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The New Green: using nature as our guide

By Kelsey Sullivan
On May 1, 2014

Suppose you are a designer tasked with creating a machine that minimizes space and energy input, maximizes output, and is infinitely sustainable and self-replicating while still retaining a pleasing aesthetic appearance. It sounds impossible. But in the past few decades, professionals from many disciplines have increasingly been turning to the ultimate master of efficient and adaptable design - nature. This practice is now known as biomimicry, which is defined as: "a design discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature's time-tested patterns and strategies."
In her riveting Ted Talk on the subject, science writer Jenine Benyus relates many examples of biomimicry in the tech world - for example, an engineer for a bullet train company was tasked with making the trains quieter. He happened to be an avid birder, and after watching a video of a kingfisher diving seamlessly from the air into water without a splash, he decided to model the train after the bird's biology. The trains not only ran quieter, but got 10 percent faster on 15 percent less electricity. Another example is Sharklet Technologies. This company creates surfaces that prevent bacteria growth, not through chemicals but simply by imposing certain bumpy patterns on the surface itself. They borrowed the pattern directly from the Galapagos Shark, whose skin denticles are geometrically arranged to naturally repel bacteria. Benyus discusses another example from the world of architecture: "Trees and bones are constantly reforming themselves along lines of stress. This algorithm has been put into a software program that's now being used to make bridges lightweight, to make building beams lightweight." The possibilities of biomimicry are literally endless. Given that nature has had literally eons to perfect its forms, structures and processes, perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised at the success of bio-inspired designs. Just a few examples, in fact, are enough to make us wonder how it could have possibly taken us this long to catch on.
Nature has many repeating patterns and takes advantage of ingenious algorithms and mathematical relationships. Famous examples include the seashells that display a perfect rendering of the Fibonacci sequence, and the ubiquitous occurrence of fractals - a geometric pattern that explains why river deltas, lightning bolts, tree roots and the veins in your hands all take the same form.
A recent development in the field of biomimicry is the application of natural patterns in order to create better cities. Benyus is again leading the charge on this movement, merging with architecture giant HOK to design cities across the world. She explains: "It is not enough to have green roofs and walls, we need to ask how a building will store carbon. We need cities to perform like ecosystems, not just look like them." One important aspect of this new city design is land-use patterns. The city of Lang Fang in Northern China, for example, was a dense forest for 4000 years. It now struggles with water supplies because its human development is not as dense as the former forest - causing the human community to draw upon an underground aquifer at unsustainable rates. The solution, as proposed by Benyus and HOK, is to implement a new water-chanelling system that captures rainfall and acts as: "green ribbons flowing through the city, tracking and echoing the paleo-channels of old rivers that used to be there."
Modeling human systems after nature's designs is not only clever, but also feels intuitively sustainable and wise. Too often we develop our technologies and cities in isolation of each other. Biomimicry, in contrast, encourages the creation of whole and integrated systems, in the ancient tradition of the natural world.
 


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