A resilient economy inspired by nature

1st May, 2014 by Guest writer

Dr Tamsin Woolley-Barker looks to natural systems, where "every bit of debris becomes a source of nutrition", for lessons in sustainable design.

The Madagascar sunset moth is a spectacular kaleidoscope of a creature. She is only found here, on this magical island, and every fibre of her being is exquisitely honed by this special place.

Imagine you are an architect, tasked with designing a community centre in Madagascar to distribute clean drinking water. You come to visit, study the site, and unexpectedly fall in love with this fantastical moth. You sketch her, trying to recreate the colour in her wings. To your surprise, you discover her iridescence is a structural mirage. There are no pigments here. Nothing is plugged in, nothing needs recharging. And yet, her colour is brighter and purer than you’ll see in any paint or on any screen display. Curious, you look at her under a microscope, finding layers of trapped air, reflecting and refracting light into dazzling colours. You sketch.

Now, you feel connected to this place. Your building takes root: rainwater collects at the top, and filters down into walls of hanging and discarded water bottles. As the water trickles in, the angle of each bottle shifts, and a kaleidoscope of light bursts forth, alerting the villagers that water has arrived. This is their iridescent building, their magical place, and the endangered moth is a symbol of their belonging, one they will fiercely protect.

This building is a concept design from Ilaria Mazzoleni’s book, Architecture Follows Nature. Mazzoleni explores the ‘ecotone’ between biology and design. There’s a lovely wild river here, where a greater understanding of nature throws up all sorts of possibilities for our future, but it’s not an easy one to bridge. How can we biologists and designers hope to communicate, with our different vocabularies and mindsets?

“The species of a particular habitat provide valuable lessons for long-term design”, says Mazzoleni. “The trick is to mediate scientific reason and function, through drawings and a process of abstraction.”

This emerging field is biomimicry: the art and science of innovation inspired by nature. And it is the universal language of drawing that often translates this functional biology from the lab to the design table. Drawing has always been an important bridge between biology and art. Da Vinci abstracted his drawings of bird flight into fantastical flying machines. Ernst Haeckel’s exquisite and otherworldly scientific illustrations still thrill designers more than a century later. His images teem with seemingly alien life, reminding us how little we know about the world right in front of us.

There are at least 30 million great ideas out there, and each of them has stood the test of evolutionary time. As architect Michael Pawlyn, author of Biomimicry in Architecture, puts it, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8-billion-year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it.”

Biomimicry brings exciting new possibilities for technology and design. A device in your smartphone mimics the way the human ear and brain filter and interpret sound. Bird skulls demonstrate structures for a more efficient use of building materials. Consider the vast array of fibres in nature: from beetle wings to cat whiskers, brazil nuts to fish scales. All of them are manufactured at body temperature in watery solutions, leaving no toxic emissions, no waste. Every bit of debris becomes a source of nutrition for something else. This is the circular economy we aspire to build.

There’s no reason why we can’t replicate it. The renowned biologist E. O. Wilson estimates the total mass of all ants on Earth is roughly the same as that of all humans. But you don’t see them choking on smog, stuck in traffic, or bathing in their own sewage, now do you? Which goes to show we don’t have a population problem: we’re just doing it wrong. With a little observation, emulation, innovation and organisation, we can sustain more life with less impact on resources. Just as animal skins grow, transform, self-heal and decompose, so can our products and homes. A pair of Dutch scientists, one a microbiologist, the other a concrete specialist, have created a self-healing concrete: when water flows into its cracks it activates tiny bacterial spores which convert a healing agent into limestone [see 'Bioconcrete' uses bacteria to heal itself]. Other meta-materials morph, adapting to changes in temperature and light, amplifying or dampening sound. And what about the humble leaf or algae, which efficiently convert sunlight into fuel? Already, a building in Hamburg is generating heat and electricity from algal photosynthesis in its external walls [see A building powered by algae].

Biomimicry can also help us think in systems. Pawlyn’s vision is to transform our linear ‘take, make, waste’ approach so that it resembles an ecosystem, with an endless cycle of nutrients. He gives the Cardboard to Caviar project as an example. Here, restaurant waste is turned into horse bedding, then fed to worms, which are fed to fish, whose caviar is served at the restaurant. Pawlyn’s own Sahara Forest Project uses sunlight and saltwater to produce food, water and clean energy, while regenerating life in the increasingly arid desert.

Our fossil-based industries are crying out for transformation. We’re running out of raw material to feed them, and we don’t know where to put the garbage they produce. The energy they run on is toxic. New possibilities are now emerging like moths from their cocoons. Take out your crayons and your butterfly nets, and let’s get to work.

Dr Tamsin Woolley-Barker is a Contracted Biologist at the Design Table for Biomimicry 3.8, and writes about revolutionary biology.

Watch Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk, ‘Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture’

Photo credit: The Biomimetic Office by Exploration Architecture

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