09 August 2010

Nature – the flawless inventor

Helen Lockhart
A peacock mantis shrimp

Helen Lockhart is the Aquarium’s Communications and Sustainability Manager. She is a keen photographer and a passionate conservationist.

What do a kingfisher and the Japanese bullet train have in common? Or the mantis shrimp and CDs and DVDs? What about shark skin and hospital floors? Why not Ask Nature? The answer lies in biomimicry. Innovation inspired by nature. 

But what exactly is biomimicry? Well, bios means “life” and mimicry means “to imitate” – so essentially biomimicry looks to nature for the inspiration to design systems and products that are both beneficial to humans and have the least possible negative impact on our environment.

Biomimicry encourages us to “create conditions conducive for life” rather than simply minimising our impact. Says Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this planet that is ours, but not ours alone.” Considering that nature has been adapting and evolving, modifying its designs and functions for 3.8-billion years, we should be learning all we can from it, instead of plundering and polluting it.

On July 27 and 28, a group of about 50 individuals from diverse backgrounds came together at the Aquarium to discover the essence of biomimicry in an introductory workshop presented by Claire Janisch, currently South Africa’s only certified biomimicry professional.

Architects, designers, engineers, ex-nurses, teachers, sustainability practitioners, Aquarium staff and volunteers, environmental educators, farmers and nature lovers were among those who participated in the interactive workshop. There was no time to slouch or nod off – Claire’s enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter, as well as her knowledge, energised and challenged those present to think about and see nature in a different light. 

While some of the exploratory work was done in pairs, using as many senses as possible, participants spent a significant portion of the workshop working on a particular design challenge in small, multidisciplinary teams. Some of the challenges put to teams were:

1. Design a shelter or system that is able to adapt to unknown, but extreme weather conditions along the Cape Town coast, using shoreline creatures as inspiration.
2. Design an innovative transport or mobility system for Cape Town inspired by an ocean ecosystem (eg a coral reef).
3. Design a small-scale water filtration or desalination system for home use in Cape Town, using ocean filter feeders as inspiration.
4. Design an innovative propulsion system for ocean going vessels such as boats, ships and submarines by thinking about how creatures move in water.

Instead of asking what to design, for example a transport system, participants were instructed to ask what is it that they want the design to do. Another key biomimicry trick is to ask, “How does nature perform or not perform a particular function?” 

Common clownfish develop relationship with anemones

What workshop participants also had to keep in mind was what biomimicry practitioners refer to as “Life’s Principles”. These principles are contained in three main operating conditions (the Earth is subject to limits and boundaries, is water-based, and is in a state of dynamic equilibrium) and two themes (life creates conditions for life, and life adapts and evolves).

Another exciting aspect of biomimicry is that it encourages people from different disciplines to work together. Designers and architects need the expertise of biologists and naturalists in order to understand how nature does what it does so effectively, and engineers are then needed to “translate” the designs into practical solutions.

However, as some of the team members experienced, it is not that easy to work in this collaborative manner. “We’ve become so used to working in silos and not thinking or inviting input beyond our own disciplines. More than ever we need to approach things with a holistic attitude, since everything we do in life and on this planet is interconnected and interdependent. After all, nature works best because of its diversity!” said one attendee.

While there are many people who simply see nature as a source of food, medicine and raw materials for consumption, and as a sinkhole for human waste, biomimicry is about understanding how nature can be our mentor and teacher – if we just pay attention.

The Aquarium will be incorporating biomimicry into its signage and education programmes and hopes to offer biomimicry tours in the future. Instead of just learning about the animals and plants housed in the Aquarium, visitors will be learning from them. And thanking them for their inspiration!

If you’d like to arrange an interactive introductory workshop or find out more about the upcoming workshops in September 2010, contact Claire Janisch at claire@biomimicry.net or 076 578 6574.

Comments from participants

Rock cod using a sea fan for shelter

“In my many years as a high school teacher, I was always fascinated by the way in which plants and animals had evolved specific structures in order to meet the demands of their environment and lifestyle. Imagine how amazed I was to realise that this knowledge is now being emulated to solve all manner of technical problems in engineering and chemistry. The potential biomimicry has to solve so many technical challenges, in an environmentally friendly way, is enormous! I loved the workshop, although it was far too short. Claire had a limited time to get through a lot of information [but] got me sufficiently fascinated to ensure that I would go back to my notes [and] go through the details in my own time.”  Xavier Xylstra, senior Aquarium teacher.

“The biomimicry workshop was great – so much to think about and it was great fun looking outside the box to nature for things we had no idea existed. It made me feel very humble when we look at what nature can achieve with so little! So much to now look forward to and to research. Thank you for the opportunity to participate. One and a half days seemed too short for such a vast and interesting subject, and it was great that we had engineers to translate our somewhat way-out ideas.” Evanne Rothwell, a volunteer at the Aquarium.

See also:

Aquarium to host biomimicry workshop

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