Bull Session


March 2, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about biomimicry and nature-inspired design. As design and science intersect, biomimicry is becoming an increasingly important method for engineering new products. Recent examples include bullet train engineers imitating the beak of the Kingfisher bird to improve the aerodynamics of the train’s nose; wind turbine designers creating fins inspired by the Humpback whale to reduced drag and improved lift; and automobile engineers at Ford developing a recycled paper honeycomb material to gives the cargo area of the new EcoSport exceptional strength. Scientists, engineers, and designers across many different industries are drawing inspiration from nature’s materials and seeking to understand and imitate them.

The Best of Biomimicry: Here’s 7 Examples of Nature-Inspired Design
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Welcome to episode 196 of The Digital life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Greetings listeners.
On this episode of The Digital Life, we’re going to discuss biomimicry and nature-inspired design. We’ve touched on the subject a few years ago on the podcast on our bio-inspired episode. But the field is really exploding, and it fits well with our general theme on the show, of understanding the intersection of design and the sciences. There have been a number of really interesting developments in biomimicry. Let’s start with a really simple but interesting one from Ford Motor Company.
They have a new eco-friendly car that’s going to be coming out in 2018, I believe. They use some bio-inspired design to create a super strong support in the back of the trunk of this vehicle. It can hold like 700 pounds on it. It’s very lightweight. I think the panel weights six pounds itself. And part of the reason it’s so strong, it imitates the honeycomb pattern created by bees in their nests. So it’s just one example of how engineering, nature, and design, are really intersecting, especially in materials and material science. Creating things that I assume next year people will be buying this Ford eco-sport, and be happy about having a super strong, super light, panel on the back for carrying cargo. So that’s just one example.
Another one that I like is there is a wind turbine company called WhalePower, out of Toronto, Canada. They’ve imitated of the shape of the fins on the humpback whale to create a better fin for their wind turbines. Apparently humpback whales have incredible lift when it comes to the air. Their fins are obviously moving along a whale, so you’re going to need some lift there. And the engineers over at WhalePower in Canada, imitated those bumps that are common on the humpback whale fin to create these wind turbines that operate that much more efficiently and effectively.
They’ll all in on that design, aren’t they John? They’re a real one trick pony. If they decide that llama fur is the better … WhalePower is going to be a little bit of trouble, isn’t it?
Yeah. Maybe they’re going to branch out into other whale-inspired products, we can only hope. Both of these, and there are other examples that we can talk about during the length of the show, but these examples are I think important, because it does show that number one, that the evolutionary aspects of nature, they’ve tested out different kinds of materials over time, different organisms have a really well-refined ways of dealing with problems that humans can imitate.
I think sometimes when we consider our relationship with the environment or with the earth, with the planet, it’s one-sided. “Okay, we’re going to protect the planet.” And we’re abusing it. The planet is being acted upon by human beings. In this case, we’re really learning something about engineering from the natural world. I think there’s a strong case to be made for protecting different species and the environment generally, because we don’t know what problems nature has already solved and how those elements might be able to improve the human condition.
Being destructive in our practices is going to be detrimental to us in the long term, not just because we’re destroying our environment, but also because we’re eliminating possible repositories of knowledge what we don’t even know are there.
I think that’s a strong reason to appreciate engineering in nature. Like I said, it’s at the very beginnings of this field, in a modern context. Certainly biomimicry has been with human beings throughout our history, but this is really a much more refined approach, and we can be very specific and very optimized about how we use the inspiration that we get from nature now.
We can imitate to a very fine level now. So Dirk, when you think about these advances and our general theme of design intersecting with science, what are your impressions on this?
When you brought up biomimicry as something to talk about this week, I was a little underwhelmed from the standpoint that it’s clearly on trend. There is a lot of noise about it. But from the design side, as opposed to the engineering side, I’m an older guy so the design heroes that I was brought up, that I inculcated into design to learn about, or people like Buckminster Fuller.
Knowing their work and their philosophy of work very well, the way that they’re design reflect, and was inspired by, or as modernists, was intention contradiction to the forms of nature, was core to everything they did. As they think about the context of creating design, the juxtaposition to nature, from an aesthetic and functional perspective, was right top of mind for those kind of, now long deceased paragons of design.
So the whole biomimicry trend … The first thing I’m just like, “Well duh.” I guess maybe it’s engineering that’s getting on the bandwagon so to speak, and bridging the gap between machines and artificial creation, outside the context of nature as a driving touchpoint of input and possible solution. Now it’s becoming more core and more mainstream.
Maybe it’s just more of the mainstreaming of things that in the vanguard of creation, for a century now at least and probably more, nature’s been part of it, and thinking about nature in those ways has been part of it. So maybe what’s remarkable, maybe what I’m not giving enough consideration to, is the degree to which that’s jumped over to the engineering side.
I think there are a number of technologies that are converging right now that make increased biomimicry part of the vocabulary now for engineering, in a way that maybe it didn’t before. One of those is gene editing and synthetic biology. So there’s the possibility that you can create a material that might actually be manufactured by some slightly altered organism. For instance, I know of one technique for creating bio-degradable plastics, by altering the genetic makeup of certain bacteria so that they generate this plastic, rather than other byproducts, just one example.
Or the use of silk and silkworms to create ultra strong fibers. I think our knowledge of precision-type engineering, bio-inspired alterations to materials, and then also the total package coming together, I think is providing a lot more avenues for biomimicry than we might have had in the past.
So basically the scientific acceleration of the last 20 years is just super charging the engineering at the same time, that’s a good take Jon.
Yeah, I think so. I’m not a material scientist, much as I might enjoy talking about it.
Play one on the radio.
Yeah, right? Two other examples that I thought were pretty interesting developments, there’s a bullet train design that is based on the beak of the kingfisher bird. It’s enabled the bullet trains going through tunnels, with a standard design create basically a shockwave, a tunnel boom. Which can actually damage the tunnel because they’re traveling so fast, and the boom is so loud. The beak design of this kingfisher bird enables it to dive into water with minimal splashing. The engineers of this particular bullet train drew inspiration from the beak design for the, basically the beak of the train. And low and behold, no tunnel boom with this new model of bullet train.
The last example that I wanted to give was this idea of living buildings. So building that mimic the environment that they’re built on. In Seattle for instance, there’s ground cover that absorbs a certain amount of moisture throughout the year. When you build a building on it, you no longer have that ability to absorb moisture. So engineers and architects are coming up with different ways for creating surfaces that absorb moisture, rather than let it run off and potentially detrimental to the surrounding area.
These are just two more areas where we can see the considerations for design, are really becoming more wholistic and they’re considering the total ecosystem, not just what the human beings are necessarily using. I find that to be a good development.
It feels like though it’s just more the infusion of science, going back to your earlier point. Because if we think about architecture, I’m thinking of South American, Central American, from again mid to late 20th Century, was super mindful of becoming one with the environment, and in very interesting ways of blending in and enhancing the nature. As opposed to being its own, I’m a giant glass building standing 100 stories in the air.
It feels like the difference is just in the scientific understanding of, “Hey the fact that this building exists has these negative repercussions, and we know how to use materials in a way to address those negative repercussions. Let’s just, let’s just do it.”
I think the intent has been there for a long time, and has manifested in some very, very, beautiful solutions. But not it’s moving beyond beauty and into true function. Talking about function as how the things that we create interact with their natural environments.
That’s a good point. I think one of the other elements that I’d like to consider in this conversation, is just this idea that scientific input into design is only increasing. It seems now that being an architect, being a materials designer, being from the design realm, but with your feet in production really requires you to understand more about the sciences. Perhaps that was more of the case with the architecture side of things. They’ve always known about material science.
But I can see this creeping into other design disciplines. I can see that design is continuing to specialize, and that the intersection of design and science is starting to take shape. It’s still somewhat early of course, but there’s no doubt that designers and digital ones too, need to start considering this. Because the digitization of design forms, especially with all the abilities we have with 3D printers now, and added fabrication, it’s only going to be a short step from where we are now, to designing digital versions of things that are going to be printed. So it’s coming for the digital side of things too.
Dirk, I know this is a big theme of yours, understanding how science and design come together.
I think it’s interesting that this is happening at the same time that the problems of global warming are leading to a number of doomsday scenarios around significantly less species on the planet, different habitats for other species, and other parts of nature disappearing, and being destroyed.
It’s like just as we’re learning to integrate with, and resonate with the larger environment in which we inhabit, we’re in the process of destroying it in some irrevocable ways. So there’s a tragedy to it. That we’re making these great strides in these beautiful ways, at the same time that we’re making it so in the future, we won’t be able to do that, because the environment as it was won’t exist due to our negligence.
Hopefully some of these designs might help us either maintain or reverse some of these trends that we’ve started. Otherwise we’re all going to be designing cities for a living, under water I’m afraid.
Yeah, although I have a little bit of hope, because about 10 years ago I wrote an article. I said, “Look, I’m just an ignorant rube, but I hear all these people talking about like reducing carbon emissions, and that that’s the solution. What we really should be talking about is just making things cooler.” Instead of just saying, “Well let’s cut down on our emissions, which will never happen”, I said and it’s true. It’s not happening in a meaningful enough way.
“We need to develop technologies that can reduce temperature.” It doesn’t seem like rocket science conceptually, and just last week I read for the first time, an article, of scientists saying, “What we need to do is cool things down.” And there’s some concepts for how to do that. That made me happy. It made me say, “Okay, maybe, maybe people are frickin’ getting it, and these governments, these greedy you know, self-interested, short-sighted people”, and I’m in that group, we all are as humans. “We won’t be able to control our behavior to the degree that is needed to fix this, let’s look at technology, look at the problem differently to fix it.”
I’m just heartened that that’s a thing, that that’s a thread that has … And I have to assume there’s other scientists, or people been working on it in ways that just aren’t visible to me. But it finally bubbled up to the point where I’m seeing it. “Ah, there it is.” I’m not hopeful yet, but I’m heartened.
On that note, listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one l in the digital life. Go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find the Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinbo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O, dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and that’s so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 196 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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