Every nature show you’ve ever seen has featured some marvel of evolution that puts human innovations to shame. The cheetah’s aerodynamic shape and supercharged heart. The Cyanea octopus’s color-changing skin (video). The woodpecker’s ability to slam its beak into a tree all day without suffering so much as a headache. We can’t compete with nature’s ability to solve problems, but through biomimicry, we can borrow from the solutions nature has developed over thousands or millions of years.
“Biomimicry isn’t itself a product but a process, drawing on natural organisms and processes in order to spark innovation,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. And nature is full of suggestions for those with the patience and expertise to look. The article notes that butterfly wings alone have inspired improvements in solar panels, anti-counterfeiting measures and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. Audi, the car maker, borrowed from the structure of elephant skulls to make its vehicle lighter and stronger.
The seemingly limitless potential is why Nottingham Spirk is sponsoring a fellowship in biomimicry. Ariana Rupp, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Akron with degrees in physics and industrial design, joined us this month. For the next five years, she will work alongside our designers and engineers, teaching and guiding the process.
“It’s an emerging field,” says Rachel Nottingham Colosimo, NS Product Design Manager, “and we feel we’re on the front end of it. Biomimicry will become another facet of what we do. The first year will definitely be a learning year for us, but as we learn more, we can start seeking out projects that would involve biomimicry.”
Ariana feels that the whole biomimicry process is, itself, innovative. This is because there are usually two parallel information streams happening simultaneously. An Innovation program typically starts with client requirements. Research is convergent, you always keep in mind the natural functions you’re looking for, and only learn what you really immediately need in order to overcome your challenge.
However, things get even more interesting in what we call biomimicry by induction, a divergent type of research that can trigger groundbreaking projects. Designers start learning more and more from biology, without restricting the acquired know-how to a specific goal. From the same studied principle, ideas flow in different directions and result in very diverse applications. Scope and outcomes are unpredictable, subjected to “natural selection” or market selection, in this case. Partial lack of control might sound troublesome, but, in an overall perspective, it is just as promising as mutation, the random factor that introduces real novelty into genetic code and makes evolution outdo itself over time.
“Biomimicry will change your focus on people, it will change your focus on the environment, but it’s a very practical process,” says Tom Tyrrell, founder of Great Lakes Biomimicry, which helped to establish the Ph.D. program at the University of Akron, the first of its kind. John Nottingham also serves on the GLB Board.