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Biomimicry: Technology’s Return to Nature

In our technologically advanced, forward moving society, nature and technology often times seem to be in conflict with one another. The word technology brings to mind metallic machines and glowing displays, images that are anything but “natural.” However, with the emergence of biomimicry, there is a chance to change that association and help reinforce the connections between nature and technology instead of emphasizing the differences.

The scope and scale of the environmental problems we face today is sometimes scary. Environmental groups are constantly looking for new and innovative approaches and technologies to solve these issues. Yet at a very basic level, the concepts of technology and nature do not seem to go together.

View of Hong Kong Rising Above the Trees ACarvin/EdWebProject.org

A technological world is one with big buildings, computer screens with pictures of flowers, and TVs that sometimes have more vivid colors than the ones you can see outside. It may seem impossible that a world like this could live in harmony with nature as it by definition pollutes, invades, and destroys the nature around us.

As it is impossible and impractical for us—a society that relies on gadgets, cars, modern medicine, etc.—to give up our lifestyle, we look for alternative methods (from energy saving light bulbs to solar panels on our movie theaters) in order to maintain our technological advancement without hurting our planet too much. Yet none of these efforts have dramatically helped as our own technological growth threatens our planet’s survival. Therefore, perhaps it is not a new technology we need in order to revolutionize society’s relationship with nature, but instead we need to change our view of technology itself.

Biomimicry is the idea that after 3.8 billion years of the earth evolving, nature has solved many of the problems that we are now grappling with. All we need to do is look around and be inspired. This innovative  and interdisciplinary approach not only has given society some extraordinary technological advances, but it generally provides extremely sustainable solutions. The field of biomimicry reminds us that technology and nature are in fact intricately related. Without nature we could never be where we are today.

The recognition of the intimate relationship between technology and nature has taken off in the past ten or twenty years, but it’s nothing new.

A Sketch of Leonardo DaVinci's Airplane Inspired by Birds

Leonardo da Vinci (mid 15th to early 16th century) saw birds as inspiration hundreds of years before the Wright brothers first invented the airplane (early 20th century). Yet even though the term biomimicry has been used since the 1950s it was truly Janine Benyus’s book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature that helped biomimicry transform into the growing and thriving field it is today.

When Benyus talks about her discovery of the field of biomimicry, she describes her shock that biomimicry had not yet emerged as a formal movement. So Benyus took the lead. She founded the Biomimcry Guild, the Biomimicry Institute, and is currently combining a group of biomimicry initiatives into one large organization, Biomimicry 3.8. Her TED talk on biomimicry does a phenomenal job of illustrating what biomimicry is and how it can revolutionize our approaches towards problem solving in design and engineering.

The innovations that have already come from nature, from velcro to swimsuits modeled after shark skin, have already begun to inspire people. Brent Drabek, a senior at the United States Air Force Academy, is this first to admit that he only vaguely knows what biomimicry is from a high school science class.

Yet when asked about examples of technology inspired by nature, he immediately thought of an article he read about unmanned aerial vehicles’ flight and communication patterns being modeled after an insect swarm, an innovation he remembers because he thought it was fascinating. As he says, “[biomimicry] gives you a different perspective that…hard science doesn’t really allow for.”

Insect Swarm PHocksenar/Vermin Inc/Flickr Creative Commons

Even if we do not realize it, we appreciate and benefit from nature’s influence on technology. Biomimicry is already present in our lives, people just need to learn to recognize it so they can begin to consciously connect nature with technology instead of continuing to think of them as separate entities. As more people are introduced to biomimicry, whether formally or informally, there will be more people like Brent who are excited and inspired by the relationship between the modern day world and nature.

There are biomimicry educational programs that have formed everywhere from zoos to grade schools and universities all around the world. These programs all hope, just as I do, that through learning how much nature has already given our growing technological world (and how much more it has to give) society can learn how to embrace, respect, and protect the natural world around it instead of disconnecting from it.

Over the next couple of weeks, this blog will explore biomimicry. This is my effort to join the biomimicry movement that can bring us back to our roots while also helping us work towards an advanced, yet sustainable, future.