Innovate On The Cover September 2018

6 Ways The natural World Can Inspire Innovative Solutions


Written By: David Whitney

Humans are clever. However, notwithstanding our cleverness, the human race has created massive problems – both previously and presently – that require solving.

Fortunately, solutions to these problems are all around us, with many of the most innovative solutions taking inspiration from the natural world.

Innovation inspired by nature is called biomimicry, a term that combines the Greek words bios (life) and mimesis (to imitate). Biomimicry produces creative and sustainable innovative solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns, practices and processes – including creating new and unique ways of living – that are well-adjusted to Earth’s biological systems.

Nature has engineered solutions via incremental improvements that have been assembled by animals, plants, microbes, and, yes, people, for billions of years. Oftentimes, simple solutions originate from attentive observation and thinking unconventionally.

Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” comes to mind whenever I experience the process of how nature-inspired innovation methods solve problems.

Janine Benyus is the leading biomimicry subject matter expert. “Biomimicry brings us novel solutions that have evolved over 3.8 billion years,” she said. “The solutions are novel only because we previously failed to see them as innovation processes.”

Benyus suggests that biomimicry will become part of the R&D processes at every major company.

“There will be biologists at every design table, and before companies make design decisions, they’ll ask: ‘How would nature solve this problem?’”

Not everyone looks at a jellyfish and sees a renewable energy solution. Or not everyone finds inspiration from a kingfisher in using his or her imagination to design the nose of a high-speed bullet train in solving the problems involving excessive vibrations and unbounded noise.

One such successful innovator is Anthony Brennan of the University of Florida. Brennan’s breakthrough nature-inspired innovation is based on sharks – specifically, the properties of sharkskin.

As a UF professor of materials science and engineering, Brennan sought creative methods to prevent barnacles from sticking to ship hulls. His curiosity led him to question why sharks didn’t attract barnacles and algae. In answering that question, Brennan discovered that microscopic textures on sharkskin made sharks resistant to barnacles.

He also discovered that sharkskin’s textures repelled bacteria. This “bioinspiration” prompted Brennan to develop a nature-inspired innovation, which in turn resulted in the launch and operation of Sharklet Technologies. The company was a pioneer in creating and commercializing Sharklet®, the world’s first micro-texture that inhibits bacterial growth on surfaces.

Like Sharklet Technologies, other companies turned to nature for inspiration when developing innovative commercial solutions.

GeckSkin® is inspired by the “grip and peel” capabilities of geckos.

Regen Energy designed software based on the “swarm logic” of bees in maximizing energy efficiency using collaboration models.

Altair developed 3-D design software that accounts for differences in densities for component parts that are used in airplanes and automotive vehicles. And then there is the ubiquitous Velcro®, a product that has been commercially available for decades. Its inspiration came from the tiny hooks of burrs that stuck to a scientist’s pants and to his dog’s fur.

Nature-inspired innovation traces its roots back centuries. Leonardo da Vinci modeled many of his inventions and designs on what he saw in nature and the human body. He observed the anatomy and flight of birds and drew sketches of proposed “flying machines.” Although da Vinci did not succeed in enabling human flight, his ideas inspired Orville and Wilbur Wright – two creative innovators who took inspiration from the flight of pigeons – in successfully flying the first airplane.

The Biomimicry Institute published the Biomimicry Design Spiral™ as a guide for how nature-inspired innovation can be practiced. The framework’s six steps are below.

  1. Define. Clearly articulate the impact the innovation will have in the world – along with listing criteria and constraints that determine the solution’s success or failure.
  2. Biologize. Analyze and evaluate the innovation’s essential functions by looking to nature “for advice.”
  3. Discover. Select and apply natural models that align with the innovation’s function and effectiveness at solving identified problems.
  4. Abstract. Study the innovation’s essential features and describe how they align with – and are inspired by – the Earth’s biological systems.
  5. Emulate. Look for patterns and biological relationships that support the functions, context, natural models and essential features that are found in the proposed nature-inspired innovation.
  6. Evaluate. Assess and appraise the biocentric solution for how well it fits into the Earth’s biological systems.

Biomimicry has proven for years to be an effective innovation practice and process. I encourage you to be inspired by nature seeking solutions to problems.

As you embrace biomimicry’s practices and process, to be guided by Benyus’ words: “For a long time, we thought we were better than nature, and now we think that we’re worse than nature. But we are nature and should be a part of, and not apart from, this genius that surrounds us. Biomimicry gives us a chance to do just that.”   

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