Climate change is tagged these days as one of the most pressing challenges of our time, requiring innovative and sustainable solutions. One such solution that scientists have unearthed is biomimicry, a concept that involves imitating natural processes, systems and elements to solve human challenges. The question is: is there really a way to draw inspiration from nature’s design principles to develop sustainable solutions for our various what I call human challenges?
Factually, people have drawn inspiration from nature to solve these problems for centuries. However, the term biomimicry was ‘coined’ by Janine M. Benyus – a biologist and innovation consultant who in her work has played a significant role in popularising the term and concept of ‘biomimicry’. According to her, not only can we draw inspiration from nature but biomimicry has the potential to play a significant role in climate change adaptation.
She argues that as we face increasingly severe weather events and changing environmental conditions, such as the recent floods in Libya which displaced thousands of children, understanding how organisms have adapted over time can guide us in developing resilient infrastructure designs that are better equipped to withstand these challenges. In simple terms, we can draw inspiration from nature to help solve climate change challenges. Amazing, huh! Today, I would like to explore Janine Benyus’ pioneering work in biomimicry and its far-reaching implications. However, before commencing I’d like us to know who Janine Benyus is and the relevance of her work on biomimicry.
Who is Janine M. Benyus?
Janine M. Benyus, a biologist, author and innovation consultant, has made significant contributions to the field of biomimicry. She co-founded the Biomimicry Guild (now called Biomimicry 3.8), which serves as a consultancy firm helping organisations integrate biomimetic principles into their work. She has also authored several influential books on biomimicry – including ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature’, wherein she explores how nature can inspire us to create sustainable solutions. Her work has not only shed light on the extraordinary designs and processes found in the natural world, but has also paved the way for sustainable and innovative solutions across various industries. According to her book ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature’, one of the key contributions is her idea that nature serves as a mentor, a model and a measure.
What is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry, as described by Janine Benyus, is the practice of emulating nature’s time-tested strategies to solve human challenges. According to her, nature through billions of years of evolution has perfected designs, processes and systems that are efficient, sustainable and well-adapted to their environments. By observing and learning from these natural models, scientists and engineers can create solutions that are not only environmentally friendly but also highly effective. This has been achieved in many fields of production, though many more are yet to be discovered.
For example, by studying how birds fly efficiently through the air, researchers have developed more aerodynamic designs for aircraft that reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Similarly, by learning from termite mounds’ ventilation systems, architects have designed buildings with improved energy efficiency. Factually, the potential benefits of biomimicry in terms of sustainability and climate change mitigation are numerous.
Various buildings’ ventilation systems, especially in the United States of America, mimic how termites maintain a stable internal temperature despite fluctuating external conditions. Another example is the development of solar-cell technology inspired by photosynthesis. Researchers have looked at how plants convert sunlight into usable energy, and applied similar principles to improve solar panel efficiency. By emulating nature’s design, these biomimetic solutions offer potentially more sustainable alternatives for renewable energy production.
The Concept of Biomimicry: Nature as a Mentor
According to Janine Benyus, nature offers a wealth of knowledge and inspiration. By studying the way organisms and ecosystems function, we can find innovative solutions to problems in design, engineering and material science. For example, Mercedes Benz car manufacturers designed the bionic car, which drew inspiration from the streamlined shape of the boxfish and led to a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
Nature as a Model
According to the concept of biomimicry, nature provides a blueprint for sustainable design. From the streamlined shape of a fish to the structure of a spider’s web, natural forms and processes can guide human innovation.
Nature as a Measure
This actively demonstrates that nature sets a standard for efficiency and sustainability. Therefore, by comparing our designs to those found in nature, we can assess how well we are meeting ecological benchmarks.
Real-world Applications and challenges
While biomimicry holds great promise for addressing climate change challenges, in applying it there are certain obstacles that need to be overcome. One challenge is scalability – taking ideas from nature and implementing them on a large scale can be complex due to technological constraints or economic feasibility. Additionally, access to knowledge about natural systems can also pose limitations on the application of biomimetic solutions. It requires interdisciplinary collaboration between biologists, engineers, designers and other experts who may not traditionally work together. However, ongoing research efforts continue to explore ways of overcoming these challenges. As more industries recognise the potential benefits of biomimicry in addressing climate change, investment in research and development in this area is likely to increase.
Despite these challenges, there have however been several success stories wherein biomimetic solutions have effectively contributed to mitigating climate change impacts. One such example is Velcro®. Did you know that as simple as it may seem, this way of fastening was inspired by how burrs attach to fur? Yes, it is indeed a simple yet effective solution that has found widespread use across different industries as a fastening mechanism which reduces waste compared to traditional methods like zippers or buttons.
Likewise, my all-time favourite bio-inspired materials like lotus leaf coatings have led to self-cleaning surfaces that limit water usage for cleaning and reduce the need for harmful chemicals. By mimicking nature’s ability to repel water and dirt, companies such as AkzoNobel and others like them have developed paint and coatings that can mimic the self-cleaning properties of the lotus leaf. This way, you do not have to spend so much on re-painting your building, as the paint itself is embedded with self-cleaning abilities. Awesome, huh!?
Looking into the future, researchers say by studying how ecosystems function without depleting resources or causing harm to the environment, we can develop agricultural systems that prioritise biodiversity preservation and minimise negative impacts on ecosystems. To my mind, this is a brilliant way of solving the all-time challenge of agricultural run-off – particularly from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and other ecological challenges.
Where do we stand as Ghanaian innovators and producers? Well, Ghana is taking initial steps to explore this concept – but this is still in the early stages. We need to educate ourselves more in this field; explore various industries and sectors where biomimicry can be applied effectively; collaborate and network with experts in the field; consider investing in research and development projects related to biomimicry; and possibly stay updated on the latest developments in biomimicry by following industry news, research publications and innovations.
In practice however, to promote innovation in this field, we could as a country establish biomimicry research centres; support biomimicry education by integrating biomimicry principles into the curriculum of universities and technical institutions; encourage collaboration between researchers, academics and industry professionals from various fields; allocate funding and resources for biomimicry research and development projects; encourage the study of Ghana’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems as a source of inspiration for biomimetic designs…. I could go on and on. The world is moving really fast and we ought to move along with it. Now is the time! Let us be innovative in solving climate change challenges!