Natural guidelines

Biomimicry provides ideas for living and working sustainably

Jessie Lucier | Boulder Weekly

For 3.8 billion years, nature has been working hard to hone processes and designs to evolve efficiently. As humans, we borrow from what nature has perfected. That’s how products like Velcro (based on burrs) and highly efficient wind turbines (with propellers designed to incorporate the same bumps found on a whale’s fin) came into existence.

“Biomimicry looks for how nature performs a function,” says Marie Zanowick, an engineer and certified biomimicry professional for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “It mimics natural strategy and the best design principles on this planet.”

People can apply biomimicry to solve many challenges we face as humans, Zanowick says. Whether it’s coming up with a more functional product, like the shark swimsuit that received a lot of attention during the 2008 Olympics or the dirt- and dust-resistant paint that German researchers modeled off the lotus flower, nature has proven — over billions of years of time-tested experience — that her methods work.

“One benefit of biomimicry is that we know this is a sustainable strategy and we know that it works,” explains Zanowick. “It’s based on 3.8 billion years of research and development, and the only organisms that survive are the ones that follow life’s principles.”

In terms of sustainability, nature can teach us a lot about conserving resources, efficiency and how to adapt to life’s cycles.

Nature, unlike humans, does not waste energy. It uses what is abundant. In following nature, people can do a lot to cut down on their energy use, says Christina Aalto, an energy advisor for the Center for ReSource Conservation, a LEED Green Associate and an active student of biomimicry and permaculture. Aalto suggests thinking about how nature uses passive solar and how installing radiant barriers — which reflect the sun’s light rather than absorb it — into attics mimics what happens in the natural world.

“We’re always trying to figure out what we can do to live more sustainably and lessen our impact on this planet,” says Aalto. “Following nature’s principles is a great way of doing it because nature has been doing it a lot longer than we have.”

Aalto also talks about the need to bring principles like biomimicry and permaculture into schools and into the mainstream. In a biomimicry workshop facilitated by Zanowick of the EPA, Aalto and other students are brainstorming ways to make this information more accessible to students and the general public.

“Maybe we need to rephrase these terms and figure out ways to show that they are common sense,” says Aalto. “It’s exciting because we are at the beginning, but also at a breaking point. Now it’s just a matter of education and showing people that these principles work.”

Some college students at the University of Colorado Boulder are being exposed to biomimicry in their work at the university’s Environmental Center.

“I’ve been telling my students about it,” says Sarah Dawn Haynes, program assistant for the Environmental Center. “I’ve been sharing what biomimicry is and how to apply it, and it’s just been putting people on fire. It’s triggering these students to think about the world they live in and to find new inspiration for problem-solving.”

“We need to find a way to stitch it all together,” continues Haynes. “How do we look at the amazing design of plants and animals — notably spider silk, which is three times stronger than steel, pound for pound — and incorporate these designs into our living and business products and processes?”

Biomimicry is based on six life principles, which anyone can consider while tackling any human problem: evolve to survive; be resource-efficient (with both material and energy); adapt to changing conditions; integrate development with growth; be locally attuned and responsive; use life-friendly chemistry.

In approaching any human challenge, Zanowick suggests thinking about how nature functions to communicate and organize, being mindful of those principles.

“Every organism on the planet follows these life principles except humans,” says Zanowick. “And, we’ll be extinct one day if we don’t learn and apply them.”