Smart(er) Cities

What is a Smart City? One definition is from Mark Deakin (2013) as one that utilises ICT to meet the demands of the market (the citizens of the city), and that community involvement in the process is necessary for a Smart city.” Now in most definitions, they ignore the biosphere and focus on the technology. We need to the biosphere as a fundamental part of urban life. The other is with the word smart itself. Why not use the word Smart(er) as a way we design, plan and run our cities?

Just like the push to work smarter, shouldn’t our cities be smarter too? By just changing this one word it allows us to explore avenues that the word smart blocks. Try it the next time you are writing something or designing future technology? Words are important.

Now to our latest work. We are part of the advisory board for the Climate KIC funded network, Adaptive Cities through Nature-based Solutions. Why is this important, and how will it make an impact?

We have written about this before and the advent of the reconnecting to the natural world and the value to soft-infrastructure over energy-intensive civil projects. We are part of the natural world whether we like or not, and we should embrace the need to connect with, work with and learn from the natural world to create more resilient and functional places. Nature isn’t always efficient, but many species and systems are adaptive and resilient to shocks. 

Why combine SMARTER city technologies with the natural world to benefit the entire biosphere. Now wouldn’t that be exciting?

If you are interested to know more about nature-based solutions, you know what to do, contact us now!

Food and Agriculture

“We have to change how we produce and consume food, not just for environmental reasons, but because this is an existential issue for humans.”Janet Ranganathan

The race to the bottom is happening in the food industry, and our agriculture system is at breaking point. We are destroying the topsoil, the lifeblood of our crops and eating more red meat than was ever thought possible.

We are part of nature, but apart from it. This has led us to overconsume on the land. Can nature-inspired solutions solve this? No. Not on their own, they cannot.

We need to look at new forms of agriculture that can regenerate the soil. Think of how many insects and fungus coexist. They need each other and thrive for the benefit of the bigger system. We can also study these social insects for the creation of more transparent and resilient supply chains. We shouldn’t optimise the system but look at distributed networks for solutions in the future.

This approach can also be applied to where in the system we need to innovate? Is it the product? The making? Or even the business model itself?

Where does the technology allow us to create low-technology solutions? Remember we waste approximately 30% of the food that we produce. 

These are not just questions to ponder, but points we are investigating for our Future Food System project.

This sums it up beautifully, ‘how meals are produced and delivered will be as key to solving climate change as the shift away from fossil fuels’, by The Ellen McArthur Foundation.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised or are working on ideas for food and agriculture, please contact us now.

Circular Economy

“Biomimetics can support the path towards the circular economy by offering both conceptual and practical strategies, including ways of creating information-rich materials that transcend the current digital/physical boundaries and advanced sustainable technologies for manufacture.” - Veronika Kapsali

When we think of systems in the natural world, we read about how nature recycles all materials. Unfortunately, this is not true as we shouldn’t see enormous amounts of surplus on coal, oil, turf and even limestone, should we? Through geological mechanisms, over millions (even billions) of years, everything will be recycled, but not in our timeframe.

Like biological and ecological systems, the circular economy is not perfect. This industrial ecological system will never achieve absolute zero, but that is missing the point. That said, the move to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover can allow us to tap into the multi-functional systems found in the natural world. 

Biological systems and their properties are tradeoffs from competing functions, so no single parameter is “optimal”. But understanding how these competing desires get resolved in a particular environment can provide a way forward. Besides, evolution does not “optimise” even if there is only one goal; evolution finds solutions that are better than existing ones, not “the best”. 

Circular economy and biomimicry are better than the existing ones. Let’s look to nature to find new ways to minimise the use of material and energy. Let’s find methods to keep information and resources in the system as long as possible, and finally, if we have to recover them downstream, we ensure that the materials have right chemistry that it can be broken down into non-toxic elements.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised or are working on ideas for biomimicry and the circular economy, please contact us now.

Supersticky material

Chemistry In the natural world differs from our technological problem-solving approach whereas we use a large variety of elements, in nature the lighter elements (such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Calcium, Phosphorous, Sulfur, Silicon etc.). With many heavy elements on the endangered list, we have seen an increase in R&D into bioinspired chemistry in the past decade. 

The Gecko has the amazing ability to stick to surfaces. The toes of a gecko are divided into nanoscale hair-like structures. When a gecko places its foot on the wall and curls its toes, these nanoscale structures interact with the wall on the atomic level. The forces (van-der-Waals forces) between the nano-structured hairs of the gecko foot and the atoms of the wall are strong enough to hold up the Gecko. 

Scientists at UMass Amherst have developed materials that use gecko-like nano-structures for draping adhesion. Draping adhesion is created with materials that can drape to create conformal contact with a surface while still maintaining high, elastic stiffness in directions where forces will be applied.

Drop us a message if you are interested in collaborating on bioinspired chemistry R&D.

Self-repairing and strong materials

Nacre, which is also known as Mother of Pearl, is a naturally occurring composite formed from calcium carbonate and biopolymers that create a brickwork structure. It is also nearly a thousand times stronger than any of its component parts and a major target for biomimetic synthesis.

Abalone Shell

Design of the brickwork structure is central to developing nacre-like materials with enhanced properties. Gaoquan Shi, and colleagues, at Tsinghua University, began by making a hydrogel from graphene and a silk protein, called fibroin.

Solution casting and drying this hydrogel gave parallel graphene plates bound with fibroin that self-assembled to create a material with a brickwork structure.

The team’s material is an improvement over other composites owing to a number of different factors. Graphene is stronger than the inorganic platelets that are commonly used but Shi explained that the homogenous composite hydrogel ‘produced an ideal layered structure’ which amplified the mechanical properties. Coupled with the strong electrostatic and hydrogen bonding between fibroin and graphene, the system surpasses most composites previously reported.

This is just one of many examples of self-repairing materials that have been developed by the study of the natural world. If you are interested in exploring more of these, please CONTACT US NOW.


NASA Biocene Tools Workshop 2019 - Part I

We were honoured to get the invitation to speak at the first Biocene Tools Workshop arrange by the NASA Virtual Interchange for Nature-inspired Exploration (V.I.N.E.) at NASA Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH).

One the same panel was Greg Horowitt from T2 Venture Capital as we both talked about the value of looking to industry and delivering value.

4th Industrial Revolution

Build your team right

Always consider all parts of the system

Summary of the work

Our presentation focused on how we can uncover the unmet needs’ of the client/customer/service to deliver value, not just through disruptive innovation but by developing a Blue Ocean Strategy.  We have noticed that industry isn’t picking up biom* (the collective name for bionics, biomimicry, biomimetics, etc) as much as many have hoped. Why is that?

Two reasons. One is that many who practice biom* are underskilled in the markets they work and push for biom* to be the first method of problem-solving. WRONG, it still easier to adopt from other industries, or even steal/borrow/licence/buy from your competitors. 

The second reason is fundamental. It takes a great deal of time to look into biological research and identify what exact function that you can the principles from. You also need to hire someone with knowledge of life sciences and integrate them into your team/process. To industry, this delay of 6-12 months is astronomically expenise and risky. Secondly, replacing a function is wrong. Not in the natural world works in isolation, it is polyfunctional.

There is no model (or platform) out with academia that is fully formed to tackle these challenges at present. Many of the presenters have models within academia that are working but need the input from the university. One is a bright light at that is the network analysis model developed by GeorgiaTech. This one example of an analytical tool that can produce replicable results. There is another tool that is built into our model that will achieve similar results and cut out the need for knowing any biology, instead you focus on not one function that you have a problem with, but the competing desires between functions - the tradeoff. People will say what about Asknature? This is a great resource, but it does not allow you to find those solutions in a systematic manner based on complex interrelationships in the natural world. The team behind this know that as well. We wouldn’t be on the advisory board and help shape it if it was perfect!

This working model flows as follows based on the Jobs-to-be-Done Framework and combines TRIZ, Blue Ocean Strategy and Stagegate analysis to find ways to find solutions by looking tradeoffs in engineering and biology.

In next weeks blog, we will describe the process in more detail. Here is a link to the presentation.

If you would like to discuss how we can help you solve problems and deliver biomimetic solutions, please get in touch and we can grab a coffee.

Superslippy Surfaces

Chemistry In the natural world differs from our technological problem-solving approach whereas we use a large variety of elements, in nature the lighter elements (such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Calcium, Phosphorous, Sulfur, Silicon etc.) With many heavy elements on the endangered list, we have seen an increase in R&D into bioinspired chemistry in the past decade.

One such example is inspired by the Pitcher Plant. Adaptive Surface Technologies, a spinout from the Aizenberg LabWYSS Institute, Harvard University managed to create a material that repels just about any liquid, including blood and oil and does so even while it is exposed to high pressure or freezing temperatures. Since it is carnivorous by nature, the ability to have a virtually frictionless surface inside its cupped leaf is crucial for its ability to capture insects or small frogs.

SLIPS® is an advanced coating with high performance and low environmental impact compared to other anti-fouling and superhydrophobic surface. SLIPS® can now be found in marine and industrial applications to minimise biofouling, and packaging to ensure that the product doesn’t stick to the packaging. You will never need to bang the ketchup bottle again!

We have links with bio-inspired chemistry labs around the world to assist you with your product development. For a brief chat about your needs, please feel to contact us to help you solve your problem.

Bird-of-Paradise Flower

The Bird-of-Paradise Flower or Strelitzia is a genus of five species of perennial plants, native to South Africa. Academics from the University of Stuttgart were tasked to develop a hingeless louvre system that can be developed for irregularly shaped buildings.

After analysing a number of plant species, they settled on the pollination mechanism of the Strelitzia reginae. The flower is aligned perpendicular to the stalk, providing a perching spot for the birds. When a bird lands, its weight pulls down the bottom two petals, causing a bending motion that reveals the anthers where the pollen is. The pollen covers the bird’s feet while it’s feeding on nectar, and then it flies off to another flower where the pollen gets deposited on that plant’s pistil.

This product is available in a range of sizes and can be 3d printed in a variety of materials depending on the client needs. This is developed into a commercial entity, Flectofin.

If you love this case study and want to know about how we can work with you, drop us a message and we can start the conversations about collaboration.

Structural Colour and the butterfly

Male Morpho Butterflies are bright blue iridescent butterflies, whose colour has been reported to be so intense that they can be seen from low flying aircraft or “up to a quarter of a mile off” in their natural habitat in the rainforests of South America, as states P. Vukusic (1999).

The bright colour is not via pigments. Instead, the butterfly incorporates structural colour via corrugated ridges present on the scales of its wings. This is leading to developments in colour displays and the low-energy thermal imaging cameras

This fascinating video highlights how Lexus is using the scales of the blue morpho butterfly at the nano-level to produce a paint-free colour for the next-generation of luxury cars.

For more information on structural colour applications and how this can improve your product solutions, please get in touch.

How nature inspires the material world

Civilisations have been looking to nature for unique solutions to problems for thousands of
years but it’s only since the mid-20th Century that this approach has started
to become mainstream, explains Richard MacCowan.

With Millions of species on the planet, Earth could be considered one big research and
development lab. And one that has been in action since life first began nearly
4 billion years ago. By investigating the functions and processes that have
evolved in nature over this time, modern-day designers and engineers are
developing new technologies and solutions based on the principles that persist
in the natural world today. This process is called biomimicry. From engineering
and design to business and IT, industries are increasingly looking to nature
for answers.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev on Unsplash

Research by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute predicts that in the US alone, biomimicry will add $425 billion to gross domestic product and create 2 million jobs by 2030. In Europe as well, many industries are focusing efforts on tapping into this market. Nature is more resource-efficient than we are. As a species, humans use energy to overcome problems, whereas in the natural world it is predominantly about how material and structure is used.

There are examples in all facets of natural sciences. From plants to birds, fungus and fish, nature can guide us to new and remarkable innovations. It’s no wonder many of the most forward-thinking companies are looking to nature to guide their next discovery.

One of the most successful examples of biomimicry is the hook and loop fastener, otherwise known as Velcro. In 1941, a Swiss engineer noticed how burdock seeds stuck to the coat of his dog via small hooks. He developed the idea over many years and patented it in 1955. Initially made of cotton, it wasn’t until the company manufactured this out of nylon and polyester that it became successful. What brought this innovation to the forefront was its use by NASA on spacesuits and by fashion designers such as Pierre Cardin.

Let’s also consider sharks. Having been around for millions of years, they have evolved to have a cartilaginous skeleton and skin made of tooth-like dermal denticles which reduce drag through the water. A multitude of companies and products have been inspired by sharks, from the shark-skin swimsuits that caused controversy in the 2008 Summer Olympics, to aviation companies looking to reduce air resistance on planes.

Another company inspired by shark skin is Sharklet Technologies. Initially developed by a materials scientist who was interested in stopping barnacles growing on ship hulls, he observed that Galapagos sharks have diamond-shaped denticles that have millions of tiny ribs that repel microbial activity. After many prototypes, the team developed a working solution that repelled 85% of green algae compared to smooth surfaces. Unlike other anti-fouling coatings, this was accomplished without the use of chemicals. This same technology is now being used in the medical industry with catheters, tubes, wound-dressings and contact lenses to repel bacteria.

One of the areas often overlooked is how we can learn from nature to conserve our natural assets. BioMatrix Water is a company based in Forres, Moray, which develop environmental and technological solutions for water management. By replicating the filtration purposes of plants and microbes found in coastal zones such as saltwater marshes, they are creating floating islands and natural water filtration products that create new habitats, increase biodiversity and minimise destruction of existing ecosystems.

So where is the future of biomimicry heading? We increasingly understand more about how life works at the microscopic level, and replication of this for materials science will see us developing novel technologies that can replicate, or even surpass those found in nature. Self-repairing materials are being designed for use on aircraft and in buildings that will revolutionise the way we travel and live. Combined with the development of computer processing power, we will also see the creation of new technologies based on social insects such as bees and ants. This could allow for even more ingenious breakthroughs in medical applications than those already mentioned.

Nature holds many secrets which we are only just beginning to unlock. Biomimicry is an area of innovation that will allow us to tap into the successful strategies and adaptations that have enabled species to evolve and survive for millions of years. Consider all the technologies in our lives that could be transformed by learning from nature.

Richard MacCowan is the Founder and Managing
Director of the Biomimicry UK Innovation Lab.

This article was originally published in the Scottish Wildlife magazine, Spring 2019 Edition.

Planes, trains and automobiles

Engineers and designers can learn a lot from the way that nature utilises diverse materials in complex ways.


We lived in harmony with the natural world before the Industrial Revolution. That changed with the advent of new manufacturing processes in the mid-eighteenth century. 

We are now seeing a change whereby science and engineering are looking back to nature as something more powerful - something to learn from: Nature 2.0.

Our understanding of how species have evolved has increased vastly over the past 20 years, along with our use of technologies enabling us to delve further into the microscopic world. One such field that is taking advantage of this is biomimicry. This approach to innovation looks at what functions, process and systems nature uses, and replicates these principles.

Photo by Sebastian Grochowicz on Unsplash

Photo by Campbell Boulanger on Unsplash

Photo by Jannis Lucas on Unsplash

Fluid mechanics 

Famous examples are: Velcro, inspired by burdock seed burrs, the cat eyes in our roads and barbed wire, inspired by the hawthorn bush.

One area of engineering that is attracting a great deal of investment is the field of fluid mechanics. 

When we think of looking to nature and flight, we think of bird flight. Thick wings of modern aircraft generate lift the same as in bird wings, gliding birds reduce drag by having winglets, which are now found on the majority of passenger airliners. These also focus on different air flows across and around the wings.

Even the study of shark skins for wings is in development. This exoskeleton type material reduces drag on the shark with micro vortexes along the body, allowing the shark to glide through the water. This would allow for a considerable reduction in drag and use less aviation fuel.

One of the most famous examples is the Shinkansen Bullet train. In the mid-1990s the engineering team looked at ways to increase a trains speed to reduce journey time. The issue being as the trains got faster, they were creating sonic booms as they left tunnels along the route.

How to solve this? They looked to the kingfisher and how it creates a minimal splash, just like a top-level diver. The long beak of the kingfisher pierces the water, and the train design team increased the length of the nose of the train to create the same effect at a differing scale.

Engineering solutions

What about automobiles? Improvements in airflow have been one of the critical areas of development of the car manufacturer, McLaren.

While looking at how to improve the update into the engines, they sought a remarkable example, the Sailfish. You think of these animals as smooth fish gliding through the water. In fact, they have small ridges near the tail which reduces the drag and increases efficiency.

The design team applied their engineering solutions to one of the cars and improved the air intake by a whopping 17 percent. 

What about future developments? The team at the Biological Form and Function lab led by Dr Naomi Nakayama have been developing research into how the dandelion seeds stay aloft.

Their investigation uncovered an unusual type of vortex. The discovery of the separated vortex ring provides evidence of the existence of a new class of fluid behaviour around fluid-immersed bodies, which may underlie locomotion, weight reduction and particle retention in biological and manmade structures. This could have potential uses in aircraft and vehicle industries and even household products.

For engineering and designers needing novel solutions, looking to the natural world is proving to offer unique solutions for the problems they hope to overcome. We need to continue to look at how the living world uses the materials in ever more complex ways.

By Richard James MacCowan & Dr Naomi Nakayama

This article was originally published in the Ecologist on the 8th April 2019. You can access the original here.

New Arrival - Lewis Charters

We are delighted to introduce Lewis Charters

Lewis is our latest intern joining us while he is completing his MSc. Climate Change and Environmental Policy at the University of Leeds. During his time with us in York, Lewis will be working on some research into academic experiences of Nature Inspired Solutions and future trends that we could develop technological solutions for using biomimicry.

Although we are not looking for staff on a regular basis, we will advertise these on our newsletter. You can sign here for updates.

British Standards Institute

Richard has been invited to work with the British Standards Institute (BSI) on as the UK representative for the ongoing international ISO standards on Biomimetics

This will allow us to help shape the next stage in the development of new standards focusing on an ontology (organisation of knowledge) enhanced thesaurus, image search engine and integrating problem and function-oriented approaches applying TRIZ. 

So what does this mean? 

Firstly, why an organisation of knowledge. Nature carries out a multitude of functions, from the atomic-level up to our megastructures - this is a hierarchy. By creating an interlinked organisation of these functions, it will allow us to find potential solutions more effectively. That’s’ if you have identified the exact problem in the first place. 

These functions are not insular and are interconnected both internally and externally. An ant is a perfect example. Why do we not see dog-sized ants? The energy needed and the material for the exoskeleton would not allow for the insect to grow to this level. It’s these tradeoffs or competing desires that need identifying. What biological strategies overcome the negative while making the most of the positive. It could be two, three or even twenty competing functions in place.

Think about how many what your lists of needs are when you next buy a new mobile? Cost, functionality, apps, size, weight, design, etc. Some of these are positive, and some are negatives. 

So what’s TRIZ? TRIZ, in short, is a Russian method of problem-solving that offer a toolkit of techniques to analyse and develop a solution. Develop in Russia; it was initially focused on what common functions inventions used to solve problems by examining around 40,000 patents. This lead to the development of a whole myriad of solutions and 40 inventive principles. 

The Centre of Biomimetics and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath took this and developed a way to analyse the patents in nature, led by Prof. Julian Vincent. He’s our mentor and on our advisory board! 

The video summaries how technology and nature solves problems from nano to kilometre focusing on six different areas, time to energy and information. 

So how is this all relevant?

Finding solutions in nature can be challenging, even more so if you are unsure what the problem is that you are attempting to solve. How life works, focusing on functions is the key to finding new solutions. These methods will streamline the approach to design, especially with the combination of advanced technologies such as AI and machine learning. 

If you have a project that is proving challenging and are looking for novel solutions, please feel to contact us for an initial discussion.

Edinburgh Science and Biomimicry

On the 13th April, we spoke to a full house at the Pleasance for our Design by Nature event as part of Edinburgh Science. Alongside Veronika Kapsali and Naomi Nakayama and the amazing host, Kathryn Harkup, we shared our stories about how we use biomimetics as part of our work.

Our discussions ranged from barbed wire, Da Vinci, through to regrowing the desert as part of a regenerative closed-loop system.

The highlights of the talks were the innovations in textiles led by Veronika highlighting the way that multi-layered materials react to moisture, heat and pressure. Penguins and pine cones were at the forefront!

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

Photo by Paul Carroll on Unsplash

Photo by Andrian Valeanu on Unsplash

Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

With Naomi discussing the work of Biological Form and Function Lab at the University of Edinburgh. They are exploring different plants and animals about how they react to stimulus. The focus was their novel study of dandelions seed flight. They are using their study of biology to teach biologists about design-thinking and highlight how you can take the principles from nature and develop prototypes.

You can read more about the work of Kathryn in some of her brilliants books on science communication, whilst Veronika has published her book, Biomimetics for Designers through Bloomsbury. 

TEDx York Summary

Richard was delighted to be asked to be one of the speakers at TEDx York on the 16th of November. The event hosted by Heather Niven was focusing on Blurred Realities. With noted speakers such as Kim Arazi, Tim Leigh and Catherine Allen, the topics were as varied as VR and Artifical Intelligence the event was attended by 100 people at the Everyman Cinema in York.

Richards’ talk focused on how we can look at different perspectives of the world for problem-solving if we consider the viewpoint of plants and animals, ‘How nature views the world…’

More images from the day can be found here.

(image copyright Jim Poyton Photography TEDx York)

BBC Countryfile Autumn Diaries

Richard spent time with BBC Countryfile team filming a segment marking 100 years since the end of WWI. Filmed at the presenter, Paul Martin’s house, they played around with sphagnum moss, sycamore seeds, camouflage, spider webs and pine cones whilst discussing what technologies were inspired by nature that has been used in military applications.

You can access the programme here.

Be The New Normal

Nature as the Technology of the Future

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”, said Albert Einstein. Well, this is what we are going to do. Biomimicry is (or any other related terms) about how we can look to the natural world to find solutions to overcome our technical challenges. It’s also a design philosophy, rooted in science, but with the creative way of design at its core.

Design is a process - like any process, we must study and practice. It works well where we assemble predictable materials and mechanisms into more complex products and structures. These structures physically support processes operating within them. It works well when there are abundant materials and resources so that our primary concern is cost, the perceived value apportioned to the resources used, NOT the impact in possessing them.

Image: Design as Process

What happens when successful populations grow and personal well-being and aspirations outpace the resources available? Is this an impending disaster, or can we look again at nature and understand how it already does so much with so little? How does it share innovations and resources? How does it innovate through ‘design’ to exploit self-assembled properties and phase transition thresholds, because resources are scarce and there’s always a trade-off? Finally, why must organisms integrate multiple functions within a single solution, remain lighter/stronger/faster/fitter to avoid predation and persist through evolutionary time?

Image: Impending disaster, or opportunity for radical change?

It’s not new for a start. There are examples of civilisations throughout history mimicking nature. Here’s the thing. Where does any innovator turn to for inspiration? It has to be the world around them. There is nowhere else. With modern computing, we can do it with fresh eyes. Airbus is doing by looking at slime mould foraging and bone growth algorithms. Like any method, once we start to brand it as something, it can lose its edges. We cannot brand life.

So why should it be the new normal for the design of buildings? We won’t go down the ‘S’ route here. It’s a confusing word. Let’s look it like this. When we manufacture stuff we like to heat, beat or treat into submission. Nature doesn’t do this. It uses the structure and shape to overcome a problem. Our methods to use lots of heavy elements. In the natural world, the lighter elements dominate. This is explained in the famous graphs by Julian Vincent and his team at the Biomimetics and Natural Technologies Centre in Bath.

Image: Comparing Technology vs Biology at problem-solving

Not everyone can be ahead of the game, so on the innovation adoption curve, who are the early adopters? We have Saint Gobain + Ecophan, HOK, Arup, Buro Happold, Exploration, Jacobs, Interface, Grimshaw’s….there are a quite a few! Why don’t we hear about their developments? Well, firstly, you cannot patent nature. Secondly, it gives them a competitive advantage, and finally, it’s about the outcomes, not the process. 

The natural world has had around 4 billion years of a head start on us. In this time, many different species have solved problems in similar ways. Think of flight from, insects and pterosaurs, through to birds, mammals and even reptiles. We call this convergent evolution. You can see this in our technology. Look at our smartphones, cars, houses and many more.

To be able to overcome our technical challenges, many differing toolkits have emerged. Is there a magic wand for this? No. We can call this bio-inspiration whereby we are gaining that moment of clarity. Archimedes found this when he was in a bath. Salvador Dali would enter his creative place by falling asleep with a metal key in his hand and a plate on the floor. His moment of clarity is when he was just about to drop off. The noise of the key would wake him up and allow his to explore this relaxed state of mind.

Back to reality! You can read about successful strategies developed by two brilliant scientists by reading the work of Dr Julian Vincent and Prof Thomas Speck. They take different approaches to problem-solving but converge on the essential elements. A logical process of innovation to create something new.  From speaking both of these great men, it’s becoming apparent that more and more new (or improved products) are developed from an industrial-led perspective. As in we have a technical challenge - does nature have a solution, compared to the research-focused approach of looking at a biological strategy and seeing what new products you can invent. This is more than three times more prevalent these days than by looking at a biological strategy and identifying a product (or products) that this could improve.

As someone with a background in the built environment, human behaviour and design, I’ve got a range of experience in the industry to identify what is useful and what is a mere gimmick. The key is to target those who fund the projects and those that build it, accountants and engineers. You sell the outcomes to them; not the process.

My favourite work at the moment is by looking to termites, specifically the Namibian and Indian Termites. We’ve all heard about the termite mound-inspired building in Africa? What if were to tell you that the science wasn’t’ quite correct in that one. Here’s why. Prof Scott Turner and Dr Rupert have been studying termites and their mounds for decades. While termites do construct their mounds to allow for airflow throughout the structure, they aren’t contracted to regulate temperature. The changes in temperature, and the resulting change in pressure, within the mound, is what moves the air.

Do you like fungus? Well, you should. The fungus and the termites co-evolved. A special relationship. Like Bert + Ernie from Sesame Street or Ant + Dec (from, well everything!). They need each to survive!

Image: Fluted termite mounds and their processes

What do we see here? We are looking at ‘convection driven gas exchange’. This is based on Fluted Termite Mounds. The skin is a diffusion membrane. It is not openly porous to turbulent wind flows. The mound is a heat transfer cell: driven by the sun during the day; and massive loss of heat into the atmosphere at night. This flow delivers carbon dioxide rich air from the internal chambers to the mound surface where it is diffused. The reverse happens with oxygen-rich air. The fungus needs the moisture regulation and constant temperature to thrive. Teamwork. Cool, huh?

Now for the fun part. We like buildings that are sealed and sterile. But what if that’s wrong? This means we can’t control the bacteria and fungus that develop. What if we can create buildings that breathe and use this biological strategy to regulate moisture? That’s precisely Turner and Soar are doing. This is currently in development for existing buildings. The future? Well, how about buildings facades that will regulate the moisture and temperature levels using fungus?

This is just one example of how we can change the building industry by looking to nature to find a creative solution. There are billions of ways in which the natural world has solved problems. Where do you start? You need to identify the challenges we need to overcome first. This is crucial. Not knowing the problem in the first place and diving in will create poor solutions. Only then can you observe, watch, listen.

So what are we at Biomimicry UK working on at the moment? Most of our attention is going on the Biomimicry Masterclass that we are developing with the fantastic people from the South African-based company 42 Courses. We are very excited about this. It’s not just Biomimicry UK: we have world-renowned innovators from a range of sectors sharing how they innovate. Supercar designer Frank Stephenson will talk about fluid dynamics. Architect and designer Michael Pawlyn on water and architecture. Designers from Interface will share their insights into textile design, Dr Julian Vincent will share his research insights from his long and vast career in biomimicry, and Dr Rupert Soar will be expanding on his fascinating work with termites. It’s a taster into the world of biomimicry. It’s about learning enough to be dangerous!

Come on over and see what we are doing.

Richard James MacCowan FRSA

Founder - Biomimicry UK | Innovation Lab

Useful reading:

Turner J.S. & Soar R.C. (2008) Beyond Biomimicry. What termites can tell us about realising the living building?

Vincent J.V. (2012) Structural Biomaterials 3rd Edition

Kapsali V (2016) Biomimetics for Designers

Useful resources we like to share -

End of Year School Report


Here is our end of year school report. 

January and February saw us focus on EU funding proposals. Long and painful, but worth it in the long run. We ran workshops to students from Rhein-Waal University of Applied Sciences and The Royal College of Art as well.

March was a busy month with presentations to engineers from VIT University in India. We followed this by giving a design talk on Health & Wellbeing at the Workplace Trends Conference in London. Keeping up the travel we were invited to Copenhagen to give a presentation to the European Environment Agency on the Circular and Bioeconomy. The European Biomimicry Alliance meeting in Cogoleto near Genoa gave us the chance to meet with collaborators from across Europe. Lots of ice cream was eaten!

We were funded for a pilot project focusing on soundscapes in the natural environment and how this can inform art and design. Thank you to the great team from York St John University, The University of York and Anneliese from the BigBuzz.

Closer to home we ran a series of workshops for undergraduate students at Leeds Beckett University. A great bunch of students and staff who developed some brilliant ideas.

During May we got some sunshine at last! We were invited to speak to the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee. The home of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson no less. We combined this a one-day event at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, where we were invited to run a pitch at the Circular Economy Leaders Summit. We finished off May by running a small workshop on plastic packaging waste as part of the OpenIDEO innovation challenge.

The summer was upon us. In the middle of this, we ran a workshop at the One Planet York Expo explaining systems-thinking and termites.

This time to Hungary in August and a workshop at the Smart Systems Integration Summer School held in Balaton, Hungary. Thank you to our longtime partners at Heriot-Watt University for the invite. Great food and amazing weather.

….and into September. This saw the beginning of the development of our online masterclass with Go check out this brilliant South African tech startup.

To round off the year, we did a live studio session at the Disruptive Innovation Festival with Atelier Marko Brajovic where we discussed the future of biomimicry and design innovation. We followed this by a mini pitch on packaging innovation at the Royal Society of the Arts: Engage event in Leeds and another to at the FuturePlanetRocks event in London.
Wow, how did we do?

We’ve given ourselves a B+. There is always room for improvement, no matter what your think. 

Time to keep learning!

Disruptive Innovation Festival 2017

Richard had the pleasure to broadcast a live studio session from the Disruptive Innovation Festival on Tuesday 7th November. 

 Here is a short summary of the discussions. The full interview can be found on Youtube.

Talking with Marko Brajovic a talented Montenegrin architect living and working in Brazil, they discussed the issues and challenges they find in working in the bioinspiration field and how it this can useful for solving our future grand challenges.

Full interview

join the club, the circular economy club

We are delighted to announce that we are now local organisers for the Circular Economy Club in the York region.

This will connect us to a global network to share insights at the local level with organisations. Stay tuned for our first events.

As a CEC Local Organiser, we manage the circular economy community in York and host activities to connect professionals working in the field and ensure we share best practices.

The Circular Economy Club (CEC) is the international network of circular economy professionals and organisations. CEC is non-profit, global and open.

Winners of the Design Competition

Eleven Magazine Competition - Design Innovation Inspired by Nature

Having judged all the entries from the design competition (hosted by Eleven Magazine) through the various rounds, the jury decided to award the overall prize to Karina Ashrapova from Russia with her entry titled, “Symbiotic Architecture: Space of Emotional Saturation”

Her summary is as follows:

“Modern man, who is a biological species, continues to live in artificial cities. Urban environment provokes negative psychological state of the person. It is necessary to provide a symbiotic relationship between nature, technology, bio-materials and architecture for harmonization of emotional level of the person, visual ecology, urban saturation, formation of an architectural environment. For the competent shaping of architectural space and adding emotional qualities for architecture spaces, the principles of perception of an architectural environment with the natural parameters and principles of functioning of natural organisms were brought out.”

The full entry can be found here.

Well done to the runner’s up Guillian Graves & Michka Mélo with concept, ”Nautile

plastic + packaging

As part of the OpenIDEO Circular Design Challenge, we ran a number of workshops in York to discuss how can shift away from a linear economy to a circular economy.

A number of unexpected things came out of the discussions. Firstly, that teabags are coated in plastics and that waxed lemons are as well. Secondly, that there are 8 main plastics used in the packaging industry with 350 polymers that are created. We are stuck in a plastic rut that is forced upon us by the plastic suppliers who want us to by ‘virgin’ materials. We are hoping that we can develop ideas throughout this challenge over the coming months.

A big thank you to Your Bike Shed for hosting us, and Carlos Rego from Logoplaste Innovation Labs for speaking with us about his work in packaging design + innovation. Keep us the amazing work, Carlos!

water in edinburgh

We were invited to the Circular Economy Leaders Summit 2017 in Edinburgh held at Dynamic Earth. 

150 emerging and existing leaders from in and around Scotlands water sector came together in the nation’s capital for a summit specifically designed to accelerate the pace of collaboration and innovation across the sector. This first summit inspired a range of collaborative projects and initiatives which bring to life the action-oriented approach we aim to create.

We met a great range of people from across the UK and have now got a number of projects in the pipeline as a result. A summary of the roundtable discussions can found here.

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