The most natural source of inspiration
Tomorrow’s ideas are nearly four million years old. In the hunt for smarter technological solutions and unique aesthetics, more and more inventors and creators are turning to the source of everything – nature.
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On an autumn day at the end of the 19th century, composer Jean Sibelius was walking in the Finnish forests. Suddenly cranes appeared in the sky. The birds always filled him with the deepest melancholy. But also with music. His walk resulted in beautiful compositions for a play by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. In his diary entry for that day Sibelius wrote:
“I have seen all the cranes of these days migrating southwards with full music. I have been the attentive student. For their songs are the guiding thread of my life.”
Artists have been inspired by nature throughout the ages.
In his twilight years the French painter Paul Cézanne became totally obsessed by Mont Sainte-Victoire and could not tear himself and his easel away from the mountain in Provence. In the 1950s one of Denmark’s foremost designers, Arne Jacobsen, created his Egg and Swan chairs based on the natural forms he loved.
Designers and artists, though, are not the only people to be inspired by impressions from the animal and plant kingdoms. One example is the American marine biologist Frank E. Fish. One day when Dr. Fish was in a souvenir shop in Boston he stopped at a sculpture of a humpback whale. Something about it was wrong. He called out to a friend who was with him: “Look, the sculptor has put the tubercles on the wrong side of the fins!” The shop assistant informed him that on a humpback whale the tubercles (large bumps) are actually located on the leading edge of the fin.
Puzzled by this strange fact, Dr. Fish went home and wondered why. A couple of years later he patented an aircraft wing with bumps on the leading edge. The bumps reduce both hydro- and aerodynamic drag. Today similar bumps are also found on wind turbines and small fans because the bumps make the blades more effective and less noisy.
Refining human innovations by imitating nature is called biomimicry and is now a fast-growing field. Biologist Janine Benyus gave the field a name and a focus 15 years ago with her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Soon after, the Biomimicry Institute was founded. Today it encourages more scientists, architects and designers to use nature’s own solutions to solve modern challenges. The institute now has a sister organisation, Biomimicry 3.8. Its managing director, Nicole Miller, says the number of companies interested in the organisation’s activities is constantly increasing.
“Companies are getting more and more excited about the concept,” she explains. “Many have gone beyond being just curious about biomimicry to now actually integrating it and applying it to their business. But what it takes for them to really succeed is to think long term and have a business model that goes beyond their product and service. That’s where true innovation comes from.”
Much of biomimicry focuses on solving problematic situations that we humans have ourselves created. Mark Dorfman, a chemist at Biomimicry 3.8, says that throughout much of history scientists were inspired by nature’s own solutions – until we discovered oil.
“Things really changed. Suddenly we put nature in the back seat and said: ‘hey, we don’t need you anymore, we can do all that better ourselves now!’ But look at where that got us,” he says.
However, he, too, has recently noticed a new attitude towards nature among both small-scale innovators and multinational corporations. It is based on a sustainability approach but also on a regained respect for nature.
“These are exciting times. Science is at a point where we can study nature up close, even on a molecular level,” he says. “And we have the dexterity to control it at the molecular level. It’s an opportunity to create really amazing chemicals and materials.”
The list of products that have been developed using a biomimicry approach is a long one and contains numerous “Dr. Fish moments”.
"Science is at a point where we can study nature up close."
Mark Dorfman, Biomimicry 3.8
For example, Nike developed a material for fitness clothing based on how tree cones open up to spread their seeds when it is warm and close up when it is cold. During the latest Olympics, the Paralympics were not a marginalised event but instead competitors pushed the human body to its limits with the aid of biologically inspired prostheses. And recently a new type of nappy was developed that binds water in the same way as a jellyfish does.
Many more biomimicry products are now in the research stages whilst others are already developed and waiting to find consumer applications. However, Nicole Miller says that biomimicry is not primarily consumer driven; instead, it is based on companies’ own visions for the future. That is where the shift is happening. And to have a feel for nature and to understand it are critical to really perceiving its potential.
“There’s hundreds of studies demonstrating that being out in nature sparks creativity,” she says. “It’s important that we see and understand that we have a role in nature and its ecosystem. But also that we learn from nature and not only extract from it.”
In the 1950s one of Denmark’s foremost designers, Arne Jacobsen, created his Egg (above) and Swan (below) chairs based on the natural forms he loved.
Almost a century ago Heidegger wrote about exactly this in his massive work Being and Time. In it, the German philosopher developed such ideas as that humanity has lost its sense of direction about its place in nature. That in our striving to exploit nature for technological advances, we have lost the ability to appreciate it for what it is.
Based on this reasoning, a river only gains its meaning when we place a hydroelectric power plant in it. But even if many people still think like that today, there is a strong movement in the opposite direction. Numerous innovators and designers are now letting nature and its intrinsic meaning become the actual strength of the product. By using natural materials they achieve a feeling that cannot be replaced by anything manmade.
Swan chair designed by Arne Jacobsen.
This trend is also noticeable in architecture. More and more architects are now designing exciting buildings made of wood. Of course, this is partly a matter of sustainability but also of aesthetics and people’s positive, warm feelings about the material. Many architects are working more and more frequently to integrate nature in their building projects in order to make them blend in with their surroundings and not disturb animal and plant life. Altered building regulations in many places around the world are also now permitting wood-framed buildings to be much taller. In the battle with steel and concrete, tall wooden structures may thus soon gain ground in the urban landscape.
The most inspiring people – be they architects, Nike product developers or artists – are those who can absorb ideas from their surroundings and reshape them into something that is relevant in a totally different context.
Nature has the solutions, raw materials and millions of years of experience. Perhaps it can teach us to become more efficient and more sparing with resources, but also to take care of it a little better. To meet tomorrow’s challenges with Sibelius’s emphathy, Heidegger’s pragmatism – and Fish’s ingenuity. Or, to use the words of Mark Dorfman at Biomimicry 3.8:
“I really love iPhones, man. And personally I don’t want us to go back to the Stone Age. But what I do want is Space Age technology with a Stone Age impact on the environment.”
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