Successful innovation does not end at ideation. In fact, much of the work of innovation is solving problems and optimizing initial designs. With the cost of innovation increasing and new ideas “getting harder and harder to find” an organization’s ability to rapidly overcome challenges and successfully enhance existing designs is key to staying ahead in the market.
What is biomimicry?
Biomimicry is an innovation problem-solving approach that is attracting renewed interest across many fields. In her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine M. Benyus defined biomimicry as, “…a new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” The key premise is that for 3.8 billion years, living organisms have been adapting to their environments to overcome challenges through the constant churn of natural selection. The time-tested outcomes can provide inspiration for solving similar problems in product and process design.
Biomimicry is not new, however. Human populations around the world are known to have followed the example of animals to enhance their survival, and Orville and Wilbur Wright’s airplane design is said to have been inspired by the mechanics of pigeons in flight. Here are a few other notable examples where attention to and appreciation of the natural world has truly paid off in commercial innovation.
Whales inspire advancements in renewable energy
U.S. Naval Academy researchers wondered if renewable energy could be generated with underwater turbines powered by ocean tides. However, generating power was a challenge when ocean flow speed was low. Engineering professor, Mark Murray, considered the tubercles on humpback whales and placed similar features on the leading edges of the turbine blades. The result was increased performance at low speed while maintaining efficiency at high speed.
Sticky gecko feet overcome adhesive challenges across industries
Have you ever watched a gecko scale a wall? Nature has outfitted the gecko with toepads featuring stiff tendons and millions of hairs (setae) which allow them to easily adhere to smooth surfaces. Intermolecular van der Waals forces are responsible for this adhesive ability, even in wet environments. The wide range of industries where gecko-inspired adhesive have found success include athletics, robotics, healthcare and in the military.
Ubiquitous fastener mimics the burdock plant
In 1941, Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, took his dog for a walk in the mountains. Upon his return, he found his dog and pants were covered in burdock burrs. Lucky for us, this curious amateur inventor spent the next 14 years examining how the burrs attach to fabric. Through scientific trial and error, de Mestral invented the Velcro hook-and-loop fastener and was rewarded with an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.
Kingfisher beak provides model for streamlined train design
In the late 1980s, Japanese bullet trains traveling more than 170 mph created sonic booms upon leaving tunnels. When seeking to reduce the atmospheric pressure waves caused by the train, one engineer was inspired by features of the kingfisher beak. Since the kingfisher can enter water with minimal disturbance, the engineer designed a new nose for the train that reduced air disturbance. The new design allows trains to travel 10% faster with a significant reduction in the sonic boom effect.
How you can put biomimicry into action
The natural world is full of ideas that could inspire your next big R&D breakthrough, but how do you actually integrate biomimicry into your everyday thinking? The first step is to clearly define the problem. Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes solving it.” Finding a successful model for solving a problem in nature first requires clearly defining the challenge and breaking it down to its simplest form.
Applying orthogonal thinking can help you look at a problem from different angles, but getting started can be a hurdle. Try looking at other disciplines, such as biology, physics, geology or botany, to explore where a similar problem occurs in the natural world. Access to a high-quality global information resource covering a wide range of scientific disciplines, such as the CAS content collection, is essential to enable this work. It is like adding hundreds of scientists to your team to help you review the published literature for new ideas. Group brainstorming and crowdsourcing can also provide opportunities to leverage a larger body of collective experience to find relevant models.
Still struggling? Try getting out of the office and into nature by heading to a local park, zoo, farm or forest to find inspiration. Once a natural model is identified, then it is a matter of testing and iterating to see if it can be applied effectively in your situation. Persistence is key.