I am a member of the Biomimicry & Innovation group on LinkedIn. It’s a great source of biomimicry news, a place for sharing best practices in nature-inspired innovation, and a forum for philosophical debate about biomimicry. It’s an open group, so I encourage any of you who are interested to join. This week I saw a post on the Biomimicry & Innovation group page. Pete Foley, of Pete Foley Innovation, linked to a blogpost he wrote about biomimicry that outlines the pros and cons of Borrowing Innovation from Nature. I agree with the majority of what Pete has to say, but two of his points warrant criticism.
First, Pete identifies the following as a drawback of biomimicry:
Evolution is a step-wise process and so new innovations have to work around limitations imposed by the last generation.
It’s true, nature’s designs are developed through natural selection, which proceeds incrementally. As a result, the anatomy of an evolving organism is constrained by the anatomy of its evolutionary ancestor. However, the fact that evolution is not a perfecting principle does not limit biomimicry. Nature’s solutions are imperfect, but even those that obviously lack ‘elegance’ or ‘intuitiveness’ have much to offer us. For example, the giraffe’s neck could be considered an evolutionary blunder…a sub-optimal result of Nature’s incremental design. The nerve connection between the brain and larynx of a giraffe loops all the way down the neck and back up to the throat because in the giraffe’s ancestor the nerve looped around a blood vessel at the base of the neck (Kaplinsky 2006). However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the giraffe model. As the giraffe’s neck elongated, it evolved a unique mechanism for preventing lethally high blood pressure to the head when it bows to drink. The arteries in its neck automatically contract to prevent blood from pooling with gravitational force. This mechanism inspired the biomimetic “G-RAFFE” fighter pilot acceleration suit by G-NIUS . The fabric of the suit tenses with air pressure, compressing the body in strategic areas to maintain even blood circulation. Wearing this biomimetic suit, a jet pilot can withstand up to nine G force without losing sensory control versus four or five G without the suit (Booth 2012). I would not call a sub-optimal result of evolution a “red herring,” as Pete does. With respect to biomimicry, a red herring would be something that misleads or distracts a biomimicry practitioner from usable models, but even sub-optimal results of evolution can inspire innovation.
My second issue is with Pete’s conclusion. While I agree with his overarching sentiment that despite biomimicry’s challenges, it presents a huge opportunity, the last sentence of Pete’s conclusion concerns me:
…While bio inspired design doesn’t guarantee sustainable innovation, the inherent efficiency it brings, together with an increased understanding of nature’s value, can only help with that journey, and in doing so, make us more aware of why conservation is in our own self interest.
We need to take a more a proactive approach to shaping a sustainable future through biomimicry than what Pete describes. He presumes that through practice of biomimicry, we develop increased consciousness of nature’s value, and eventually that increased consciousness results in more sustainable outcomes. I think Pete’s probably right, but I don’t know that he’s right, and to presume is dangerous. Given the current state of our environment we assume far too great a risk by delaying attention to the following question: What future state are we pursuing through biomimetic innovation? Is the goal more than just technological development through strategic imitation of natural forms and processes? Those who believe the goal of biomimicry is broader, and includes sustainable development and ultimately human reintegration with nature, should immediately begin developing psychological sensitivity towards the interconnectedness of the living world. As part of my dissertation, I hope to develop biomimicry ‘warm-up exercises’ that heighten this psychological sensitivity, so that biomimicry may more consistently yield solutions beneficial to humans in the short term AND conducive to life on Earth over the long term.
Booth, Graham. 2012. “Super-Bodies”. BBC.
Kaplinsky, Joe. 2006. “Biomimicry versus Humanism.” Architectural Design 76 (1): 66–71.