Silicon valley’s Wikihow: Nature

Nature + tech = profit

What is nature to you? Is it a leisurely stroll through the woods?
Is it a memory of a summer vacation long ago? Or perhaps it’s something very close to you, like a part of your decision making process, something you keep in mind as you go about your day. Humans have an interesting interplay with nature, the details of our bond are not ironclad. One day we burn down a forest for utilitarian reasons like farming, next we create a carefully arranged piece of green. Now it seems a new flavor can be added to the human-nature book: Biomimicry. As the name implies, it is the act of mimicking nature or biology. The best way to explain this topic though is through some funky examples.

First up we have the most ubiquitous example of borrowing from nature: Velcro
This tangle lock is inspired by the burr. When designer George de Mestral saw in 1941 that the burr plant sticked to him and his dog, he carefully examined the workings of the plant. A few ponderances later he devised what we now know as Velcro.

Burr to Velcro juxtaposition –

Jumping forward in time a bit we can see Biomimicry become more front and center. Japan wanted to create a new bullet train. In this quest for the right train shape they looked at birds and saw that the Kingfisher has a shape which helps it splice air and water very well. Therefore they took the shape of this bird and built a very efficient and fast train.

Kingfisher to Bullet train juxtaposition –

Earlier in the post I described Biomimicry as a new bond with nature. This is of course not entirely true, the practice is after all dated to at least halfway in the previous century. What has changed now however is the complexity of the challenges and the abstract way inspiration from biology feeds into that. The software industry has noticed that Biomimicry is not just a field that discretely translates to physical products. This discovery is now kickstarting advancements into machine learning models such as ‘Convolutional Neural Networks’ inspired by the human visual processing system or what about generative design software inspired by slime mold and human bones. I am both disgusted and fascinated by that last one.

Picture of slime mold – Nicholas Turland
Explanation of Biomimicry by Janine Benyus

Solve for X: Nature + X = Biomimicry

If you are like me, seeing works inspired by nature gets you quite excited. In the coming years we will see even more cases like this, the digital world is being built in cooperation with Nature. For this reason might want to start thinking how to find solutions in nature as well. Unfortunately extrapolating from Flora, Fauna and beyond is not always that obvious. Of course we would all want a random eureka moment where a grand idea just pops into our heads. In most cases however it helps to define your problem and think methodically about ‘analogous’ cases in nature. Look at the image below and visit the Biomimicry toolbox site for a short step by step guide to thinking like a Biomimicry designer.

Steps in designing for Biomimicry – Biomimicry Toolbox

Example case:
Now that you know how a Biomimicry designer might work, it’s time to try yourself.
Try to come up with a problem you know might be solvable with Biomimicry and use the framework to devise a solution, good luck!

Fairness == Repaying Nature

A small sidenote I would like to add is regarding the cooperation between big tech/engineering and Nature with a capital N. It bothers me how much value is provided to the tech side without those in charge repaying nature for the provisions. If you decide to use Biomimicry again after this post to solve problems, remember to repay nature for its help!