Key takeaways

  • Biomimicry is an emerging discipline applying nature-based innovations to human problems.
  • By 2030, biomimicry could contribute up to US$1.6 trillion to the global economy.
  • Applicable to a swathe of industries, biomimicry is increasingly being applied to digital technology.

I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning, just like the digital one – Steve Jobs

During a hunting trip in 1941, Swiss engineer and inventor Georges de Mestral became fixated on the burrs clinging to his pants and his dog’s fur¹. Rather than brush them off with irritation, a curious de Mestral took these burrs home and examined them up close, putting them under a microscope to see what that made them stick.

After observing how the burr’s hooks were able to latch to the loops found within fabric and fur fibres, de Mestral was struck with an epiphany. From this single encounter in the woods spawned an invention still used today to fasten clothing and objects – Velcro.

The invention of Velcro is one of the most famous (and commercially successful) examples of biomimicry. Alongside the related terms bio design, biomimetics and bionics, biomimicry observes the many countless examples of innovation occurring throughout nature then applies these lessons to human endeavours – whether it’s design, business or engineering.

Part of a rapidly growing sector within science and technology, the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute predicts that globally ‘bioinspiration’ will generate US$1.6 trillion of total GDP by 2030². It’s not just limited to physical inventions, either: the digital economy is also increasingly adopting nature-inspired innovations.

Fertile ground
for innovation

The idea behind biomimicry is simple: thanks to the ongoing process of evolution, the natural world is consistently running many millions of experiments every hour. Because natural selection means only the most successful of these experiments survive to the next generation, these experiments are paired with almost infinite iteration and improvement.

What’s more, because nature is restricted to using the raw materials and organic chemistry found throughout the environment, these innovations are sustainable, energy efficient and frequently non-toxic.

Applying these principles to the built environment, biomimicry practitioners are researching ways to incorporate these concepts in everything from architecture to robotics. Beyond Velcro, other notable examples include modelling Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train on the beak of a hummingbird to reduce air resistance, and developing new entirely chemical-free adhesives inspired by gecko feet³.

goes digital

While many of biomimicry’s innovations are concentrated in the physical realm, the discipline is also making its way into the worlds of digital technology and business innovation:

Surfing the anternet

In 2013, researchers at Stanford discovered a species of desert ant that operates its colony on a similar algorithm to our human internet4. Colloquially dubbed the ‘anternet’, food-foraging harvester ants are deployed from the nest using a system closely resembling the internet’s Transmission Control Protocol, which evaluates bandwidth availability when transferring data.

This ability for ants to evolve highly distributed and scalable algorithms (an incredible feat considering the simplicity of each individual ant) could see colonies serve as a new kind of template for human-engineered digital systems and networks. Further, with there being more than 10,000 species of ant found globally – evolved to operate within a diverse range of environments and habitats – there’s likely many other ant-derived algorithms to observe and adapt.

Design thinking and biomimicry – a natural fit?

Because a core function of biomimicry is applying nature-based innovations to problems and inefficiencies in human-designed objects and systems, parts of the discipline could be paired with other innovation processes, such as design thinking5.

Design thinking puts human needs and requirements front of mind when conceiving new products or services. Through a series of steps ranging from brainstorming to prototyping. the methodology seeks out new problems and puts forward potential solutions, many of which can be digital and scalable.

By reminding innovators that the built environment coexists with the natural world’s web of systems and organisms, biomimicry provides a reference list of design ideas that could help solve problems once they’re identified. As Janine Benyus describes6, businesses looking to solve a particular challenge – such as an automotive manufacturer devising a new windshield frame for a car – can consult the many ways plants and animals create strong-yet-lightweight structures as part of the innovation process.

Put more simply, if design thinking can identify the ‘what’ and ‘why’, biomimicry can provide the ‘how’.

Printing in a new dimension

Biomimicry is playing a key role in the development of 4D printing7. Like its three-dimensional counterpart, 4D printing comprises designed objects printed from digital files. However, these objects aren’t static; they can be ‘programmed’ to move and shapeshift over time, bringing the technology closer to replicating objects that must constantly change their shape – such as organs.

Steadying drone cameras with swan necks

By studying how swans keep their long necks steady during flight, researchers have devised8 a new camera suspension system that could overhaul drone technology. Using this system, future drones could be powered by flapping wing motions rather than rotor blades, unlocking a new design approach without making sacrifices in video stability.

and beyond

By viewing nature as the world’s largest innovation sandbox – experimenting and iterating on a global scale – biomimicry could serve as both a tool and reference guide for organisations looking to identify and solve new problems.

While biomimicry can be traced back to pioneers such as Buckminster Fuller and even Leonardo Da Vinci, the discipline still remains in relative infancy. That might not remain the case for much longer, as accelerating technology continues to encourage researchers to look beyond the laboratory for potential applications.

It’s therefore a good time to step outside and observe. Could you find inspiration in the innovations occurring in our backyards, oceans, deserts and jungles?