What happens when you combine a kingfisher and a bullet train? Innovation.

Beth Rattner on applying nature’s design solutions to human design challenges.

By Rebecca Kondos
June 6, 2017
Left: a JR West 8-car 500 Series Shinkansen train; Right: Common kingfisher, whose beak inspired the train's nose design. Left: a JR West 8-car 500 Series Shinkansen train; Right: Common kingfisher, whose beak inspired the train's nose design. (source: See full image source information at the end of the article.)

Some of our thorniest technical challenges have been solved by looking to nature’s ancient systems for answers. Humpback whales have provided clues to creating efficient wind power, while the prowess of termites has informed better cooling systems in commercial buildings. In the middle of these nature-inspired solutions is the field of biomimicry and the biomimics who practice it.

If we need one more reason to save the planet, biomimicry provides a compelling one: to quote Beth Rattner, executive director at the Biomimicry Institute, “Scientists estimate that between 200 and 2,000 species go extinct every year. That’s hundreds if not thousands of potential planet-saving clues snuffed out annually, while we humans rack our brains for solutions.”

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Scientists estimate that between 200 and 2,000 species go extinct every year. That’s hundreds if not thousands of potential planet-saving clues snuffed out annually, while we humans rack our brains for solutions.

If you’re new to biomimicry, like I was, Rattner’s answers to the questions I had about their work, methodology, and approach to conservation might not only transform your next walk in the woods, it may inspire you to re-think your work. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

On biomimicry.org, you provide examples of how biomimicry is used to innovate and solve design challenges. A couple of stand-out examples include looking to mosquitos to produce “a nicer needle” to reduce the amount of force a neurosurgeon uses when performing brain surgery, which, in turn, reduces brain damage during the procedure. There’s also the example of leveraging the design of the kingfisher’s beak to create the more efficient, noise-reducing Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. So, my first question revolves around the methodology that drives biomimicry. How does the spark of inspiration—the foundational kick-start to putting biomimicry into practice—occur?

There are two initial approaches in biomimicry: biology-to-design or design-to-biology. The former happens when a biologist or naturalist has deeply observed a phenomenon in nature and can see a human application for that function. The latter is when the inventor goes in search of solving a very clear design problem, such as addressing a loud sound wave in a tunnel caused by the speeding train. Most papers and patents for biomimetic designs are put forth by mechanical engineers, chemists, or designers who have gone in search of biological inspiration to solve their problem. The key is to first define the function: what you want your design to do, not what you want to make. For the train example, Eiji Nakatsu, lead engineer at J.R. West, was attending a lecture about birds and saw how the kingfisher goes from one medium, air, into a second medium, water, without friction. He had a very clear concept of the functional design problem he was trying to solve and then put himself in a situation where he could be inspired. It then took months of deeper study, geometric application, materials testing, and more to redesign the nose of the Shinkansen train.

Our goal at the Biomimicry Institute is to democratize this process. If you are a designer, or a chemist for that matter, when was the last time you took a biology class? Our academic system moves people into specialties as soon as they get past general education, and this is a mistake. Biomimicry requires an interdisciplinary approach, which is why many of our successful Global Design Challenge teams are comprised of biologists, engineers, designers, and business people. Nature works in ecosystems or collaboration, and we think humans should, too.

Describe the process you use to bring an idea to life, from research and ideation to testing and building the final product or outcome. Is there a part of the process that’s unique to biomimicry? Can you provide an example of when biomimicry didn’t provide the best solution or isn’t appropriate as a methodology?

There is definitely a process to biomimicry, though many parts are shared with other design processes. As long as the goal is a life-friendly design and the process is emulating nature, it can fall under the biomimetic rubric.

Again, the critical first question is defining the function you want to accomplish. For example, if you’re looking for solutions for how to replace a fan or air conditioning system, you wouldn’t find many examples in nature if you searched for fan designs. But if you define the function as “how does nature cool?”, now you can review many organisms, from plants to mammals to insects, and find the common patterns. From there, you will refine the problem by setting the context (e.g., a building) and may even further refine the question into more biological terms, such as “how does nature regulate temperature?” or “how does nature circulate?” There are a number of tools, such as the Biomimicry Design Spiral, that provide a general framework for how to approach a biomimicry design problem. You can explore these approaches in our free Biomimicry Toolbox, and when you are ready to search by function, AskNature.org provides hundreds of examples of nature’s design strategies and the innovations they’ve inspired.

As far as when biomimicry isn’t an appropriate design approach, a good example would be using nature-inspired design to build a more efficient way to design and launch missiles or the creation of mechanical bees. Neither are life-friendly and miss the point entirely: life creates conditions conducive to other life. Bio-inspired design is a big category, but we reserve the term biomimicry for an ethos of sustainable, even regenerative, design.

You’ve said that, “Our goal today is for biomimicry to become a natural part of the design process.” We know that nature’s systems have generally evolved to be efficient, which could mean learning from and translating that efficiency into our processes—and finding ways for humans to work more productively. Are there organizations that are applying biomimicry—and the efficiencies it can reveal—particularly well or in surprising ways?

Nature can be highly efficient sometimes, but the real test for survival is effectiveness, and the two are not always the same. Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart rather famously give the example of the cherry tree blossoms, which is a stunning display but not every blossom ultimately gets pollinated and fruits. The generosity and grace of nature is founded on a principle of circularity, meaning there is no concept of waste, and also beauty. The good news is that these standards are completely observable: when the sourcing, processing, manifestation, and demise or return of a product is beautiful, as in the creation of the cherry tree, we know we are on the right track.

Janine Benyus is leading one of the most ambitious initiatives on this front, “factory as forest,” for the Interface carpet company. Her long-held view is that human artifice should be held to the same standards as the nature it is replacing, and that such replacement can be measured as environmental performance metrics. This means that, instead of detracting from the local environment by sucking energy and spewing out toxins, this new manufacturing facility will actually contribute beneficial ecosystem services, like helping to produce clean air and water or sequestering carbon, just as organisms in a forest do. Interface was an early adopter of biomimicry, and they continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be a truly sustainable company.

We’re also especially proud of the 13 early-stage companies that we’re mentoring in our Biomimicry Accelerator program. While their designs are still in the prototype stage, they all have the potential to shift the needle on climate change if implemented at scale. From an electricity-free cooling device that tackles both chemical refrigerants and food waste (two of the top three ways to reduce carbon emissions, according to the recently-released book, Drawdown), to a soil restoration solution designed to help regenerate degraded farmland, to growing systems that use less energy and zero fertilizers, these innovations are applying biomimicry to come up with new solutions to entrenched problems.

Conservation must fuel your mission. What is biomimicry’s role in not only looking to nature for solutions but actively working to preserve endangered species and their habitats? As just one example, deforestation of the Amazon is a threat to creating new medicines or studying creatures that have adapted to this unique and robust environment.

Conservation absolutely does fuel our mission, correct. There’s a mental shift that occurs once you start looking at the natural world as a source of lessons and inspiration: it’s no longer learning about nature, but rather from nature. A favorite example is the shark: from bacteria repellency to fuel efficiency to new concepts in propulsion, shark study could foster hundreds of patents. And yet, each year we humans kill more than 100 million of them (note, that number could be as high as 263 million, while they kill only 3-6 humans each year).

There’s a mental shift that occurs once you start looking at the natural world as a source of lessons and inspiration: it’s no longer learning about nature, but rather from nature.

As species disappear, their unique adaptations and survival strategies disappear right along with them. Scientists estimate that between 200 and 2,000 species go extinct each year. That’s hundreds if not thousands of potential planet-saving clues snuffed out annually, while we humans rack our brains for solutions. At the Institute, our key focus is education: if all students entered the workforce knowing how to look to nature for sustainable design clues, not only would our products, materials, built environments, and systems look very different, but a whole new generation would value and protect the source of this inspiration.

How has technology informed or empowered biomimicry? For example, using CAD tools, processing, and storage must make testing faster. Does artificial intelligence play a role in biomimicry?

Technology is advancing closer to the natural world in many ways, from neural network models in advanced computing to additive manufacturing that allows for pixel-by-pixel manipulation, but all of it is in the nascent stages. The two that are most exciting, but still dangerous, are nano and AI. Nano is critical because nature manufactures at the nano scale. If we are going to achieve designs like water repellency or structural color, it is most likely a nano solution. However, we humans have been downright destructive with bigger molecules, in that we can still capture when things go horribly wrong, so the idea of nano in our adolescent hands is pretty frightening. One answer is to work closely with green chemists who understand materials toxicology and ask them to recommend a palette that we can begin to experiment with.

How does biomimicry intersect with bioengineering?

Looking to nature for resources and then manipulating it has been around almost as long as man. Bioengineering fits in this broader category of using nature instead of biomimicry, as we’ve defined it, which is learning from nature and operating within an ethical boundary. Is genetic modification different than selective breeding or grafting trees? Is growing algae for fuel different than forest management? It’s all a slippery slope rooted in applying life sciences to design problems. The most simple and straightforward test may simply be to see how compatible it is with all surrounding living systems, not just serving humans. Is the solution promoting ecological diversity, is it safe, are more things—including soil and water—healthy and alive because of it? If it meets that standard of supporting life, then you don’t need to be a scientist to have an opinion on how productive that innovation is. We have senses for a reason; they help keep us alive. If something smells bad or looks devoid of life, then chances are it isn’t good for our species. It’s this explicit commitment to creating designs that are well-adapted to our ecosystems that sets biomimicry apart.

How can folks hack your methods to work more efficiently or seek innovation in unexpected places?

The most important step? Get away from your computer and go outside. Explore your bioregion and take a closer look at what makes it so unique. It sounds simple, but take a notebook and pen out with you, sit in front of a plant for 20 minutes, and draw it. Then draw what’s around it. How and why does it thrive? Who is helping it, how has it adapted? Drawing slows down the mind, gets us out of fact-collection mode, and lets us deeply observe. It doesn’t matter how good your drawing is, so try not to judge yourself.

The most important step? Get away from your computer and go outside.

And for those rainy days or more targeted research, explore AskNature.org, the only function-based collection of nature’s design solutions. You can search for examples that are relevant to your specific design challenge and find potentially dozens of biological models that could apply. With more than 1,600 entries and the ability to collect, curate, and share content, it’s like having a biologist with you at your design table.

Post topics: Animals