Biomimicry is benign

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Gamelihle Sibanda is one of only three people in Africa professionally trained in biomimicry; there are two in South Africa and one in Egypt. For him, very importantly, biomimicry is not about just taking nature’s intelligence and turning it to the use of humans, it is also about benign materials and consequences for the planet.

Speaking at Think!Fest Sibanda gave the audience ways of distinguishing various approaches to using the cleverness of natural systems:

  • Biomimetics: uses natural designs but is not necessarily environmentally friendly, like velcro, clever but made of synthetic materials
  • Bio-inspired: like flight, the plane matches the bird’s wing design, but again, the materials used and the impact on the environment have severe repercussions
  • Bio-utilisation: like using bacteria to treat sewage — it’s usually cleverer than the old chemical way
  • Bio-philia: reconnecting with nature and recognising its important effects on us as a species

Biomimicry, he says is not just about copying nature’s strategies, it’s also about looking for the deep principle of how something works so well. And there are various levels of this, from form and shape, to process and then to the imbedded system itself. “Biological models are set up for resilience and we discover that they ar diversified and decentralised,” he said.

As examples of forms and shapes that have been copied, he included:

  • the Eastgate building in Harare designed by Nick Pierce
  • the wingtips of aeroplanes which reduce drag and improve lift
  • honeycombed strength-bearing structures fashioned after bones
  • spirals and vortices which is now used for pumps
  • iridescence — colour put into structures by using texture rather than paint

For processes, he named:

  • the high-strength material of spider webs and the UV coating which stops birds crashing into their webs
  • water harvesting from sand
  • the skin of the shark which rejects microbes for the texture of the walls of hospitals (and used by the US for their swimsuits in the recent Olympics)

For system, he sketched how nature usually works:

  • collaboratively rather than in competition
  • systemic rather than linearly
  • open source rather than privatised
  • long term rather than short term
  • self organising rather than a fixed structure
  • locally attuned rather than global
  • multifunctional rather than unifunctional
  • optimisation rather than maximisation

All things in nature are made of just four elements, he said, and all of them break down. Taking a tip from that we must move to the situation where “one person’s waste is another’s resource” and we must “push the agenda towards non-toxic materials and re-use of materials.”

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