12 October 2012 by Mildred Thabane

Biomimicry: A solution for a sustainable future?

Biomimicry is a ‘way of seeking sustainable solutions by borrowing life’s blueprints, chemical recipes, and ecosystem strategies’.

A tree grows in an old termite mound

It was on a rhino education trip in Karongwe, Limpopo, when I first heard the term biomimicry.

The term was coined by Janine Benyus in 1990, and relates to humans looking to nature to create new inventions.

Land naturalist and trainer William Lawson explains that biomimicry emulates nature to find solutions to human problems. It is well known that humans are not the first designers or architects; organisms have been successfully creating their environments for around 3.85 billion years. And they have been doing so without the pollution and waste inherent in the human species’ activities.

So what makes biomimicry different? Why can’t we continue to recycle, bio-utilise and the like?

"The problem with recycling and all these other green methods that have been introduced is that there is still an element of waste," says Lawson. "If you look at recycling, for example, a percentage of the product can never be used again."

Biomimicry is a "way of seeking sustainable solutions by borrowing life’s blueprints, chemical recipes, and ecosystem strategies". It looks at natural forms and systems, and how they’ve adapted to survive in their surroundings. It looks at organisms in their habitat and learns from them.

A spider web: By studying how animals interact with, and adapt to, their surroundings we can create products that mimic their behaviour.

For example, a biologist could look at a shark and how its body has been adapted to swim fast in the water, then a designer or engineer can look for ways to recreate those elements using natural materials to solve the problem of drag for boats or submarines.

The great thing about biomimicry is that designers, architects, engineers and innovators can come together to share ideas that answer the question: What would nature do?

There are three parts to biomimicry – form, process and system.

Form, the beginning phase of biomimicry, is about mimicking the natural form of something – such as a termite mound, to create an energy-efficient way of ventilating a building.

The second level, process, looks at how a certain part or the whole organism is made. This allows us to try to create materials that are free of toxins and are created at room or body temperature.

The deepest level is the third element, system. Here the whole ecosystem is taken into consideration, and that’s the most important aspect of biomimicry. Products should not be created in isolation, but rather to fit in and work seamlessly with other products in our ecosystem. The new trend word related to this is "upcycling", which differs from recycling.

Upcycling is the process of reusing or reworking waste created by products to create new and better products that are of good environmental value. As in nature, where everything gets used by something else and there is no waste, biomimicry tries to use systems to create products that work in symbiosis without creating more pollution.

If you think about it, the term may be new, but the idea of biomimicry has been around for ages.

So is biomimicry the solution to all the problems humans have caused? If you think about it, the term may be new, but the idea of biomimicry has been around for ages. A clear example is Antonio Gaudi’s work. The Casa Milà building lacks weight-holding walls and can be modified for different use simply by changing the placement of the partitions.

As Benyus says on her website: "Biomimicry was not new to the human species; in fact, there was a time when our very survival depended on noticing and mimicking successful organisms… because we felt we could take it from here, that we no longer needed nature’s help."

At its most basic level, for me anyway, the idea of biomimicry is that humans need to once again go back to nature, not just as a teacher but also as a home, of which we are part. We belong to nature, and just like termites building their termite mounds, all of us as organisms on this planet are trying to achieve the same basic function – and that is to survive and stay on it.

Read more about biomimicry here.

Category: Responsible Tourism

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