Biomimetics, Beauty and Circularity
In 2010, in the final year of my Chemistry degree at the University of Bristol, I studied the sea urchin spine, seeking to understand the nature of its crystalline properties and how this gave rise to a fracture resistance higher than that of traditional man made ceramics. This process is formally known as biomimicry. Biomimicry is defined as the activity of seeking sustainable solutions to human challenges through emulating nature's time - tested patterns and strategies. I didn’t contemplate the term again until I read The Medici Effect — Strategy and Innovation in an Unpredictable World in late 2011. In this book I encountered the work of architect Mick Pearce, who had mitigated the need for air conditioning in the construction of a Nairobi shopping mall by incorporating a cooling mechanism inspired by the structure of the termite mound. Mick, brought to my attention to the extensive but relatively unknown application of scientific principles to the craft of the designer, being quietly used by individuals like Thomas Heatherwick and Daan Roosegaarde. I even encountered ‘protocell architecture’ — the method of creating entire material systems from the bottom up that are both artificial and responsive.
“Biomimicry is defined as the activity of seeking sustainable solutions to human challenges through emulating nature’s time tested patterns and strategies.”
Nature makes a brilliant advisor for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is has been around for long time and mastered the skill of adapting and evolving to optimise its chances of survival. The natural world is also locally attuned, resilient, responsive and runs in a cyclic process so there is no waste in nature. Natural systems, unlike man made systems are structured to optimise instead of maximise; to value interconnectedness and interdependence to the rest of the organisms in its surroundings; and the process of manufacturing in nature is predominantly benign.
To complement my reading self study, I completed an online course Biomimetic Design, intrigued by how science was being taught to design focussed minds. The course is based on a spiral made by designer Carl Hastrich, that takes an individual from a brief to creating to take their understanding of a particular biological phenomenon and translate it into making a product, service or system that aligns with natures principles.
An outline of Hastrich’s process involves, firstly identifying and understanding the basic functions that need to be performed by the design. It is a place where we reflect on what an object/ system needs to do and more interestingly, what it potentially could do. Secondly, we translate and interpret that in biological terms, asking the question of ‘how does nature perform a certain function?’ Thirdly, we undergo a journey of discovering the strategies used by nature including materials, shapes, processes and systems. Fourthly, to interpret biological strategies back into terminology relevant to the item that you are trying to design. Fifthly, to emulate and create an item based on what you trying to design. Finally, to assess the design in alignment to the original objectives.
Design has a large role in determining how we interact as a society, this includes our relationships with others, with the environment and with the objects in our lives. Through breaking the barrier between science and art/ design we might find that each discipline helps us to ask better questions. If the firefly is able to generate light without burning fossil fuels, how might we be able to achieve the same? Why are our homes constructed and heated the way that they are? What can the rainforest teach us about how to run organisations that operate more efficiently yet optimise the wellbeing of the individual? Why do paving stones have to be grey and ugly, can the abalone teach us to to make something beautiful and supportive? It is a popular belief that we have reached the age of ‘stuffocation’ but perhaps the solution to improving our collective quality of life is not in having less or making less, but in changing how we make existing objects, experiences and systems so that they might serve us more effectively.
Words by Natasha J. Hussein