When Design Copies Nature — Part 1

 { 🌿 } – Biomimicry: how humans used nature to solve design problems

Photo by Nick Fewings.

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 towards 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 which 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 which 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 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 which 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.

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 aeroplane, 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.

Sketches for Leonardo’s ornithopter. Credit: Drawings of Leonardo.

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 an owl.

This enabled them to come up with a new design which greatly reduced the noise issue, and which 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.

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Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.