Copy that: nature has mitey clever ways to fix our planet
We can improve our physical world by reverse engineering nature’s blueprints, say biomimicry experts
Now here’s a philosophical question for our time: never mind the wisdom of nature, what about the nature of wisdom?
According to director of BiomimicrySA Claire Janisch, all the answers we need to face the burgeoning population on planet Earth, and what we’re doing to it, are right there in nature.
Speaking at African Utility Week, currently hosted in Cape Town with 7,000 delegates from around the world, Janish explained that biomimicry “is about recognising that we can learn from nature’s 3.8 billion years of experience to develop sustainable and resilient solutions for our world”.By reverse engineering nature’s blueprints, principles and strategies, we can design products and systems for our changing world.
“Solutions to our problems already exist in nature. We can improve our physical world by following nature’s example,” she said, adding that this is particularly applicable to infrastructure.“Africa’s natural ecosystems and organisms are particularly well adapted to our context and therefore a rich knowledge economy exists from which we can draw local innovative solutions,” she said.Examples of how nature’s “wisdom can be copied” to alleviate the pressure on natural resources include: emulating the humpback whale’s attack manoeuvre in wind turbines to increase efficiency; learning about desalination through the example of the mangrove trees that use seawater to survive; and learning from termites on how to design buildings with efficient energy use for air conditioning.
One such example is the Eastgate building in Harare that mimics the self-cooling nature of termites’ nests.
Another great example from overseas is the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. There was much excitement when it was first designed because it was the fastest train in the world, travelling up to 320km/h.
The big problem, however, was the noise.“Air-pressure changes produced large thunder claps every time the train emerged from a tunnel, causing residents one-quarter a mile away to complain,” according to experts at the global Biomimicry Institute.
Eiji Nakatsu, the train’s chief engineer and an avid bird-watcher, asked himself: “Is there something in nature that travels quickly and smoothly between two very different mediums?” Modelling the front end of the train after the beak of kingfishers, which dive from the air into bodies of water with very little splash to catch fish, resulted not only in a quieter train, but 15% less electricity use even while the train travels 10% faster.
Flow of inspiration
In South Africa, Janish has been putting her money where her mouth is, working on various projects where nature is the main source of information.
One such innovation is the Genius of Space project in Langrug, an informal settlement near Franschhoek. Here, 6,000 residents eke out an existence with little to no infrastructure, washing clothes and dishes in buckets on the dusty roads of the settlement.The greywater from these activities has been flowing down to the Berg River. As a result, drinking water is contaminated, health concerns arise, agriculture in the area is affected, and the general environmental health of the region suffers.
BiomimicrySA came up with a simple system that keeps litter and greywater away from the Berg River by taking it along underground pipes where it lands up in a spot where it can nourish newly planted trees after going through a very simple filter system.
Janine Benyus, from the Biomimicry Institute, hopes to see many such projects which emulate nature proliferating around the world.
“We’re awake now, and the question is how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?” she asks.