Biomimicry: When Design Copies Nature

It can’t be denied that a lot of the things in the world are poorly designed. This is often due to a number of reasons, which can include carelessness on the part of the designers or a lack of attention toward the consumers. Poor design is more common than we think and if we direct our attention to what is around us, it won’t take us long to notice it.

A good remedy to poor design has been to imitate nature, a phenomenon called biomimicry and which is not limited to design but has been applied to great success in solving varying human problems.

Analysing and Emulating Nature

What surprises the most about biomimicry is how long it took us humans to resort to an approach that would analyse and emulate nature’s models and systems, considering the period of time over which nature has had time to develop and consolidate its processes.

So why did it take so long?

It might have to do with the anthropocentrism that has dominated human views on life and the world for the most part of our history, and which only recently has started being questioned by some bright minds, a process that is slowly leading us to a more sustainable way of living on planet earth.

Humans have long believed to be the undisputed rules of this world and, to some extent, they are. But what humans have ignored (not always, for the most part) is how nature, which has been evolving and adapting for longer than we have, can teach us a thing or two when we are trying to solve our own problems.

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The Appearance of Biomimicry

We could say that one of the first people to apply the principles of biomimicry is the famous Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. 

For the creation of his ornithopter, a precursor to the modern airplane, Da Vinci looked to the world of birds. After enough observation, he came up with a project that relied on a wing-based mechanism in order to make the ornithopter fly. While Da Vinci’s ornithopter idea wasn’t capable of flight, it paved the way for those that came after him to try and create a functioning ornithopter. The first working ornithopter was created in 1871 in France, and from then onwards, several other prototypes were patented.

Nowadays, biomimicry (or biomimetic, as it is also called) is a fully-fledged scientific field, very closely related to bionics, which has the purpose of finding solutions to human problems by imitating models and processes which can be observed in the natural world. While it has been established only fairly recently, biomimicry is nowadays used almost everywhere in the industry.

One exceptional example of biomimetic design is Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train. Previous designs had the following problem: when emerging from a tunnel, the trains would create sonic booms which could be heard by residents of the area. In order to solve this problem, Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer and manager of technical development for Japanese Railways, became studying the noise-dampening features of birds’ feathers – specifically, those of an owl.

This enabled them to come up with a new design that greatly reduced the noise issue, and is now used for all the bullet trains operating on the Japanese rail network.

This is just an example of how biomimicry has been applied to design in recent times. In the next issue of the magazine, you will find the second part of this article, where I’ll delve deeper into biomimetic design and what it could mean for the whole industry going ahead.

Where Is Biomimicry Applied Nowadays?

Nowadays, biomimicry is widely applied in architecture and industrial design. Scaly structures can be observed in every corner of the planet today, and products such as shoes that imitate the actual shape of the feet are gaining more popularity. So, in terms of application, biomimicry has definitely a fair share of them, and probably just as many that haven’t yet been thought of.

If the current trend towards creating products that are built after taking a good look at nature continues at the pace and intensity we see right now, then no doubt biomimicry will become as much a part of the overall design process as, say, typography is in graphic design, where you can’t have one without the other.

Albeit biomimicry is no longer in its infancy, it is still in the early stages of its contemporary application, therefore it will be very interesting what the future will bring and if it will continue to be as influential as it is nowadays.

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Biomimetic Design: The New Normal?

If you’re an architect or an industrial, fashion or product designer, it will be virtually impossible to avoid taking biomimicry into your practice these days, and chances are that, at some point during the pre-development stage, you (or someone working alongside you) will be taking into consideration the possibility of improving the project at hand with some elements of biomimicry — if the particular task at hand allows it, of course.

So, is biomimetic design the new normal?

Well, not quite, due to the intrinsic limitations in its application. But, for projects where such a biomimetic component can be applied, then surely it will become more normalised to see it being included in the years to come.

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The content on this page has previously appeared as a two-part article on Phase Mag. It is now being republished, slightly edited, as a single article.

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Gianmarco Caprio Avatar

Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.