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Biomimicry or how to innovate from Nature – Catherine Rassat
Fifteen years ago, as I was teaching environmental sciences to young students eager to project themselves into their professional life, I became deeply concerned by the difficulty for them, as for myself actually, to combine their natural enthusiasm to the dark ecological statement of our planet. Whatever the systems studied during this course – agriculture, industry, resource management, climate, etc. – challenges were prominent and solutions were very limited to their context, lacking of a more global vision. In this context, biomimicry appeared to me as a more comprehensive approach, full of promise.
Biomimicry as defined in the late 90s by the biologist Janine Benyus is a discipline based on getting inspired by nature to solve our current challenges. Why choosing nature to innovate ?
Living systems – cells, organisms, populations – are the result of 3.8 billion years of evolution that have undergone an endless series of changes, such as a R&D center using trial-and-error tests to progress. Nature is made of a plethora of « technologies » that had to adapt to environmental fluctuations to last. So, what a better way to get inspired by these sustainably proven « designs » !
In terms of form and structure, nature is full of ideas : the shape of the kingfisher’s beak, translated into an algorithm has enabled an engineer, passionate about bird watching, to reduce the noise and the energy consumption of the fastest Japanese train while increasing its speed. And the list goes on : non-toxic industrial glue inspired by mussels, water passively harvested such as a beetle from the desert, LED light optimized from the observation of fireflies, wind turbine improved thanks to the humpback whale and the school of fish, etc.
Chemical processes present in living organisms are just as inspiring. The fixation of carbon dioxide into calcite like coral reefs do in the water to make their own structure is now feasible at a very low energy cost which allows greenhouse gases to be sequestered and cement to be made without mining. Not to mention the behavior of living creatures (in terms of social cohesion and cooperation) or the functioning of an entire ecosystem that can also be emulated to innovate sustainably!
More generally, one of the key purposes of biomimicry is to highlight the hidden intelligence of nature, that is to say the life principles that are common to almost all species. These principles are like the bases of an architecture which would guide the development of « good » designs in living organisms: using local resources sparingly (materials and energy) and only few non-toxic atoms easily recyclable, optimizing growth structures, developing resilience from enhanced diversity and cooperation between species, etc. These principles that have been studied in details are a wide source of inspiration for rethinking our relationship to the world.
Finally, biomimicry is a major invitation to (re)connect with nature. We should acknowledge that most of our current challenges are related to our disconnection with our environment. We forget too often our origins as well as our relation to other species. The recent studies on the microbiota and its influence on our health highly remind this to us. Let us learn from nature with humility and respect, which will drive us to invest more in nature preservation.
Looking back over these years, I am even more convinced that turning to nature for inspiration is a sound response to our environmental crisis. As a multidisciplinary approach, Biomimicry offers guidance in many fields –engineering, architecture, chemistry, entrepreneurship, education, social innovation, etc.- as well as in our own life. So, let’s embrace it fully with consciousness and love for this planet! »