This is not Biomimicry!

The National Fisheries Development Board offices, India.
image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Yes, Biomimicry does literally mean the “imitation of nature”, but a literal imitation of nature is not what Biomimicry is!

Biomimicry involves drawing inspiration from nature to help find solutions to human problems. Ideally the process (as outlined by Janine Benyus) uses nature as a:

  • Model (imitating or taking inspiration from natural solutions)
  • Measure (using an ecologically sustainable standard to judge the products of innovation)
  • Mentor (valuing what we can learn from nature rather than exploiting it).

So for a design to be truly Biomimetic, the outcome should not only be physically inspired by nature but also have sustainable features and improvements.

The National Fisheries Development Board offices in India (top) is the latest addition to a dubious collection of architectural representations of nature. Some of these examples have a sense of humour in their creation, others have a more sophisticated use of design, but none of them could be classified as Biomimicry.

buildings_duck

“Big Duck Building” Long Islan USA, 1931.
image from: http://www.wqed.org/press/buildings_images.shtml

“Nautilus” Mexico City, architect Javier Senosiain
image from: http://vintagefabrics.blogspot.ca

elephant-tower

“Elephant Building” Thailand, architects Ong-ard Satrabhandhu.
image from: lemondrop.com

“The Lotus Temple” Baha’i House of Worship, New Delhi, architect Fariborz Sahba.
image from: http://abbotsfordbahai.org

“New Moon Building” United Arab Emirates, Varabyeu Partners Architects.
image from: http://www.trendhunter.com

“Cloud House” Australia, architects McBride Charles Ryan. image from: http://www.mcbridecharlesryan.com.au
 i love this house! but it’s still not biomimicry.

Sky-City-1

“Sky City” Lotus Towers concept project, London, designer Tsvetan Toshkov.
image from: http://dcnewhomes.com

As far as Biomimetic architecture goes, the rules of standard architecture still apply- form follows function.This is an essential rule in nature also- every part of a plant or animal performs a crucial role to that organisms survival. So if a building form mimics nature but is superfluous to its function as a building, and does not increase efficiency or other sustainability features, then it can’t be categorised as truly Biomimetic.

For example the “Sky City” project above proposes to give inhabitants an oasis in the sky, above the pollution and buzz of the city, using the metaphor of the Lotus flower which can grow into a beautiful blossom above dirty water.

The lotus shaped design (while beautiful and an inspiring contrast against the square grey buildings below) is purely a visual gesture. If those towers were simple unadorned poles and platforms, the function of this design would be unaltered, rendering the lotus shape and form as decorative only.

As for the metaphor of the flowering blossom above dirty water, there are some social and environmental aspects which just don’t sit right with me about that. Are we going to great lengths here to elevate ourselves above the problems we’ve created rather than remediating them? creating exclusive oases for small groups of people?

Sky-City-2-550x309

Architectural Biomimicry is a complex and multi-dimensional form of design, which goes beyond putting an organic shape or natural metaphor onto an inherently unsustainable building. A Biomimetic built environment should function successfully for both human and ecosystem health and happiness.

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Biomimicry Basics

What is Biomimicry? The word it’s self comes from the greek words ‘bios’ meaning life, and ‘mimesis’ meaning to imitate, and basically it means design or invention inspired by nature. It’s a concept with a very long history in human inspiration and invention (although not directly known by this term) Leonardo DaVinci was one of the first ‘biomimics’ inspired by the flight of birds when developing his flying machine prototypes, acknowledging that:

“the genius of man may make various inventions…. But it will never discover a more beautiful, more economical, or more direct one than natures”¹

- photo by nhanusek

The studies of the Wright Brothers are also famous examples of early Biomimicry, they observed the flight of vultures and pigeons to learn the nuances of drag and lift, which helped produce the first flight of modern aircraft in 1903. As scientific knowledge and technology have developed rapidly over the past 100 years, so has the ability to see,  understand and learn from the natural world in a deeper way.

Biomimicry has been most recently coined and popularised by the biologist Janine Benyus, who wrote the book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” (1997). The essence of her perspective is that nature has spent 3.8 billion years testing and refining it’s designs to become the most efficient and environmentally compatible designs possible for their functions. Failures are fossils, so we can learn from this intelligence and apply it to human designs and innovation.  In her book, Benyus describes Biomimicry being achieved by using nature in 3 ways:

  • Nature as a Model- imitating or taking inspiration from nature’s models to solve human problems
  • Nature as a Measure using an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of innovations as nature knows what works, what is appropriate and what lasts
  • Nature as a Mentor- valuing nature and what we can learn from it rather than what we can extract from it.

Biomimicry has so far been most successful in industrial design applications, where new innovation has been driven by relatable natural metaphors. By comparing an existing human built object to a similar or contrastable natural object, a clearer understanding of the usually inefficient human-built system is achieved, and insight into how to improve it is gained. For example: a solar cell inspired by leaf photosynthesis, friction free fans inspired by nautilus, and aerodynamics of the bullet train inspired by the beak of a kingfisher bird, are all successful biomimicry examples.

image from the biomimicry institute

Benyus is generally recognised as the founder and pioneer of Biomimicry, so it’s worth listening to her speak about it first hand:

Janine Benyus: 12 sustainable design ideas from nature (2007)

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in Action (2009)

Janine Benyus speaks at Bioneers (2010)

A multitude of inspiring examples of Biomimicry in action can be found at Ask Nature which is a free online, open-source database of over 1400 biomimetic strategies. This idea was developed by Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute (which she co-founded in 2006) and is a non-profit organisation promoting biomimicry applications globally. The Biomimicry Guild (also co-founded by Benyus in 1998) on the other hand is an innovation consulting firm which works with clients in various industries to guide biomimetic innovation. Biomimicry 3.8 is currently germinating as the next step in the evolution of the Biomimicry Institute/Guild line, claiming to have adapted to the recent widespread growth of interest in Biomimicry… I’m looking forward to seeing what sprouts!

¹ Marshall, S. (2009) Cities, Design and Evolution. Routledge, London.