Want to use design to make our world a better place? The answers are already there in nature
'For every problem, nature has already produced many solutions that are efficient, resilient and beautiful'
Azita Ardakani is happiest walking in any forest by the Pacific, where she's grounded in the earth beneath her and can feel the enormous power of the ocean next to her. As an entrepreneur, innovator and design student, her sense of reverence for the natural world led her to become curious about the way that nature solves problems.
For Ardakani, a walk outdoors is a master class in design principles. These organisms tend to be "responsive, self-regulated, modular and nested, self-organized and maintain integrity with their own self-renewal," she says.
During the pandemic, she's found respite and inspiration at her home in Vancouver. "I'm on Coast Salish land surrounded by a variety of fir, spruce and pine trees, and two examples of responsive design are within my eyesight," she says. "First, a Ponderosa pine. You may have noticed that they have this beautiful puzzle-shaped bark; the exterior allows them to shed as few external layers as possible when there is a forest fire, protecting the integrity of the larger structure."
"A few feet away I see a pinecone, which responds to temperature, opening and closing accordingly, offering temperature regulation for the precious cargo, which in this case is the seed. Nature is really good at packaging and protecting against various temperatures."
The practice of turning to nature and adapting its structures and strategies to solve human problems is known as biomimicry. It means "imitation of life" and is a new word for an ancient practice. The term was popularized in 1997 by American author Janine Benyus. The idea is that over the course of evolution, the planet's diverse organisms have repeatedly met the challenges of living on earth. For every problem, nature has already produced many solutions that are efficient, resilient and beautiful.
"What the lens of biomimicry offers is a kind of permission slip to dissolve the idea that the burden of solutions is on the human brain alone," says Ardakani. "We have access to a 3.8 billion-year depository of research and development that no human civilization could ever try to catch up to."
Ardakani, who was born in Iran and raised in Vancouver, founded the social media agency and B Corporation Lovesocial, which eventually branched out to the U.S. and helped land her on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2015. But a few years ago, she decided to take a step back from her fast-paced lifestyle and reconnect with nature and her purpose. Now, she's doing her master's in biomimicry and working with the Biomimicry Institute on the relaunch of AskNature.org, which is the largest online collection of biological strategies. (The updated site is set to launch in March.)
"I use the metaphor that AskNature is kind of like the national forest of the internet," she says. Ardakani envisions it as a tool for artists, designers, engineers and entrepreneurs to find the secrets behind how nature does things and translate those in a practical way to whatever their field is.
Artists have looked to nature for inspiration throughout history. Leonardo da Vinci, considered a biomimicry pioneer by many, imitated bird anatomy to make his flying machines. For Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, "nature's perfect constructions" were the source of all knowledge. His organic buildings seem to breathe, incorporating aesthetic and functional biomimetic elements like honeycomb gates and spiral stairways. Inside his sinuous Sagrada Familia church, light filters through the ceiling to reveal an internal framework of catenary arches and tree-like columns that create a fractal forest.
Ardakani says that AskNature will be a platform enabling interdisciplinary thinking of this kind. It will encourage artists to create pieces that may also be functional, and defy categorization. "We're seeing a collapse of roles where engineers are artists, designers are scientists, and everyone is a student," she says. "AskNature will be a place that allows inspiration to move to 'awestruck action,' as Janine Benyus puts it."
"Another important part is Indigenous integration," she adds. "Indigenous researchers have known for a long time that asking nature is how we build sustainable and harmonious ways of life. Western science is finally catching up to those ways."
What the lens of biomimicry offers is a kind of permission slip to dissolve the idea that the burden of solutions is on the human brain alone. We have access to a 3.8 billion-year depository of research and development that no human civilization could ever try to catch up to.- Azita Ardakani
The biomimetic approach has already led to a growing number of real-world applications by contemporary innovators. One example is the fan and turbine manufacturer Whale Power, which copied the bumps on the front edge of humpback whale fins to make blades that are 20 percent more efficient and also quieter than traditional ones. Another is the real estate developer Tridel, which found an effective way to prevent bird collisions by installing window glass that reflects UV light visible to birds but not humans. The inspiration came from species of spiders that incorporate UV-reflective silk strands into their webs to attract prey like insects and warn away larger animals, including birds.
Fashion designers are now looking at how nature does aesthetics. They are creating fabrics that require no toxic dyes, or the large amounts of water and energy used in conventional dying, by mimicking how morpho butterflies generate the brilliant, iridescent blue colour on their wings using "structural colour" rather than pigments. Their wings have a pattern of tiny plates arranged to reflect light in a way that produces the radiant blue colour. Structurally coloured fibre applies the same technology.
Beyond copying structures in nature, biomimicry is also about learning from its processes. Business managers have looked to ants to create more effective communication strategies, and scientists have developed carbon-sequestering concrete by emulating coral reefs — a complete reversal for an industry that is one of the biggest CO2 emitters.
Jamie Miller, designer and founder of Biomimicry Frontiers in Guelph, Ontario, is experimenting with applying biomimicry even more broadly, at a systems scale. Miller first learned about biomimicry in a math and poetry class as an undergraduate student at Queen's University. There, he learned about the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio, patterns that are littered throughout the natural world.
"The spirals you see in pinecones, the seed packaging of a sunflower, the swirl of a hurricane and horns of a ram, are all natural occurrences of the Fibonacci sequence and golden ratio in nature," Miller explained in an article for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
"What was fascinating to me was that nature was doing design."
Since then, Miller has been obsessed with unlocking the design strategies of the natural world. He attended a workshop in Costa Rica with Janine Benyus, which inspired him to pursue a PhD in biomimicry and start his own sustainability consultancy firm.
Biomimicry Frontiers' work is focused on urban design. One of their current projects is a partnership with the City of Guelph to create Canada's first circular food economy. In nature, nothing is wasted, and everything that is produced is designed with the capabilities of its decomposition built into its structure. Similarly, in a circular food economy, the waste stream of one industry becomes the resource for another. "For example," says Miller, "we've helped turn beer waste to bread with Fixed Gear Brewing, and are currently exploring how to turn bread back into beer."
Another goal of the project is to implement an ecological model called "patch dynamics" in order to build more resilient food strategies. Applying this lens to the food economy in Guelph means focusing on the unique characteristics of neighbourhoods in the community and identifying underused opportunities and assets within it.
So far, this has included mapping food production in a local neighbourhood and supporting the sale or donation of excess food from backyard gardens. "We've also been able to make new circular connections, like one person sharing their compost with a local chicken owner in exchange for eggs," says Miller. "And now we're building workshops to share local expertise and ideas." By adding more layers to the food system, it's becoming more self-sufficient.
The necessity of keeping our systems resilient through disturbances has come to the forefront during the pandemic. Last year, Biomimicry Frontiers released a video describing how nature can inform how we respond to the multiple crises humanity is facing. For example, we can learn from how a complex ecological system like an old forest bounces back after a fire or pest invasion.
Ardakani sees systems collapse as an opportunity for urgent and necessary change. "If you're looking at a forest fire in a myopic way and slicing that moment in time, it looks devastating," she says. "But if you look at it from a geological time frame, which is a much longer period, it's an invitation for radical renewal."
"System change is inevitable," says Miller. "But, in states of reorganization, we have the ability to plant seeds for the world we want to live in. We can create the systems, the forms, the processes, that work for the most people, for the most species, for the most diversity, the same way that nature does it."