Decoding Design

Five designs 'mentored and inspired by nature's genius'

Five designs 'mentored and inspired by nature's genius'

Posting in Architecture

Thanks in part to Heinz award winner Janine Benyus, biomimicry is taking an increasingly important role in design engineering. From termites to lotus leaves, nature has inspired many important design advances.

Last month, Janine Benyus was named one of the recipients of the 17th annual Heinz Awards, which honor the contributions of eight individuals whose "remarkable mix of vision, creativity and passion has produced significant achievements benefitting the environment."

Benyus is a scientist who has made an indelible mark on the world of design engineering.

It started with the 1997 publication of her book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature" in which she made the case for looking to nature, and its 3.8 billion years of evolution, for clues to how we humans can improve our systems, products and infrastructures.

As a means of amplifying and celebrating the Heinz award and Benyus' impact, here are five notable products and solutions that are, as Benyus might say, "mentored and inspired by nature's genius."

Japan's Shinkansen Bullet Train travels up to 200 miles an hour, but not without making a stir. While you might equate noise complains with jets more than planes, the Shinkansen train produced a clamor that could be heard hundreds of yards away--especially when it enters and exists tunnels. So the train's chief engineer (avid birdwatcher), Eiji Nakatsu, redesigned the train nose after the beak of the kingfisher. He saw parallels between the bird's ability to stealthily enter the water to catch fish, with nary a splash, and the objective of making less audible disruption as the train enter and exit tunnels. His work led to a train that's not only quieter, but also more efficient, using 15 percent less electricity than the older design.

If you've ever tried to walk through Times Square on a busy, tourist-season afternoon, you know that a human is not inherently good at moving, at speed, through a mass of other humans. So how can tens of millions of locusts fly up to 80 miles in a single day without getting into huge wrecks? Claire Rind, a researcher at Newcastle University, studied the collision-detecting neurons that locusts use to evade other locusts during flight. What she and her team learned was transferred into a sensor system built into Volvo's collision avoidance system, which alerts drivers to nearing obstacles and even asserts its dominance in an auto-braking feature, keeping drivers safer.

The lotus leaf has served as inspiration for designers looking to make surfaces, such as textiles or building material, more hydrophobic. GreenShield took lessons from the lotus leaf's structure to make textiles that naturally shed liquids, which allows the company to rely less on chemical treatments to waterproof their products -- in fact it uses 7 to 10 tens less fluorocarbons during production than comparable manufacturers. Herman Miller is among the companies that integrate GreenShield textile into products.

Otters aren't just painfully cute, they're helpful to clothing designers. Finisterre, a U.K.-based maker of technical outdoor clothing, worked with researchers at Bath University who were studying otter fur to create a jacket liner that both traps heat to keep the wearer warm, while pulling moisture out to keep her dry.

But sometimes the connections aren't so obvious. For example, who would think that termites hold the key to better building ventilation systems? For the Eastgate building in Zimbabwe, architect Mick Pearce joined with Arup Associates and designed the building's air conditioning system based on the home-building style of Macrotermes michaelseni, a termite that builds huge nests that move air and insulate the hive so well, the temperature inside remains consistent, to within one degree, both day and night. And that's in the desert, where temperatures swing up and down widely from day to night. Eastgate uses 90 percent less energy for ventilation than comparable buildings.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure