What is biomimicry?
Richard’s ambition was based on his will to solve problems while improving and helping the planet. For this, he turned to biomimicry. But, what is biomimicry?
Biomimicry is a “super discipline” to shape the future. It gathers mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering design and even art, all of this mixed together. At the beginning, the Innovation Lab was aimed at discovering how nature solves problems in manufacturing all around the world, how academia and industry have been developing new ways to design, create processes and materials for the future and how it can shape the world for the next ten years and predict the future. Early civilizations, for instance, learned from nature.
“Our mission is to inspire and share how the natural world can deliver unique solutions by radically reducing the need for resources.”
Biomimicry Innovation Lab does consultancy, research and analytics, focusing on systems and processes and specializing in project for clients related to cities, manufacturing and food systems. Research is one of the key activities. Academics look into trends and into investment.
History of biomimicry
Biomimicry has been tested in different places in the world, Richard gives the example of a smart cities project, in Africa, located in Ghana. In the UK, much research is dedicated to developing products towards industry.
The Schmitt trigger was quoted as a famous example: of a comparator circuit invented from the study of the American scientist Otto H. Schmitt on neural impulse propagation in squid nerves.
About manufacturing, they have been interested in industries that make products from raw materials by the use of manual labor or machinery, which is usually carried out systematically through the division of labor. “But it is not just how we make things, it is also: where the materials are coming from. How they work? What design of software. What is the easiest or the most effective way to solve problems?”
Looking for innovation in Nature
Dr Rupert Soar, one of the advisors of Richard, once said “innovators look around for fresh ideas, with advances in technology we are able to understand the natural world like never before”. For that, there is a need for more and more research centers, MIT labs, technology, nano-skills, high-record systems, human-body research, etc. What is created today is linked to industry, manufacturing process that makes individual materials. But modern technology has to be inspired by nature or what we are made of.
“Look at your hands, look at your skin, and compare to the room you’re in, the materials, the windows. Lots of material in the home are single-use. Nature does not do that, everything is about multifunctionality because resources are hard to find so it needs to find resources that can easily be used in a multifunctional manner.”
Simply put, biomimicry is all about how nature makes things, by using gravity, genetics and more. Green chemistry has been explored a lot in some cities like London and Boston. It is important to prove that nature can help at creating new technologies. It is not just about the physical factory. Even for business there is an added value as biomimicry seeks to create the exact same thing but by using less (e.g. bones/materials) and reducing the cost of advanced manufacturing.
The Future of Biomimicry: Make the World more Sustainable
Nowadays debates about recycling and plastic impact have become very important. How can we use fewer materials or less chemicals but keep it strong? Biomimicry points to one idea: looking to our trees. The main question here is how can we make biomaterials which do not degrade?
One of the key concepts would be exploring how far we can go and if we can replicate what nature does by observing nature-built self-organization. Robots, IoT and smart buildings which will be everywhere have to be adaptive to changes like nature . Moreover, advanced manufacturing is built on materials, structures and shapes. Ideally, we would shift to using more biomaterials. We need to move on to the next level combining computer and natural processes.
Combining nature and technology
Termites are continually adapting their processes working on the fungi found in their mounds. They work by changing the pressure, temperatures of the gases within the mounds to get it to the right humidity allowing them to function properly and even to regulate the fungus they eat. This is a potential model for the future.
Finally, biomimicry goes together with the principles of the circular economy, recycling and reuse. Natural ecosystems (plants, plankton, etc.) must be combined with human skills to build up an eco-friendly society. Fortunately, more and more companies are going in this direction. The ecosystem is a large community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in a particular area. The living and physical components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Ecosystems are of any size, but usually they are in particular places (interest for local level). Humans have to pay more attention to forests, trees, different materials, the edges between different habitats. How each element could be used and be part of our manufacturing processes? “Not everything will be relevant or possible for us, concludes Richard, but we have a fascinating world and we should look at new environments and sustainable solutions.”
Richard’s favorite quote by Don Campbell goes “If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. If you want to make major changes, change the way you see things.”
Biomimicry is source of innovation. How to connect biomimicry and sustainability?
How can we make sure that we are reducing the environmental impact? We have to reduce the cost of manufacturing; cleaning costs are so much higher. We need to focus on sustainability aspects.
There is a limit to biomimicry for bio-based materials which need some improvements, is there the idea to reduce this based on innovation through biomimicry?
The potential reduces this part. Chemists have to look more to the natural world. The solution is an ecosystem approach via biomimicry.
Is Biomimicry used by corporates such as Airbus, as you mentioned, or more startups or Research Organizations?
There is a lot of research. There is no market for it. In industry, big corporates can deal with it if they have a big R&D department. Innovation is art, biomimicry is art. It is easy to create. Governments can use it too in their Research centers.
Do you feel that there are some sectors where biomimicry makes more sense than manufacturing?
Manufacturing and construction are the two biggest polluters, there is a mass of energy lost, full waste (e.g.: construction waste of materials) and we have to tackle it. We can use other materials or different manufacturing techniques.
What about medical devices? For Covid-19 solutions, biomimicry can be used?
There is actually a huge project of the lab which works on post-Covid scenarios, food, infrastructure… In place for Covid, we have been inspired by shark skin technology since sharks are slow moving animals but they do not generally have a lot of bacteria on them. Their skin has been observed and copied for many uses. We have thought of it for medical devices, to reduce the spread or the growth of bacteria.
Biography of the Speaker
This keynote was held by Richard James MacCowan, founder and Creative Director at Biomimicry UK, which is a non-profit startup dedicated to research and development with international collaborators via the Design Society and the ISO Standards in Biomimicry. The goal of this session was to discover bio-inspired innovations and to know more about biomimicry’s potential, especially to solve some of the current and future challenges faced by the manufacturing sector.
Richard is an award-winning designer and has worked around the world in cities, manufacturing, food systems and product design. He has dedicated a significant amount of time to research projects with academics and to develop new tools for the Design Society, new challenges, industry solutions and sustainable construction works. With his rich background, he asked himself how to interconnect all these ideas for a sustainable future. After the global economic recession 12 years ago, he thought of exploring interconnectivity between cities, systems, ecosystems and biological systems.