Biomimetics Has Something For Everyone

First, there’s nothing new under the sun. Also, it’s all been done before. Furthermore, no matter how great something is, there’s always something out there cleverer or better equipped. Which begs the question: Why is humanity constantly reinventing wheels when we should be reverse-engineering Nature’s great works?

(If you were expecting, “Why bother?” this isn’t the blog you’re looking for.)

The truth is that scientists copy-cat Nature’s designs as a matter of course. Indeed, biomimetics is an unbeatable resource for anyone with a problem to solve. Self-cleaning, water-repellant paints were inspired by the humble lotus. Wind turbines stalled in low wind and suffered inefficiencies under ‘ideal’ conditions before they were remodeled after humpback whale flippers. Olympic swimmers now train in swimsuits designed with sharkskin in mind. Even Velcro, that space age classic, mimics the way burrs cling to dog fur.

Whatever the human endeavor, Nature has a design for that. Yet the question remains: If biomimicry is so great, why don’t we use it for everything? The short answer is ‘demand’. Specifically, there aren’t enough people clamoring for brilliant redesigns of everyday objects. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but market forces drive human innovation; industry only invests in progress when it’s profitable.

Of course, as climate change awareness spreads, more demand emerges for fuel-efficient cars and energy-efficient refrigerators, but that’s an example of necessity-driven change rather than informed choice or good planning. By the time people need something, its arrival is already too late. The challenge is to raise their expectations of industry.

But what will it take to make everyone demand winter coats that work as well as polar bear fur? Or that we repaint every building with photosynthetic solar skins that are pigmented to optimize light absorption? Or that we at least outfit skyscrapers with leaf-like solar panels that follow the sun across the sky? What will make everyone clamor for grooved roofs that channel water like thorny devils? And passive heating and ventilation for their homes and offices?

As it turns out, it doesn’t take much. Great stories can make people demand better things than they have, even before they need them. The clever and beautiful things storytellers imagine today can be the objects of marketplace obsession tomorrow, if only they introduce people to the concept and give them something good enough to look forward to.

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