AskNature.org: A Peek Into Mother Nature's R&D Lab

AskNature.org: A Peek Into Mother Nature's R&D Lab

A valuable new tool has hit the Web, and it promises to make a wealth of Mother Nature's wisdom available to architects, designers, engineers, and others involved in the creation of products, services, and packaging.

AskNature.org is the brainchild of Janine Benyus, the birth mother of biomimicry, a design discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature's time-tested patterns and strategies. Benyus's 1997 book of that title gave rise to revolutionary new design concepts and strategies, though they remain among the better-kept secrets in the world of green business. A handful of large companies — including Boeing, Herman Miller, Interface, and Nike, and the architectural firm HOK — have utilized biomimicry as a design tool. (Carpet giant Interface reportedly reaps about a third of its roughly $1 billion annual revenue from its Entropy line of carpet tiles, which were inspired by biomimicry principles; Benyus has served as a consultant to Interface.)

Biomimicry, which I've recently covered, brings the biologist to the design table to ask the question, "How would nature do that?" with "that" being just about anything that nature does: assembles and disassembles, filters and absorbs, builds and manages structures, protects from predators and disease, converts things to energy, nourishes, detoxifies, coordinates, navigates, pollinates, and a thousand other daily miracles.

AskNature.org brings much of that wisdom to the public — a free service of the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute (on whose board I sit), with funding from design software company Autodesk. The database is the only public-domain online library of its kind, where users can search for and study nature's solutions to design challenges.

The site allows you to — as its name implies — pose a query starting with "How would nature..." You simply add a verb, keyword, or short phrase and you're off and running.

So, for example, I asked "How would nature adhere" and received 11 responses, each related to some "critter" — an insect, microbe, plant, animal, or other living thing tracked by the database.

First up was the aphid, whose feet appear to adhere to surfaces using something called "capillary adhesion," a process that also helps a tree frog rest placidly on a vertical pane of glass. Further clicks reveal potential products and application ideas — in this case, "Using capillary action to create nano-scale molds, cosmetics, and sunscreens that are not absorbed through the skin." There are also clickable references for deeper dives.

Then there was the cuttlefish, whose eggs adhere in seawater due to a gelatinous layer, offering potential for sealants for ships and wave energy structures; the Australian mistletoe, whose sticky berries could be models for adhesives used in pre-fabricated building products or furniture, or bonding applications for electronics; and mammals, whose white blood cells adhere tightly to target cells by increasing their surface area using arm-like projections and shape deformation, a process that "could be mimicked for any use that requires a close contact with a surface or adhesion."

You get the idea. For the scientifically curious, a simple search will easily absorb an hour or two of satisfying learning.

The database is still in its trial, "beta" phase, and some of the records feel frustratingly skimpy. Only a handful of entries have photos of the related critters, and fewer still boast information about, and links to, real-life biomimicry-inspired products. But these are mere quibbles. Like the vast world it covers, AskNature.org will grow and mature over time.

Part of that growth will come from the larger community of scientists and designers. Every page of the site invites readers to join the biomimicry community by serving as a curator related to a specific design challenge or solution, asking "Are you an expert on this topic?"

Indeed, nature offers lessons there, too. Biomimicry can tell us how to build and maintain communities, both structured and self-organizing, cooperative and competitive, according to the biomimicry taxonomy. And probably more still on sharing resources, disseminating information, and playing well with others.

There aren't yet entries for such things on AskNature.org, but I'm sure they are being assembled, catalyzed, converted, generated, grown, incubated, or otherwise created as only Mother Nature herself would have done it.