growth
- Be locally attuned and responsive
- Use life-friendly chemistry
While nature demands these qualities of all of its designs, human designs are currently limited in their ability to achieve sustainability at this level. It is, however, important to keep these principles in mind in order to create a fully biomimetic product.
The Two Ways to Innovate
Biomimicry can occur in two forms: The Challenge to Biology and the Biology to Design Method.
The Challenge to Biology is the method that most closely resembles the standard design process: You start with a problem and look for a solution within nature. This task, however, is much easier said than done. Finding an appropriate solution often requires an abstraction of the problem statement. This means that we must change the original problem definition to include broader terms, which then opens up many different places to search for answers.
For example, let’s say you need a fence for your yard. Jumping straight into searching for examples of “fences” in nature probably won’t provide many answers. That is why we abstract the problem by thinking about the big picture and asking questions such as, “Why do I need a fence?” or “What does a fence really do?”. In this situation, we need a fence to outline our property, and the fence allows only certain things to come in and go out. Then, we look for other words that define things with a similar function, such as “barrier” or “filter”. Now we have terms that can be frequently associated with elements in nature. From here we can search for answers to questions like “How does nature filter?” or “How does nature make a barrier?”.
These are the sort of questions we would search for on websites like AskNature, to get more specific answers about the organisms and ecosystems that “filter” or create “barriers”. At this point, the Challenge to Biology method allows you to consciously search for solutions in nature. From there, you can use the information you find as inspiration for your solution designs.
The other process for biomimetic design is The Biology to Design method. This technique is essentially the reverse of the Challenge to Biology such that you begin with a solution and find ways to apply it. Instead of going out and searching for answers, the Biology to Design requires that you go out and eagerly observe your surroundings. This is the method that Leonardo da Vinci used when he became inspired by birds and bats to design his “Ornithopter” or flying machine. In fact, many ancient cultures have happened upon solutions to their problems just by observing the natural world.
Here, the difficulty comes with brainstorming the potential applications, which includes understanding the human problems your idea could solve and ensuring that the new solution will be both environmentally friendly and cost effective. Although many of our problems have known solutions within nature, it becomes quite a struggle to implement similar solutions within our industrialized society. None the less, the Biology to Design method gives us a template for achieving this goal.