Robert C. Barkman, Ph.D.

A Singular Perspective

It’s Only Natural

Nature’s patterns spark human innovation.

Posted May 25, 2018

Human beings have invented lots of things. It might surprise you to learn that many of our inventions are not original or unique. Many of them already exist in nature. And sometimes, these natural versions are even more sophisticated than the human-made ones (Lee, 2016).

  • The Velcro hook and loop were inspired by the plant burdock.
  • Sonar was inspired by the dolphin radar.
  • Suction cups were inspired by the octopus.
  • The bullet train was inspired by the kingfisher bird.
  • Sticky tape was inspired by the sticky feet of the gecko.

When considering the natural world’s influence on innovation, we realize that the human inventors were pattern-smart when it came to observing things in nature.  

In the future, you won’t have to travel any further than your house to experience how patterns in nature inspire design. The house that your children or grandchildren might live in will have likely been modeled after a termite mound, a basking snake, and a green leaf. Models of the house of the future exist now. There are more than 100 in the United States, competing to be certified as a “living building (Wikipedia, 2016).” The Hitchcock Center located in Amherst, Mass is one of them. The building’s architect says the requirements to become certified are rigorous (Batchelor, 2016). The building must meet criteria in seven different performance areas — site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty.

Most, if not all, of these requirements to become a living building are being met by mimicking how nature solves energy, water, and other issues. By copying how leaves convert sunlight into electrical energy, the Hitchcock Center has totally eliminated its dependence on fossil fuels. One hundred percent of its annual electricity needs are being met through rooftop photo voltaic panels. Further, it is remarkable that the center is not tied to a municipal water supply (Batchelor, 2016). This living building models how nature conserves water by recycling it. The building is a watershed, capturing rainwater on sloping roofs that send water to an underground reservoir. After being filtered and subjected to UV treatment, it is pure enough to drink.

A Termite Home. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Source: A Termite Home. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Just like a snake which maintains a constant body temperature by moving between sun and shade, the building maximizes passive heating and cooling. The building’s largest surface area faces south to absorb the sun’s rays in the winter. In the summer, shades are designed to help cool the center in the summer. Fans and windows are operated to either suck the heat out in the summer or recycle heat in the winter using design methods inspired by the self-cooling mounds of African termites (Doan, 2012).

New products and innovations created by mimicking patterns in nature are well known to those who have been inspired by nature’s design (Benyus, 1997). “This is the idea behind the increasingly influential discipline of biomimicry — that we human beings, who have been trying to make things for only the blink of an evolutionary eye, have a lot to learn from the long processes of natural selection, whether it’s how to make a wing more aerodynamic or a city more resilient or an electronic display more vibrant.” (Vanderbilt, 2012)

The ability to recognize patterns in nature are not uniform among humans and all people are not equally skilled to do so. Persons who are nature-smart can recognize both small and large-scale patterns. To how many of the following questions that test your skills to recognize nature patterns can you answer “yes”?

Can you:

  • Identify products designed for human use that were inspired by nature?
  • Notice how flowers follow a predictable pattern of movement during the day?
  • Recognize different species of birds from their flight patterns?
  • Reconstruct the history of a woods or field from clues left from the past?
  • Look out the window of an airplane and wonder why the earth’s rivers and streams always seem to take a serpentine path?
  • Notice that some of the first plants emerging in the spring now appear earlier than in the past?
  • Recognize how earthquakes now occur in patterns that once were rare?
  • Notice how dandelions show a remarkable growth pattern just before the flower turns to seed?
  • Recognize that during a full moon, the sun and moon are directly opposite each other.

You be the judge of how nature-smart you are.

References

Lee, Agarwal, and Samantha (2016) Six Remarkable Inventions that Already Exist in Nature. Business Insider, May 17. http://www.businessinsider.com/6-man-made-inventions-that-already-exist-in-nature-biomimicry-2016-5.

Wikipedia. (2016, October 21). Living Building Challenge. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Building_Challenge

Batchelor, S. (2016, November 5). The Living Building . (R. Barkman, Interviewer)

Doan, A. (2012, November 29). BIOMIMETIC ARCHITECTURE: Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled After Termite Mounds . Retrieved from Inhabitat: http://inhabitat.com/building-modelled-on-termites-eastgate-centre-in-zimbabwe/

Benyus, J. (1997). Biomimicry. New York: William Morrow Company.Vanderbilt, T. (2012, September). How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation. Retrieved from Smithsonian.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-biomimicry-is-inspiring-human-innovation-17924040/?no-ist

Vanderbilt, T. (2012, September). How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation. Retrieved from Smithsonian.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-biomimicry-is-inspiring-human-innovation-17924040/?no-ist