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How biomimicry is driving innovation in design

Biomimicry — design inspired by nature — is well-established but a new set of projects demonstrates its evolution, as well as its limitations.

For this year’s London Design Festival, Brompton’s theme is Nature/Nurture. The designer curating the district, Jane Withers, says she used biodiversity as a platform to explore how nature can fit within an urban landscape.

“We were looking at design from a non-human perspective — what materials an animal might use, what forms they might take,” Withers says.

This resulted in three projects. Material Architecture Lab has created habitats for wildlife around the borough in unused spaces, like balconies. Goldsmith’s Interaction Research Studio has set up a studio set where people can watch animals go about their daily lives on video.

These are supposed to encourage people to consider nature in their urban surroundings.

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Jorge Penades’ Nomadic Pavilion

A third project, Nomadic Pavilion, is a conceptual installation by Spanish designer, Jorge Penades. Inspired by the human body — in particular the kinesiology tape which hold muscles together — the structure uses plywood sheets and tape as a way to demonstrate how design can learn from nature. The project intends to show how biomimicry could inform different design disciplines.

Biomimicry is not new. Velcro is inspired by pollination techniques. Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train takes its shape from the Kingfisher. The ventilation system for the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe shopping centre is based on the convection technique termites use to keep their habitats cool.

But in the hunt for sustainable design, it is more relevant than ever, from developing materials to integrating systems. And as biomimicry becomes more advanced, it poses practical and intellectual problems to designers.


“It’s about finding solution through natural processes”

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Indus tiles

One design that takes its inspiration from nature can be found at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. Led by Brenda Parker and Professor Marcos Cruz, Shneel Malik has created a modular design as a tool for the “bioremediation of water”.

Indus is a tile-based filtration system, which is “inspired by the architecture of a leaf”. It regenerates water for reuse within the manufacturing process. Water flows over a “series of vein-like channels containing algae prepared in a seaweed-based hydrogel” as part of a decontamination process.

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Manufacturing the Indus tiles

It’s aimed at rural, artisanal communities in developing countries such as India, where Malik went to research her work. It can be attached to locally-made ceramics and because the design is modular, it can be scaled up more easily, the laboratory claims.

Malik hopes that it will not only helps local communities to re-use water, but also create a more sustainable manufacturing process. She says the project could more accurately be described as “bio-integrated” — a mix of using bio-materials and biomimicry.

“It’s about finding solution through natural processes,” she says.


“The science isn’t there yet”

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Penades working on his project

One of the problems with biomimicry is that designs remain in research, as highlighted by Penades’ conceptual design at Brompton. They can get stuck in the development stage and without adequate funding, it is it difficult to prove that they actually work.

Malik’s design is still in an initial stage, though it won funding earlier this year. Her aim is to highlight its adaptability; not only in developing countries but how it could be implemented in western cities as well. In London, for example, she is interested in how the tiles could be laid horizontally as a way to reuse rainwater.

Rob Francis, a Reader in Ecology at King’s Cowollege London, says that some elements of biomimetic and biophilic — how buildings can be compatible with nature — design remain “tokenistic” and that there’s uncertainty over how “best to implement it”.

A course that Francis runs, ‘Sustainable Cities’, explores urban biodiversity and how nature can be implemented into the urban landscape.

While this is easier in small-scale environments like Singapore, which has “always been sympathetic” to biodiversity, it is harder to implement in larger-scale environments such as London.

“Ideally you would have it ingrained into building development, but because the science isn’t there yet to say, ‘this definitely works’, it’s hard to convince developers and individuals to implement it.”


Attitude shift

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Morrama’s WASL E-Subha

Both Malik and Francis stress that these new design processes will require a change of mindset in how we think about infrastructure and permanence.

Francis says that we need to “anticipate a cycle of regeneration of a city over a period of decades” which will be “less resource intensive”. “And if it won’t last very long,” he says, “it needs to be sustainable from the start”.

This is true on a smaller scale too. Malik’s focus on biomaterials means that her designs “degrade with time”. While consumers are used to “long term materials”, the concept of the circular economy — where waste can be treated and reused — flips this on its head.

She says: “We want things to have an end of life cycle.”


“Manufacturing lends itself to primary shapes”

Jo Barnard, a designer who started her own product design consultancy Morrama, echoes this: “We don’t want everything to last forever, so you come up with better ways to change things”.

Cars that were made in the 1950s are now “incredibly bad for the environment”. “You come up with better ways to change things,” she says.

Barnard frequently turns to “organic forms and shapes” for her design process. The surface of the WASL E-Subha, an electronic version of a Muslim prayer bead, imitates the smoothness of a pebble, for example. The problem is that “naturally-inspired designs don’t scale up very well”.

“Manufacturing lends itself to primary shapes, straight lines, and even materials,” Barnard adds.

Barnard also says that it is dangerous to be too narrow minded about biomimicry. “While it’s fascinating what we can achieve, like a swimsuit inspired by sharkskin, we can also get too caught up in performance,” she says.

When plastics were invented, Barnard points out, “everyone said that they were amazing but now we’re hitting a mega plastics crisis.”


“Don’t overengineer things”

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Morrama’s water-repellent suitcase

Another problem is that the pursuit of nature-inspired designs can itself be unsustainable.

Barnard says: “The risk with some materials is that you’re trying to replicate a material exactly from an animal — a porcupine quill or a coral’s mesh structure — but you’re trying to replicate those in a man-made way.”

By doing this, designers can lose sight of their original ambitions and any sustainable intentions. And as Barnard warns, it “means you’re using more and more unnatural materials to make that happen”.

The key is to be “inspired in the right way”, she says, like how the aerodynamics of a fish can create a more streamlined lorry, which uses less fuel, and is therefore more “environmentally friendly”.

A suitcase that Morrama designed, for example, has a water-repellent surface, which was engineered after studying how water rolls off a bird’s feathers.

And the ultimate aim is simplicity, Barnard adds.

“Don’t overengineer things,” Barnard says. “The thing about nature is that although it seems complicated, it’s simple when you break it down.”

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