Biomimicry: How Nature Can Teach Us To Be More Efficient
By Sergio Afonso, Broadreach Instructor
As humans living in this world, we share the planet with a multitude of other species that specialize in their own areas. Although we may “be the furthest evolved” or “the smartest” of all the living species, that doesn’t mean we have every problem figured out. When comparing some everyday statistics, it seems our other, “dumber species” friends have more issues worked out than we think. For example, in 2013, the people in the Netherlands spent more than 70 million hours stuck in traffic, and that’s just in one country! Now, compare this to, let’s say a colony of ants—they spend absolutely no time stopped in traffic, working diligently to gather food for the colony without interruption.
This is, but one instance of how other species are outperforming us in simple tasks like getting to and from a place without stopping. So the question is: how do we change our ways to become more efficient?
The answer: biomimicry.
WHAT IS BIOMIMICRY?
Biomimicry, according to the Biomimicry Institute, is “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” That is a lot to digest in a definition. To put it simply: biomimicry is the idea of copying what other species are doing around us in nature to complete a task. And it’s not even just copying them, it’s learning how they solve problems. We as humans are not the first species to build, we’re not the first to try to heat and cool a structure, try to optimize packing space, or to waterproof. There are many species out there that do all these things, but have done so gracefully and without much impact on the environment around them. Here are a couple of examples of how biomimicry has been put to use already:
THE BULLET TRAIN
When the train first debuted, it was called the bullet train because of its rounded nose and the boom it would make when exiting tunnels. The engineers noticed that the loud sound it made disturbed too many of the passengers and they began to look for a way to quiet it as it traveled. One of the engineers happened to be a birder and came across a king fisher. He noticed how the bird dove into the water from flight without making a splash. He decided to apply the shape and structure of the king fisher’s beak to the front of the train. After the bullet train was improved and tested, not only did they quiet the train, they also made it go 10% faster and use 15% less electricity, and that was only by changing the shape of front of the train!
THE NAMIBIAN BEETLE
There is no fresh water to drink in the Namibian desert and yet this little critter has survived. How does it get its drinking water to stay alive? It collects its own water. Its wing covers are covered with bumps that act like a magnet for water. So, when the fog rolls in over the desert, the beetle climbs to the top of a sand dune, sticks its tail end to the sky and let nature do its thing. The water from the fog accumulates on these bumps and then the water droplets run down the sides of its body to its mouth, where it drinks some of the freshest water that can be found in the desert. Some scientists want to use the same idea to put on the side of skyscrapers in foggy cities. This water collection would work 10x better than fog-catching nets and would put fresh water into city systems.
how to use biomimicry
These are just a few examples of ways biomimicry is being put to use and there is much potential to be explored in this area of engineering and sustainability. We have the largest impact on our environment over any other species out there, and it’s important that we take care of the resources we have to work with.
Next time you encounter a problem, try an approach with biomimicry with these simple questions:
What is the problem?
What solution do we need?
Is there already something out there that accomplishes this?
These are broad questions, but good starting point for anyone interested in the topic. We may be the “smartest species” living in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get a little help from others around us.
That bug you just stepped on might not be able to drive a car, BUT it could hold the secret making the car run more efficient, or even better…FLY!
Sergio Afonso is a Broadreach summer instructor who led one of ourSpanish Immersion programs this past summer.