Nature can serve as a powerful source for innovation, as the increasingly prominent study of bio-mimicry in innovation can attest. The concept of mimicking nature to drive innovation dates as far back as Leonardo da Vinci. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Budiansky, a prominent historian of science, notes that Leonardo “was beguiled by the idea that nature holds solutions to engineering problems that have eluded human ingenuity.” Leonardo wrote that humans “will never devise any invention more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting and nothing is superfluous.”
Budiansky cites the work of the biologist Steven Vogel who notes that “[l]ife forms a technology in every proper sense, with a diversity of designs, materials, engines, and mechanical contrivances of every degree of complexity.” Vogel, who passed away in 2015 but whose publisher has just released Vogel’s book Why the Wheel is Round, focused his research on bio-mimicry. Vogel’s The Life of a Leaf analyzes the “remarkable physical properties that allow leaves to maximize the amount of sunlight absorbed without overheating; to minimize aerodynamic drag and avoid fraying in strong winds; and to offset evaporation losses by lifting vast quantities of water considerable distances from the ground (even an ordinary corn plant pumps a gallon of water a day up from the soil).” In Cats’ Paws and Catapults, Vogel examines the microscopic structure of eggshells (which minimizes shattering) as well as the energy efficiency of muscles (which are more efficient than combustion engines).
Two other examples of nature inspiring innovation come from unlikely places: the study of garbage (known as garbology), and billboards in a developing country. The first example comes from Edward Humes in his book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. Humes writes about the well-known Pacific garbage patch, which is essentially a massive collection of plastic and other debris floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean resulting from improper disposal of garbage across the planet. The patch is 20 million square miles and consists of large and small debris. The smaller plastic debris is particularly bad for wildlife, threatening the zooplankton that form the base of oceanic food chains. Scientists seeking methods to clean up this patch have looked to nature for inspiration in some of their designs since standard approaches (such as giant nets to gather the plastic) might do more harm to the wildlife than the plastic.
Humes writes about the inventor Norton Smith who came up with several systems that could potentially clean up this area. Smith tested them on a research ship as part of Project Kaisei, which sought to study the impact of this trash on nature. The requirements for Smith’s innovation were creating inexpensive, passive, plastic-gathering devices that could operate without a fuel supply and could be tended infrequently while capturing plastic without harming wildlife. Smith’s best design was known as the “Beach,” and he modeled it on the physics of an inclined beach in which plastic debris can be washed ashore but few healthy sea creatures end up on land. Smith created a “plywood inclined plane with a leading edge one foot below the water’s surface and a trailing top edge that’s about three inches above the water – basically a five-foot-wide floating boat ramp with plywood walks on either side.” This contraption was then anchored to a weighted parachute that extended down 20 to 40 feet below the surface where currents were stronger and could move the contraption through the garbage patch. On top of the contraption, water breaks over the plywood and a net on the end captures the debris. In an 11-hour test at sea, Smith found that the Beach worked quite well, capturing a good amount of plastic debris yet disrupting hardly any sea creatures (most of whom were able to avoid the device, just as few mobile creatures end up on a real beach). Smith estimates that such a system could clean up the Pacific garbage patch in 16 years at the cost of 500 million dollars, give or take.
A second example of biomimicry as the source for innovation comes from Navi Radjou, author of Jugaad Innovation. Jugaad is Hindi for improvisation and Radjou specializes in finding innovative, low-cost solutions in the developing world. Anyone who has walked through a forest or meadow in the morning sees the large amounts of dew gathered on plants, even in dry climates. The city of Lima, Peru, is such a climate and only receives about one inch of rainfall each year, even though the atmosphere is usually overcast and humid. Many refer to Lima as one of the most depressing cities on Earth due to its lack of sunshine and clear skies (though I must admit that I enjoyed Lima immensely in a June 2016 visit). In a recent TED Talk, Radjou refers to a large advertising billboard in Lima that was built by students of an engineering college that takes advantage of this climate and mimics the water collecting capabilities of a leaf. This billboard absorbs humidity from the air and converts it into purified water, resulting in the creation of more than 90 liters of fresh water each day.
From the time of Leonardo da Vinci to the present, nature can serve as a powerful source of inspiration for the innovation practitioner.
Stephen Budiansky, “A Brilliant History of Technology,” Wall Street Journal (Nov. 4, 2016).
Steven Vogel, Why the Wheel is Round (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016).
Steven Vogel, The Life of a Leaf (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
Steven Vogel, Cats’ Paws and Catapults (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).
Edward Humes, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (New York: Penguin, 2013).
Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, and Simone Ahuja, Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2012).
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden