Have been helping with a design course recently, and amongst other insights, it’s been interesting to see where ecology and design processes have been intersecting of late.
Beyond just using natural materials to solve a design problem, advocates of biomimicry endeavour to learn how natural solutions and adaptations work, and think about how these processes could be applied to various design challenges. Some examples of this in action can be found at The Biomimicry Institute, who say “after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
The Shinkansen Bullet Train of the West Japan Railway Company is the fastest train in the world, traveling 200 miles per hour. The problem? Noise. Air pressure changes produced large thunder claps every time the train emerged from a tunnel, causing residents one-quarter a mile away to complain. Modeling the front-end of the train after the beak of kingfishers, which dive from the air into bodies of water with very little splash to catch fish, resulted not only in a quieter train, but 15% less electricity use even while the train travels 10% faster.
Lotus Plant Cleaners
Lotus leaves are water repellent because the myriad crevices of its microscopically rough leaf surface trap a maze of air upon which water droplets float, so that the slightest breeze or tilt in the leaf causes balls of water to roll cleanly off, taking attached dirt particles with them. And so, microscopically rough surface additives have been introduced into a new generation of paint, glass, and fabric finishes, greatly reducing the need for chemical or laborious cleaning.
Humpback Whale Wind Power
The humpback whale’s surprising dexterity is due mainly to its flippers, which have large, irregular looking bumps called tubercules across their leading edges, which allows humpbacks to keep their “grip” on the water at sharper angles and turn tighter corners, even at low speeds. Wind tunnel tests have demonstrated the aerodynamic improvements tubercules make, and a company called WhalePower is applying these lessons to the design of wind turbines to increase their efficiency, while this natural technology also has enormous potential to improve the safety and performance of airplanes, fans, and more.
Inspiration of course also lies on the microscopic and chemical level, with many newly engineered materials mimicking the structure of natural materials. One holy grail in the field seems to be the relative strength of a spider web – apparently if a human sized spider was to make a web ( yet one which could fold up into the size of a tea chest – this would be strong enough to catch a jumbo jet at landing speed.
Cradle to Cradle
Biomimicry folk are also keen observers of the lack of waste in natural systems – in a working ecology, all components break-down and form something useful for others. Zooming on this, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough set about trying to change the way we produce and build. The film Waste=Food documents their inspiring efforts so far ( the hour long video is a heartening watch ). Core idea? “If waste would become food for the biosphere or the technosphere (all the technical products we make), producÂtion and consumption could become beneficial for the planet.” Inspiring to see the extent to which those such as Nike, Ford and other giant textile companies are keen to integrate these ideas where possible.
And a final eco-design shout-out to sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, whose Viridian Manifesto argues eco-design needs to be glamorous to succeed in winning people over. In relation to the cradle to cradle idea, and the consideration of the whole life cycle of a product, he is also famous for suggesting the idea of ‘SPIMES’ ( objects that can be tracked over space / time, a lot like RFID tags.. ), and what these kinds of tech advancements might mean for sustainable processes.