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Blogger’s pick

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As a blogger, I am sometimes asked to name my all-time favourite blog post. Well, they’re all my babies so picking a preferred post is tough. To answer this perennial question, last weekend I sifted through the 420 posts that I have published over the past nine years. It was an interesting trip down memory lane which enabled me to rediscover notable posts in my blog archives.

The post that I ultimately handpicked as the standout for me was not the most popular (based on readership) or most commented upon when it was originally published in July 2011. However, it contained subject matter that is near and dear to my heart - nature’s solutions - which is why I wish to re-run that post today.

In a world which is increasingly turning to “green” solutions, high-tech firms are looking to nature as the greatest innovation lab of all. Nature is the best test of what works and what doesn’t and her evolutionary adaptations can be used to address human problems.

I hope that the post below will be of particular interest to new and/or sporadic readers who may have missed it the first-time around. Regular readers please note that I will not make a habit of reusing old content. You’ll again be able to click on to new material next week.

Nature’s laboratory

By far the smartest “person” I know is Mother Nature. We humans can learn much from her. She’s been giving lessons in design for billions of years, but only in recent times have we started “enrolling” in her classes. The early students have looked to Mother Nature for advice in solving many of the problems we are grappling with as she’s already worked them out.

Using nature as a mentor, professionals from a range of fields are now studying biomimicry. Biomimicry is the art and science of emulating nature’s best biological ideas and applying these solutions to product design, architecture, engineering and even community design. Analysing a forest floor to invent a better carpet tile is an example of biomimicry.

Velcro is probably the best-known example of innovation inspired by nature. The product’s inventor, George de Mestral, stumbled upon the idea by examining how burrs stuck to the hair of his dog. By mimicking the strong attachment forces of the burrs’ small hooks, he was able to develop Velcro straps and fasteners.

Nowadays, pioneering companies are capturing the ingenuity of nature and adapting it to solve and overcome challenges. For instance, in designing its new Fastskin biometric swimsuit, Speedo copied the hydrodynamic efficiency of the skin on nature’s fastest aquatic creature - the shark - to reduce the resistive drag on swimmers’ bodies.

Similarly, Airbus observed how sea birds sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and adjust the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift. As a result, Airbus installed probes on its A350 aircraft which detect gusts ahead of the wing and deploy moveable surfaces for more efficient flight.

Biomimicry is set to usher in a new wave of energy efficiency. Indeed, some believe that biomimicry holds the key to our planet’s energy future. Possible next generation energy sources include wind-turbines inspired by bees, solar panels inspired by moth eyes and electricity generation inspired by ocean currents.

From building an efficient waste treatment plant modelled on the way human kidneys process waste to constructing a high-rise building that imitates a termite mound for passive air conditioning, copying ideas from nature for the way we make or do things is gathering pace. But unlocking nature’s secrets is not always an easy task.

For some years, scientists have been trying to synthetically manufacture spider silk. Spider silk is one of the strongest materials on Earth and is a whopping five times stronger by weight than steel. If we can decipher the architecture of silk fibres and replicate its properties, we will discover an exciting new material which will have applications from medicine to engineering.

Businesses are increasingly turning to nature with some amazing breakthroughs in design. The science of biomimicry now has some very creative practitioners, but it does not have to be a solo effort. Organisations such as Ask can help with the task of finding a solution in nature to a given human problem.

In the coming decades, you will see more biomimicry as nature helps us do more with less by showing us how to tap a seemingly endless wellspring of solutions. For now, I’ll leave the final word to Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. “Biomimicry introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it.”


Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas