Biomimicry: Learning From The Natural WorldApr.11.2019
Throughout history, people have sought connections with nature. In particular, designers have observed nature, investigated its materials, and abstracted its forms and qualities.
The Garden of Secrets, a collaborative project between TEALEAVES and UBC Botanical Garden, dives into the realm of plant-inspired biomimicry and biophilic design with the goal of celebrating nature beyond its edible, visual and medicinal properties.
Dimitri Smirnoff is a biologist, educator, and certified Biomimicry Professional. He is currently an educator and researcher at the California Academy of Sciences. Dimitri graduated from Carleton with a degree in biology and later studied at Arizona State University where he earned a Master of Science in biomimicry.
Can you talk about biomimicking plants, and what’s so fascinating about it?
Biomimicry excites me because it’s an opportunity for us to expand the solution space beyond the human world, out to species that have been tinkering, adapting, and being naturally selected for the same environment over 3.8 billion years. Biomimicry is premised on the idea that organisms all around us are adapting to the same physical, chemical, and biological constraints that we’re trying to adapt to. It’s this process of translating between the human-designed spaces to the biological space, finding a potential inspiration, then translating the knowledge back to the solution space. That is the practice of biomimicry.
How can we learn from the natural world for human design?
At first pass, it might not seem like there’s much to learn from the natural world for human design challenges. However, if we look through a functional lens at what we want our designs to do rather than what we want our designs to be, we start to see connections that didn’t exist there before. If you asked a biologist, “How does nature make a concrete pillar?”, it might seem like a nonsensical question, because nature doesn’t use concrete or make pillars necessarily. But if we rephrase it, and rather than asking what we want our design to be, which is the object, the concrete pillar, we ask what we want our design to do, which is probably to withstand a load or to distribute some kind of strain energy, then there are plenty of examples of how nature does that.
Can you talk about the lack of biodiversity in the world and why it’s a problem?
The diminishment of the existing current biodiversity is largely being driven by human impact, and that impact is described by the acronym HIPPO, where there’s habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, overpopulation by humans, and over-consumption or over-harvesting, which is leading to unnaturally high extinction rates of different species all around the world.
How do you imagine this lack of biodiversity adversely impacting innovation in the future?
The way that the diminishment in biodiversity can affect innovation is if we believe that there’s something to be learned from nature. There’s a number of schools of thought that are turning to the natural world to seek solutions for many common human challenges. If we think of the natural world as this library of resources, we’re essentially going through a book burning right now, losing species faster than we can learn from them.
What is the role of bioutilization?
If we look at how humans traditionally go about creating things and innovating, it’s often been subsidized by the cheap energy that we’re able to get through fossil fuels. Nature operates on a completely different accounting system, where the amount of energy it has to use is really the solar budget. The idea of going to nature for inspiration and using nature can come in different forms. Biomimicry is premised on the idea of going to nature and learning, and the thing that we bring back to the design table is knowledge. This is in contrast to something called bioutilization.
Bioutilization is when you actually go out and take the organism itself, whether it be an animal or plant or part of it, and use that material, the actual thing in your design, or in your process. The difference there is twofold, one is that there isn’t a learning experience happening there. With biomimicry, we’re actually going through a process of studying how the organism has evolved to achieve a certain goal, whereas with bioutilization, there’s actually just the using of the organism. The second difference is that with bioutilization, there is the risk of overconsumption, whereas with biomimicry, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you could overconsume the knowledge.
Can you contrast bioutilization vs. biomimicry? What is the difference?
A great way to contrast bioutilization and biomimicry might be to think about using wood in a building. If we actually use wooden pillars and cross beams to build a structure, then that’s bioutilization. If we were to look at how a tree grows and how it distributes weight and places material, and use that to design our buildings, that would be looking at the process of the growth of a tree, learning from that, and then applying it to the human space. Biomimicry is one school of thought that falls under the broader umbrella of learning from nature, and there are three elements that help define it.
One is called “emulate”, and this is the actual process by which we go about learning from nature. It’s looking at the function that we’re trying to achieve in our design, and finding the corresponding biology. If we’re interested in creating some kind of nonstick surface, we might try to look at plants in nature that have a surface that insects or other things can’t stick too.
Another element of biomimicry is called “ethos”, and this speaks to the ethics or the philosophy that we bring to our practice. It’s the idea that it’s not just about looking to nature to design cooler things, but having a purpose in mind. For us, it’s trying to create designs that create conditions conducive to life and fit in with the rest of nature, rather than on top of it.
The third element of biomimicry we call “reconnect”, and it’s this idea that humans and nature are not two distinct concepts. Humans are part of the natural world, and we need to learn and remember that we’re part of nature. It can start as simply as taking a walk in the woods and quieting our own human cleverness, and starting to pay closer attention to the things around us.
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