Behind the peacock’s tail

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The topic of this post was motivated by a simple question I had to ask myself twice in the last 6 months : why can’t the internet tell me how a peacock manages its own tail? For one project, I was mainly interested in folding mechanisms. In another unrelated occasion, powerful lifting was the desired feature.

Indeed, as I have been experiencing and practicing more in the biomimetic realm, through different projects with different objectives and strategies, I have been repeatedly coming across the same type of challenges. For those who are not anticipating this before diving into a biomimicry career, let me describe some.

A common struggle for me and many other biomimeticists is abstracting design functions, so that they detach from biological jargon and analogies with natural models can be formulated. Another issue emerges from literature providing insufficient information about those functions in particular. I have been noticing a significant share of the available biological information is founded on description – and less on explanation – of the organisms’ remarkable adaptation and performance. The mechanisms behind structural and/or behavioral features are not identified or described in detail though, compelling me, as a researcher, to go look deeper on my own. Here the situation is aggravated by limited outsourcing possibilities and a lack of research resources (why isn’t there a UAkron lab strictly focusing on peacocks opulent behinds?).

Natural designs are usually multifunctional (e.g. the spikes of a cactus provide auto-shading and protection against predators but also collect moisture), while humans solve faster one problem, or function, at a time. I now feel tempted to focus on champion adapters – whose traits are decisive for the survival of the species – or examples of convergent evolution because it is a strong indicator of functionality…but what about all those other amazing natural models we have to skip?

Language barriers also hinder information transfer between research fields. Easy access to biological data is not enough, as I must be able to recognize what is relevant for my projects and thoroughly understand the selected information. There is definitely some work to be done in the future for better communication between biomimicry collaborators. AskNature platform is a great start, but we need more tools to help with the research and creative process of biomimicry.

I do not intend to discuss here paradigm change in today organizations towards a deeper focus on sustainability, but I do believe the ability for the biomimicry process to be flexible can be a promising advantage with a differentiating value. Biomimicry serves a broader purpose if it can speak any language and communicate to everyone,  which includes open innovation agents with creative initiative or highly structured or hierarchical organizations less willing to change traditional frameworks, such as engineering agents strongly linked to industry. I agree with the authors who advocate biomimicry as a supplement for idea production and not as a replacement of other effective project management processes, already established in many academic or corporate contexts.

So how to optimize the biomimicry process if it shouldn’t be normative? Communication again! Outsourcing needs biomimicry and biomimicry needs outsourcing. After all, that’s the function of a peacock’s tail… Calling for interaction.

Flexibility doesn’t mean lack of organization either, and that’s how many creative professionals keep a productive dynamic to their processes. But a way of getting everyone on the same page is increasing information flow. Yes, we need more feedback loops… and I need to talk to an ornithologist.

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