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Nature as inventor

Innovation & Sustainability

18 September 2018

When most people hear the word nature, they don’t automatically think of technology. That’s understandable, but biologists know that nature is brimming with brilliant technical solutions that exceed anything people have ever conceived in terms of efficiency and sustainability. From the beak of the kingfisher to the legs of the Gecko: more and more companies are drawing inspiration from nature to attain out-of-the-box applications and innovations

Festo, a specialist in production automation, introduced a few years ago a so-called bionic gripper for sensitive and vulnerable products with smooth surfaces, such as screens and mobile phones. These grippers are unique because they’re equipped with 30,000 miniscule components that are similar to suction cups and whose structure and operation are inspired by the way Geckos seemingly hang upside down from the ceiling.

While this is just one of the innovations Festo Bionic Learning Network has introduced, it is representative of a global trend. More and more companies are looking to nature for ideas for breakthrough innovations. This phenomenon is often referred to as biomimicry, which is a contraction of the Greek word bios meaning ‘life’ and mimesis meaning ‘imitating’. The term was coined by Janine Benyus in her book entitled ‘Biomimicry, innovation inspired by nature’ published in 1997. The terms biomimetics, bionics, bionik and bionica are also used alongside biomimicry. All of them share one thing in common: learning from nature. The main difference is that sustainability also plays an express role in relation to biomimicry, while the emphasis with biomimetics and bionica is more on technological development.

Biomimicry is in any case big business. The Fermanian Business & Economic Institute even calls it an ‘economic game changer’ specifically because biomimicry unites economic value and sustainability. The institute calculated that the economic value of bio-inspired technology in the United States alone could grow to 300 billion dollars a year by 2025.

Optimising processes

While it is clearly highly promising, combining technology and biology to realise new inventions doesn’t happen automatically. ‘It’s more than a walk in the forest or a trip to the zoo,’ says physicist and astronomer Ylva Poelman. She is founder of the Bionica Innovation and Expertise Centre in Groningen and author of De Natuur als Uitvinder (Nature as Inventor).

She explains: ‘The difficulty is that technology and biology are two completely different professional fields and you don’t often find one person who has mastered both. So complex teamwork is required, with the added challenge of having to know what you want to discover in nature. A battery manufacturer shouldn’t look for the perfect battery in nature, but instead explore how organisms store energy. The biological principles then must be translated into technical solutions. Given the complexity of the solutions in nature and the limitations of our technology, this translation will always be a simplification. The last step entails designing a prototype that can be used to test whether the design works.’

Poelman says bionica by definition help optimise processes, reduce energy costs and save raw materials. Because while “human” technology almost always uses a lot of energy (for example in the form of high pressure and temperature), nature produces everything with normal environmental temperatures and environmental pressure. This is why solutions from nature are by definition low-energy, meaning that applying biomimicry as an innovation method can often lead to 50% savings on energy and materials.

Social innovation Saskia van der Muijsenberg – co-founder of biomimicryNL and the first Certified Biomimicry Professional in the Netherlands – also foresees biomimicry really taking off in the years ahead, especially in the Netherlands. This is because she too sees biomimicry as a form of circular system thinking and consequently as a way to unite economy and ecology and to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. ‘You can also apply the way in which nature is structured to the way companies and even society is structured. I sometimes call this biomimicry for social innovation. By that I’m referring primarily to the application of successful patterns in nature to collaboration, company development, leadership and social issues such as sustainable construction,’ says Van der Muijsenberg.

Van der Muijsenberg explains that a number of successful Dutch inventions based on biomimicry have already been rolled out. She refers to Ofoil as an example. It’s a company that makes wing drives for inland navigation ships. The upward and downward movement of the wing is inspired by the way dolphins swim. This turns out to be 50% more efficient than traditional ship propeller shafts. This enables a captain to save 33% to 50% on fuel costs.

Packaging manufacturer NNZ has used bionica to develop packaging for potatoes. And carpet tile manufacturer Interface is considered a frontrunner in the Netherlands in the field of bionica. Interface Head of Sustainable Development Geanne van Arkel says the company now realises two-thirds of its revenue from products inspired by nature. ‘By combating waste in our processes alone, we’ve been able to save more than 510 million dollars since we started doing this in 1994,’ she says. ‘We have also, for example, developed self-adhesive carpet tiles based on bionic principles.’

Innovating with Mother Nature

Nature is also increasingly used as the guiding principle in the food industry when creating healthier products. While clearly a different approach than biomimicry or bionica, it is no less important, says Nicole Freid, Director of Marketing & Innovation at Hak. She draws attention to the efforts the canned fruit and vegetable producer is making in the field of reducing sugars and salt. Freid: ‘We’d already stopped adding sugar to our applesauce. But the apples we use naturally contain a lot of sugar. We’re now experimenting with other types of apples that contain fewer natural sugars. The same goes for salt in other products: we’re looking at which natural alternatives can keep the taste sensation up to standard if we reduce the amount of salt. We sometimes call it innovating with Mother Nature.’

Hak also wants to eventually make the transition to nature-based packaging. ‘Glass, which is our main packaging material, is already very recyclable and therefore circular,’ says Freid. ‘But young consumers prefer new forms of packaging, such as our standing pouches. We want to make them biodegradable in the foreseeable future. We can’t do that yet because we have to heat the pouches in order to pasteurise them. But the day will come when we’ll also be able to get nature and technology on one line with respect to this packaging as well.’


Also read the NNZ article in Capital Magazine #8, page 42