innovation from nature
Taking inspiration from nature and using it an innovation tool has taken many names of the years. Some have proved more popular than others, be it bionics, biomimetics, biomimicry, nature-inspired, bio-inspired or biognosis, they all look to nature for the generation of new ideas. What they represent is a new type of design philosophy, one focusing on the nature world.
We can look to Leonardo Da Vinci as one of the earliest and most well-known exponents of developing innovation via his examination of nature. Many of this 15th century polymath's inventions were inspired by observations of natural phenomena and his subsequent biological studies. For example, Da Vinci’s design for a flying machine was inspired by the study of wings and bird flight, while the designs for a parachute and a helicopter resulted from his observations of seed pods and flowers falling from trees.
"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." - Albert Einstein
From the mid-to-late 20th century, mimicking nature has come to the forefront as we look to find innovative solutions to human challenges. The development of natural sciences and our understanding of the natural world, combined with the improvements to communication technology and access to information have all helped to bring nature-inspired problem solving to forefront in the 21st century. This radical shift is aligned as we are looking for new direction for our social, economic, ecological and environmental futures.
Until the industrial revolution, the our way of life was built around our connection to the natural world. The two were in harmony. Our control of fire led to the seismic shift away from this and towards controlling the natural world and maximising the these resources for our own means. This led to the Industrial Revolution and the control of fire, development of metal alloys and the use of man-made chemicals in our never-ending quest for new more complex products and materials.
We are now reaching a tipping point where many of our natural resources and becoming scarce, or costs of sourcing is becoming less cost-effective. Coupled with environmental pollution and our understanding of the damages to our planet’s ecosystems, we need to shift away from our old ways of thinking. This is leading to a shift in mindset to discover new methods of minimising waste, generating power and adapting to changing conditions on earth.
Why look to nature for innovation? Over billions of years of evolution, the natural world has developed strategies to solve complex problems that humans are only just understanding. Be it self-healing capabilities, lightweight materials, manufacturing at ambient temperatures and self-assembly, the natural world has the potential.
Nature-inspired Idea Generator
There are billions of potential solutions that can be found in the nature world. The challenge is to know how to use these for innovative solutions. Questions like, how does nature make things? How does it process information? How does it recycle materials? How does it repair itself? These are some of the many questions, designer and scientists are searching from when looking to nature. The two methods of investigating nature are industry and research-led approaches.
Client X wishes to develop new products focusing on moisture control. By working with their design team and academic partners, they identify a number of models from the natural world. They have narrowed this to thermoregulation of insect nests, camel nostrils, human sweat pores and pine cones. after careful testing of a number of projects, they focus on the properties of the pine cone fibres and how they react to moisture. The opening and closing of the pine cone doesn't rely on hinges and complex communication systems, but simple fibres that twist when wet. Although this is a simplified version of the steps taken, both Inotek Textiles and ICD Stuttgart have developed products based on the pine cone.
Academic institution Y has a long history of developing innovation based on nature. Their current area of interest is the Nepenthes Pitcher Plant. Many plants have superhydrophobic surfaces to remove dirt to allow for photosynthesis, or in the case of the pitcher plant to cause insects to slide down into their digestive fluids. By study the slipperiness of the plant, they have developed an overlying film that acts as a superhydrophobic surface. The treated surface will outperform other state of the art surfaces in scope, liquid mobility, resilience, and pressure tolerance. The other benefit of the material is that is will negate the need for expensive manufacturing techniques. The technology is being developed for potential applications in the medical fields, shipping, oil industry, and optics. Slips Technologies, a spin-off from the Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab, Harvard University are one such company developing these technologies for the commerical sector.