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Sustainability

Biomimicry — 3.8 Billion Years of R&D

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Biomimicry
3.8 Billion Years of R&D

It’s back to school again

 

“Biomimicry is an ancient discipline. Life has been around for 3.8 billion years, that's why it's called Biomimicry 3.8.”

This made me sit up straight in my lecture chair, the first one I'd sat in since graduation. Late last year I reached out to Dr Anuj Jain, one of the co-founders of Biomimicry Network Singapore, to learn more about biomimicry. The soft-spoken ecologist, biomimic, and engineer invited me to a talk he and Ms Kirtida Mekani (also a co-founder) were giving at NUS titled "Biomimicry — Insights from a Sustainable World."

Students and working professionals alike came to listen, and Jain was kind enough to sit down with me later to discuss what biomimicry is and possible applications to packaging design.

What's in a name

Biomimicry or biomimetics combines bios (life) and mimicus (belonging to mimes). It's the same bios found in biophilia and biology. As the Biomimicry Institute puts it, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. This sounds straightforward enough, but how can a designer with a passable grade in biology practice and apply biomimicry? The answer comes in three simple points.

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1. Nature is a Model

Biomimicry runs deeper than copying nature's superficial appearances, but I gravitate towards forms and colours especially! The wonderful thing about nature is that practicality and aesthetics work hand in hand to attract prey/hide from predators/lengthen the lifespan of the organism.

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2. Nature is a Measure

This means that we can use nature as a sustainable benchmark. Before embarking on a project we can examine how practical, sustainable, and efficient our way of doing things is.

3. Nature is a Mentor

Jain emphasized this point frequently — we can turn to nature to help solve the challenges a modern, digital-obsessed society faces. Under the imminent eye of climate change, which effects could be felt last week during an unusual cold-spell in Singapore, we need to be more resilient and adaptive than ever. Luckily we can study the bizarre but genial-looking axolotl, which is able to regenerate appendages as well as accept transplants without a hitch.

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If this reminds you too much of the mad-scientist clichéd plot from 2012's "The Amazing Spider-man," then we can look at invasive plants instead. A lone plant cutting may seem innocent but most countries have stringent regulations concerning foreign flora in order to protect their native ecosystem from rampant invasive species. Crowd pleaser Epipremnum Aureum is my personal favourite and very difficult to kill, hence the nickname "Devil's Ivy."

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Thinking outside of the box

The natural world is full of brilliant packaging examples that can address common design briefs and Jain brought a few specimens to show me how diverse forms can be.

 
 

How do we design packaging that is:

  • Water-resistant i.e. food packaging

  • Compartmental i.e. jewellery packaging

  • Adaptive to heat and humidity i.e. everything in Singapore

  • Buoyant i.e. swimming accessories?

  • Tactile and provide a sensory experience i.e. accessible packaging for the visually impaired

Hope for the future

With a background in conservation work, Jain is on the frontline and has seen the negative impacts human activity has on the environment. As a layman wading into sustainability/environmental matters, I already find it difficult not feel jaded and frankly depressed.

“There's lots of anxiety, lots of disappointment. In conservation, there's a joke: 'No news is good news,' because most news is bad news.”

Though biomimicry can be slow as it is research-heavy, Jain finds hope by linking biomimicry to conservation and reaching out to a wider audience through it. People can start seeing nature as the original zero-waste, sustainable model instead of as “a resource, [and] as a commodity.”

“Biomimicry in its deepest sense is learning from nature, treating nature as a mentor. And if we treat something as a teacher we respect it, we protect it, we conserve it.”

I’m glad to say our conversation left me hopeful. In fact, I left with several topics to investigate, the one that excites me the most being hippo sweat. It may sound unglamorous and the furthest thing from a multi-billion dollar industry, but hippo sweat could potentially solve sticky, clumpy, skincare products.

Their sweat is water-resistant, works as an antibiotic, helps to keep hippos cool in the heat, and is naturally self-spreading. Just imagine creams that can self-distribute into a uniform coating! As a designer in the cosmetics industry (and the human guinea pig who is first in line to test samples), this excites me. There's so much to learn from the humblest of animals and who knows, maybe you'll see hippo sweat-inspired sunscreen on a shelf near you soon.

“I often remind myself and others that the most important part of the practice is ethos. [It's] about respecting nature and giving back to the organisms that we learn from.”