Our construction and infrastructure sectors are undergoing rapid evolution. Most of this is being spearheaded by technological advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, energy storage, data collection and analytics. Amidst this, however, an increasing number of creative minds are looking to incorporate naturally occurring principles to address major challenges posed by the construction sector. This field of practice, which involves looking at how functions are delivered in nature and using that information to develop solutions for humanity is known as Biomimicry. It is, therefore, a field of study that is focused on combining human ingenuity with nature’s amazing refining skills.
1 The need to re-invent the global construction sector
Buildings and structures, as such, pose no threat to the environment. It is the in-effective use of energy, the consumption and depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation and pollution that is damaging. Current construction practices have a heavy carbon footprint, contributing to 55 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Amongst these, the burning of fossil fuels along with other energy in-efficient methods are leading contributing factors. It is, therefore, imperative to re-invent the global construction sector to incorporate sustainable and effective energy management processes.
With challenges of this magnitude; engineers, planners and designers are increasingly turning to nature due to its experience in creating environmentally responsible and resilient constructs. Nature embodies techniques that benefit from a 3.8 billion-year research and development period making it the ultimate store house of proven solutions. Everything created in nature outperforms anything mankind has ever created in diversity and in complexity. It is, therefore, precedented that designers should increasingly look at nature to disrupt conventional thinking methods and to seek opportunities where previously only challenges existed.
2 Biomimetics; the problem solver
Through studies, it has been discovered that bio-inspired materials and technologies are highly organised in a hierarchical manner from the minute to the nano, micro and macro-scales, which ultimately make up a pyramid of diverse function elements [3,4]. This discovery has endorsed biomimicry as a problem-solving methodology that continuously results in sustainable, efficient and effective solutions to challenges in the construction industry .
As further affirmed by Bhushan , nature-inspired materials are known to be multifunctional and exhibiting the following attributes, amongst others: superhydrophobicity, high adhesion, self-cleaning, self-healing, thermal insulation, self-assembly, antireflection, sensory aid mechanisms, high mechanical strength, structural coloration, aerodynamic lift, and energy conversion and conservation. Below is a table containing a few examples highlighting biomimicry’s impact on areas of energy management and sustainability.
3 Challenges that impede bio-inspiration
3.1 Technological constraints
Presently, it is challenging to translate concepts from nature to practice. Technological constraints are a major factor in this regard as achieving complexity in design with conventional construction methodologies are expensive. However, as technology advances, this gap will get insignificant. Take for instance 3D printing. With this technology, it is becoming increasingly cheaper to imitate complex biological structures as the technology allows placing of the right materials at the right place at a much cheaper cost.
3.2 Mindset adjustments
Finding inspiration from nature is an art. It requires the complete understanding of a problem and then the ability to break it down into individual functional challenges. This is contrary to current practices that is in a sense very linear. The institute of Biomimicry, a body that was started to measure the progress of the industry says, “in order for us to overcome functional fixedness and repurpose what we see out in nature to meet our own needs, we must become bio-lingual.” We must learn to not only respect living systems and structures, but also, learn to apply their lessons to improve the planet.
Fortunately, there is a growing awareness amongst professionals about bio-inspiration. The ‘Da Vinci Index,’ created by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, in 2011, tracks and quantifies this trend by using advanced methodologies at a global scale. According to the index, patent activity, scholarly journals, and grants in the fields of biomimetics have grown more than seven times from 2000 (see figure 2). Further, the ‘Da Vinci Index’ highlights Asia as the leading source on scholarly articles-contributing to more than 40 per cent of the research done on biomimicry, globally.
3.3 Capital constraints
Like in the case of any new and emerging field, acquiring the required funding to propel the industry remains a challenge. Government and private institutions require numbers to justify investments, which unfortunately are scarce amongst emerging fields.
Several studies have been conducted in an attempt to justify the potential of mimicking nature. From case-studies to market impact projections, data is now slowly emerging with regards to the impact this field can have on company bottom lines, as well as on the environment.
The estimated market impact of biomimetics is projected to increase steadily across a wide array of industries. In particular, the AEC sectors along with the materials industry is pegged to step up the implementation of biomimicry methods in attempts to enhance sustainability. Figure 3 shows a graph from the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute which highlights the projected industry penetration by biomimetics by 2030.
Globally, for a period upto 2030, it is estimated that the implementation of biomimetics will save upto US $1.6 trillion in terms of output while another US $0.5 trillion is expected to be saved through reduced resource depletion and pollution.
Nature is a treasure trove of innovative solutions that are both resilient and environmentally responsible and biomimicry is a bridge that will take these solutions to businesses. Over the past couple of decades, an increasing number of agencies are recognising the potential of biomimicry and biomimetics. Activities in this field has therefore been on the rise. The Da Vinci’s Index highlights this by monitoring patent activities, research publications, grants and others at a global level.
Further, projects like the zero waste factory at Nagpur, India, which imitates nature’s closed-loop system to dramatically reduce water discharge in the resource intensive textile business, would practically showcase the benefits of imitating nature and spur further academic research, incubators and mentors in the field.
The potential for biomimicry to solve our problems is immense-as it not only offers solutions to the problem, but also informs on how to derive a function in a more efficient manner. From energy management to waste management, nature’s closed loop system ensures development without side-effects. Perhaps that is why Albert Einstein; the person created for creating the greatest theoretical construct of humanity, once famously said “Look deeper into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
This article was inspired by valuable input from Dr. Colonel. Nallathambi P. He has been studying biomimicry in civil Engineering and inspired on tree root foundation, Bio bricks, termite mount and honeycomb structures, etc . He played an instrumental role in incorporating Biomimicry in construction practices.