The Natural Way to Better Ideas

Last Updated Mar 19, 2008 3:13 PM EDT

National Geographic has a good, ultimately hard-headed look at biomimetics -- using nature as a model for product design. Velcro would be the best example (it was invented in 1948 by copying cockleburrs).

The article, Design by Nature, starts out breathy, looking at some of the truly fun ideas scientists are exploring, like whether Australia's thorny devil lizard, which can drink with its feet, can inspire new ways to capture water in arid regions. Then it shifts, starting with a quote by MIT chemical engineer Robert Cohen:

Looking at pretty structures in nature is not sufficient. What I want to know is, Can we actually transform these structures into an embodiment with true utility in the real world?"

The article later says

most practitioners conclude their enthusiastic discourses on their bio-inspired invention with a few halfhearted theories on how it may someday make its way into the real world. Often it sounds like wishful thinking.

Of course, there is Velcro. And the article cites a paint called Lotusan, and several other commercial efforts.

It surprised me that it didn't look at software, where natural models do come into play in things like expert systems and neural networking (for a brief overview, see Future IT: A Look at How It Will Evolve, a piece I wrote a few years ago). Nor did it look at finance, where there is an emerging Darwinian school of thought built around the work of Andrew Lo at MIT. Then again, the pictures would've been boring compared to Australian thorny devil lizards.

There are also some emerging success stories in nanotechnology. For instance, IBM is in the last stages of putting a nano-scale manufacturing technique, patterned after nature, into commercial use in a semiconductor fab.

Meanwhile, Janine Benyus, a biologist who in 1997 published a book called Biomimicry, has a consultancy, the Biomimicry Guild, and a non-profit, The Biomimicry Institute, of the same name. The Institute features some case studies of

Perhaps it's in the natural order to things to write about biomimetics right now. Business Week recently ran a piece on the subject, Using Nature as a Design Guide, that was built around Benyus and how biomimetics are a good source of 'green' innovation ideas. (It was generally more upbeat than National Geographic, though it did include the failure of Nike's Goat Shoe).

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.