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Designing from nature could solve the world's biggest challenges

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Rhona Wise/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A Florida Burrowing Owl perches on a post at a park in Miami. An emerging manufacturing technique called biomimicry uses nature as a model. An owl’s feathers, for example, could be mimicked to create a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface. The implications, in everything from textiles to quieter airplanes, could be staggering.

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Imagine this assignment, says Bill McDonough in a recent TED talk: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, converts nitrogen into ammonia, distills water, stores solar energy as fuel, builds complex sugars, creates microclimates, changes color with the seasons, and self-replicates.

Sound impossible? Well, nature’s already completed this one. It’s called 
a plant. And the fact that it does these things safely and efficiently is inspiring engineers and designers to reconceive the ways we manufacture such basics as soap bottles, raincoats, and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle, the two fields of inquiry that frame this emerging discipline, stem from the work of biologist Janine Benyus, architect William McDonough, and chemist Michael Braungart, who realized that the very models they considered key to making safer, more environmentally friendly products were sitting right before us, in the natural world.

The trio wrote two pivotal books—Benyus’ "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature" and McDonough and Braungart’s "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things"—which laid out their beliefs and touched a nerve.

"What would nature do to design lasting and regenerative materials?” asks Benyus. “How does a river filter fresh water and a spider manufacture resilient fiber?”

Braungart, picking up on the theme, wonders: “Why aren’t we designing buildings like trees and cities like forests?”

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