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The Greatest Design of All Time?

The designs of some of our greatest inventions are inspired by nature – from imitating birds to build flying machines, leaves to design solar panels, or brains to construct the ‘neural networks’ behind AI. This concept of taking a leaf from nature's design book is called ‘biomimicry’. 

But we've only just scratched the surface of this vast encyclopedia of design inspiration. The natural world is the most advanced Research & Development lab in existence. It has spent billions of years tinkering away at nearly every design and engineering roadblock under the sun. 

With so much time to experiment and optimise, nature’s designs are usually much more elegant and efficient than anything we could come up with. Even more impressively, nature manages to achieve all this without draining the planet’s resources.

Could taking a closer look at nature’s designs set us on a path to greater innovation and a more sustainable future?

Watch my short video to find out more…

Innovation fuelled by nature

You might be surprised at just how commonplace biomimicry is.

Kirsty Hamilton’s 2022 book Nature’s Wild Ideas explores some of the many innovations that have been inspired by the natural world. These range from the everyday to the extraordinary. 

The ‘eureka moment’ behind the invention of Velcro happened when engineer George de Mestral went on a hunting trip in the Swiss Alps and noticed how seeds were sticking to his dog Milka’s fur. The invention of compression socks sprang from a chance observation about the slim profile of a giraffe’s legs

We have also harnessed the designs of Mother Earth to see the universe beyond it. Our ability to explore space has been greatly enhanced by studying lobsters’ eyes, which inspired the structure of X-ray telescopes, and honeycombs, which inspired the internal design of the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are countless more examples like these, and the exciting thing is that we have barely started mining the full richness of what planet Earth’s design department has to offer.

The fascinating website provides a comprehensive database of biological solutions applicable to human design challenges. Here’s a few highlights from their library of nature-inspired innovations which may one day be as commonplace as Velcro…

Tackling superbugs with sharks 

‘Superbugs’, often found in hospitals, are resistant to the antibiotics and disinfectants we’ve traditionally used to get rid of bacteria. In fact, it’s likely that we have created these antibiotic-resistant bugs by over-using these types of treatments. So how do we tackle the superbugs? We clearly need a new strategy. Enter… the shark.

Any object or creature submerged in water eventually gets covered in films of bacteria or organisms like algae and barnacles – except for sharks. Sharks are uniquely immune to this because bacteria is unable to attach and grow on their skin.

The intricate texture of a shark’s skin, made up of tiny V-shaped scales and ridges, inspired the invention of a new synthetic material which could help solve the superbug conundrum. Sharklet is being marketed for use in hospitals and other places with a high potential for bacteria to spread – like handles and railings in public transport. Instead of developing new chemicals and treatments to kill bugs, the shark strategy promises to help stop them from forming in the first place. 

Search algorithms inspired by ants

Tree-dwelling ants maintain networks of trails to keep their nests connected to food sources. As they walk their paths they leave behind slowly-evaporating pheromones which allow other ants to follow in their footsteps. Not only does this enable ants to consistently learn the most efficient routes, but it also equips them with a ‘plan b’ if their first choice trail is disrupted. Imagine, for instance, that a branch falls and cuts off the ants’ preferred route. In this scenario, they will retrace their steps back to the previous junction and take the next most efficient path from there.

These ‘antics’ have fascinated academics at Stanford University who were looking at ways to improve search engines. Unlike foraging ants, many search algorithms do not ‘remember’ how they handled previous searches, leading to repetition, inefficiency and a higher risk of network disruptions.

The Stanford academics created a new algorithm to solve this by using field data based on ant behaviour. Like the ants, the Stanford algorithm circumvents disruptions and always takes the most efficient path.

Wind turbines modelled on owl feathers

For generations we’ve looked to birds to inspire the design of our own flying machines – from the Wright brothers ornithology studies to the modern-day B-2 bomber and its incredible likeness to the shape of a peregrine falcon.

But that’s not all we have to learn from our feathered friends. Wind turbines have become an increasingly important technology as we look to decarbonise and find cleaner ways to produce energy. In the UK, electricity generated from wind power increased over 700% in the past decade.

The technology isn’t perfect, however. One of the problems, as you’ll know if you’ve ever stood close to a turbine, is the noise. As turbine blades have increased in size, so has the volume of the whirring sound they make as they slice through the air. This causes at least a couple of significant problems: it fuels opposition to the building of wind farms, and it reduces efficiency – that noise is the sound of lost energy.

Compare this with an owl, which can swoop through the air in complete silence to stalk their prey. The feathers along the edge of an owl’s wing form an intricately-shaped fringe which channels the air to reduce wind resistance and muffle sound.

Inspired by this, Biome Renewables has designed turbine blades which incorporate a serrated ‘FeatherEdge’ design, mimicking the aerodynamics of an owl’s wing. It is claimed that this can reduce noise levels by up to 80% and increase power generation.

The planet’s greatest R&D department

Taking a leaf from nature’s design book has helped us to achieve some incredible things. But we’ve still got a lot to learn. The maneuverability of our most advanced fighter jets pales in comparison to those of the clumsiest bird. The most powerful supercomputers in the world are still much less advanced than the human brain and require thousands of times more energy.

American biologist Janine Benyus offered some perspective on the superiority of nature’s designs in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature:

“If the age of the Earth were a calendar year and today were a breath before midnight on New Year’s Eve, we showed up a scant fifteen minutes ago, and all of recorded history has blinked by in the last sixty seconds. Luckily for us, our planet-mates – the fantastic meshwork of plants, animals, and microbes – have been patiently perfecting their wares since March, an incredible 3.8 billion years since the first bacteria.” 

Our biomimicry-inspired innovations may still be inferior imitations of nature’s originals, but there’s something important that many of our more recent efforts have in common: sustainability.

Today we are all increasingly aware of the impact of human activity on the planet. The phenomenal technological progress of the past two centuries has come at a significant cost in the form of mass extinctions, deforestation and climate change.

The solutions we’re now developing with nature’s inspiration should give us some cause for optimism: fixing the planet doesn’t have to mean turning the clock back on innovation. We’ve got the greatest R&D lab in existence to learn from – just as long as we keep it up and running.

Recommended links and further reading


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