Nature’s Business: Quieting The Cleverness
From the Galapagos to the Amazon, Biomimicry Communicator Anjan Prakash travels the world to be inspired by Nature’s designs. In this 10-part column, Nature’s Business, she shares her adventures and learnings.
Illustration: Anjan Prakash
Because Biomimicry is about creating conditions conducive to all life, because it is about learning from Nature and not just about Nature, because it works towards understanding the unique wisdom of the more than 30 million species that inhabit the Earth, because it is predicted to be `an economic game changer’ by 2025 accounting for $300 billion annually in U.S. GDP and 1.6 million jobs in the U.S alone, because it is led by two visionary co-founders of this discipline - Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, and because there is no other way for humans to move forward sustainably than by consulting Nature for solutions, this emerging discipline of Science is finally bridging the gap that exists between humans, Nature and business.
Harvesting silkworms or breeding them for silk, using bacteria to clean water, and cutting trees to build houses is not biomimicry, it’s bio-utilization or bio-assistance. Emulating the form, the process and eco-system, and borrowing Nature’s genius consciously and not the organism itself is at the heart of the `ethos’ of Biomimicry and the very essence of all its design principles.
Standing short amidst the giant redwood trees of California, with a group of 26 people, from six different countries, belonging to about 11 different professional backgrounds, we were being taught by Dayna to ask the fundamental question of Biomimicry – How does Nature perform this function? Function could come from any human design challenge – store resources (how does Nature store resources?); maintain community (how does Nature maintain community?); send signals (how does Nature send signals?) and so on, and the other important question – How does Nature NOT do this function?, ensuring that every design decision we make, includes ALL life.
“Observe Nature by quieting human cleverness”, said Dayna, shifting my perspective with these few words. Such a simple thought, and yet the running mind is difficult to still.
Yes, it is relatively important to know the name of the species you just spotted and make a note of it in the long list in your note book. And, yes, the list certainly looks impressive when one has covered the ‘big five’ or the ‘rare eight’, BUT don’t forget to go beyond the names. Quieten the mind to observe slimy skin or a long beak or forked wings or asymmetrical ears or webbed feet or the different calls by the same animal at different times of the day. Why does a particular organism have that shape or that material or that call or that colour or that movement or that root system? Why? Nothing in Nature is without a purpose, without a function, as everything involves energy to maintain and nourish, and to produce that energy is a costly affair!
After all, if the General Manager of the technical department of JR West, Eiji Nakatsu, had just been an engineer and not attended a lecture on birds by an aviation engineer out of curiosity (the WHY), I wonder if he would have ever found a solution to the noisy Shinkansen Bullet Train? Wait a minute. Did I just say that birds inspired the design of the famous Japanese Bullet Train?
While entering the narrow tunnels, the intense `sonic boom’ of the Bullet Train could be heard by residents nearly 400 metres away. The connections to the overhead wires (pantographs) further added to the noise levels, exceeding environmental standards.
Now enter two birds to fill two needs – the kingfisher and the owl. By mimicking the noise-dampening feathers of the silent predator, the owl, which has small structures (fimbriae) at the leading edge of its primary wing feathers that breakdown the air into micro-turbulences and muffles sound, thereby allowing it to fly close to the prey undetected, Eiji Nakatsu and his team created the new `wing graph’, bringing down the noise levels to meet environmental standards.
The sonic boom, a much bigger problem, was caused by the front of the Bullet Train as it entered the tunnel. The solution to the problem was found by closely observing the beak of the kingfisher, which moves quickly from air to water, a medium that is 800 times denser, to catch its prey without creating a splash. Eureka! The front of the Shinkansen Bullet Train was re-designed to mimic the streamlined shape of the kingfisher beak. This further reduced noise by 30 per cent, with two additional benefits of power reduction by nearly 15 per cent and speed increase by 10 per cent!
We, as the youngest species on this Earth, just 200,000 years old on an evolutionary scale spanning 3.8 billion years, need to ask questions. We can begin by asking questions because we don’t know the answers, asking questions because many of our strategies have failed, asking questions because our heat-beat-treat methods of manufacturing and designing has resulted in pollution and extinctions never known before, and asking questions because we have 30 million ‘Elders’ to consult with. In doing so, we can bring Nature and Business together on one platform. Neither needs to be relinquished for the other, instead one can inform the other, to create a healthy ecosystem.
So, can human ecosystems resemble the redwood forest? What business lessons are embedded in such old eco-systems? How has Nature maintained such communities for millions of years? What can businesses and organizations learn from them? If the bullet train mimicked the form, the first step in Biomimicry, can we go a step further by learning how to mimic processes and ecosystems?
Image: Purva Variyar
Our journey with Nature and Biomimicry has just begun. I invite you to spend this month `quieting your cleverness’ the next time you are outdoors in Nature. Let’s listen using all our senses, observe with our whole body, and in that pocketbook, let’s not just write the name of the organism, but jot down, basic details about its shape, structure, movement, call, colour, background, habitat, and attempt to answer the big WHY. Let’s become students - curious first, so we can then experience ‘awe’ in the answers we might find.
Anjan Prakash is a Biomimicry Communicator, and a Mumbai-based entrepreneur.
Author: Anjan Prakash