Sincerest Form of Flattery

Swiss Re HQ in London
Swiss Re HQ in London

Everything around us comes from nature. Computers, toasters, steel mills, polyester, even superconducting super colliders, all “natural” in origin.

Technology is nothing more than a human byproduct.

However, most of our creations are mal-adapted. Unlike the byproducts of all other living beings, most things we’ve designed are not degradable, not reusable, not able to change with the environment or be reabsorbed by it.

If we can change this, we can better secure the future of our society, our species and our planet.

Can borrow from the way life has been designing for thousands and thousands of years and tangibly apply these lessons to our modern age?

This is a growing movement — highlighted by a recent talk given by Dayna Baumeister of the Biomimicry Guild at BuildGreen09 — and there are real-world examples already in production and use. A few of my favorites:

1. Eastgate Centre, Harare, Zimbabwe — Passive cooling

This office and retail complex was designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, and was one of the first to do so. By using passive cooling, the building consumes around 10% of the energy needed by a similar conventional structure. For inspiration, architect Mick Pearce and his engineers looked to the locally common termite mounds, which are built to catch any breeze and pull cool air in from the earth while sun-warmed air vents out through flues on the top and sides.

Another structure borrowing this technique is the visually notable Swiss Re headquarters in London.

2. MothEye and MARAG™ films — Anti-reflective and anti-glare coatings

Top: close-up of moth's eye
Top: close-up of moth's eye Bottom: close-up of MARAG film

Moths rely on light sources to communicate and find food and mates. Their eyes, unlike most other animal species, do not glint in the night, which would distract from important light sources (such as your porch lamp…). Moth eyes are anti-reflective. This is achieved with a surface covered with many micro-cone-shaped protuberances, which break up the light and stop it from bouncing back uniformly. MacDermid Autotype has reproduced this type of patterned surface and developed non-toxic, non-reflective  films that can be used industrially.

When used to coat solar panels, for example, the non-reflective films will absorb much more energy from each ray of sun that hits. The easily-degradable anti-glare films are also used on computer and cell phone screens.

3. Insect Tape – Extra strength reusable adhesive

Almost half of the materials in our landfills end up there because of glue. For example, a simple chair of wood, metal and fabric is glued together so strongly that the parts simply cannot be separated in a reusable way. Most industrial adhesive is also toxic.

However, geckos and many insects walk on walls, and they don’t use suction to defy gravity. Instead, their feet are covered with rows of tiny hairs, that utilize molecular attraction to adhere to any surface. Scientists have begun producing tape and adhesives using this technique, resulting in glue-free products that can stick to dusty surfaces better, can be washed with soap and water, and can be reused multiple times.

4. Sto Lotusan — Self-cleaning exterior paint

Lotus Flower
Lotus Flower

Lotus flowers grow up through the muck of ponds and swamps and bloom into gorgeous, smooth, colorful flowers. The molecular structure of their petals makes it so that water not only rolls off, but carries with it any surface dirt. Companies like Sto Worldwide have mimicked these hydrophobic qualities, and produce exterior paint that is not only water-tight, but essentially self-cleaning, minimizing the need for detergents or for repainting at all.

These are all examples of the kind of design Dayna calls “fitting IN, instead of fitting ON.”

We need to keep stimulating this kind of innovation!

I’ll end with the same mantra she did, good advice for anyone, no matter what discipline or field.

~    GO OUTSIDE      ~      BREATHE      ~      LISTEN      ~      CREATE    ~

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