When most people think about good design, they might think of an Eames lounge chair, an iPhone or Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. Harmonizing functional perfection with a clean and timeless form, good design is often celebrated for its endurance and ability to remain relevant and adored for decades or even centuries. Not only have these iconic examples of good design stood the test of time, they also have been copied, mimicked and used to inspire designers across industries for years past, and will for years to come.
When most people think about good design, they do not think about the speed of a sailfish, the strategy of serotinous pine cones or the resilience of a Joshua tree in the desert. They think about the products and places that people have built, not the forms and functions that have evolved in nature and endured for hundreds of millions of years. Arguably, the best design of all time.
So why not learn from efficient, interconnected and balanced ecosystems to build our industrial systems?
That’s the question behind the theory of biomimicry and the practice of biomimetic design, recognizing that a perfectly designed, calibrated and fully circular system already exists in nature. Energy and materials elegantly flow through ecosystems, efficiently cycling back into new forms without waste or stagnation.
A circular economy is so much more than recycling or reusing waste streams, which is a reductionist understanding of what nature does.
This week, 10 nature-inspired designers were announced as finalists for the Ray of Hope Prize, created to honor the legacy of sustainability visionary and Interface founder Ray C. Anderson. The competition and accelerator is organized by the Biomimicry Institute. (I should note that I was on the selection committee for this year’s finalists.)
"A circular economy is so much more than recycling or reusing waste streams, which is a reductionist understanding of what nature does," Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, told me over email. "Biomimicry, as used by these teams, shows how the things we make can not only operate in cycles, but also benefit systems along the way."
Here are five finalists using biomimetic design to tackle thorny human problems:
Manufacturing building materials from mycelium
This bio-based building materials company uses the root structure of mushrooms to produce a higher-performance, lower-cost and more sustainable insulation material. Through a carbon-sequestering manufacturing process, Biohm uses landfill-bound commercial and agricultural byproducts to grow mycelium for its products. The London-based startup also manufactures a biodegradable alternative to wood-based sheet materials using byproducts from food production.
Mimicking photosynthesis to catalyze chemical reactions
Conventional chemical processes require significant amounts of energy or other material inputs to catalyze chemical reactions. New Iridium is developing a process that mimics photosynthesis, using light to convert water and carbon dioxide into chemical energy, and eliminating the need to use heavy metals or heat as catalysts in these reactions.
Designing a common colorant from a beetle's exoskeleton
Impossible Materials uses the bright white scales on the Cyphochilus beetle’s exoskeleton as the design inspiration for its more sustainable and better performing white pigment. Used in everything from toothpaste to traffic stripes painted on roads, the world’s most common colorant, titanium dioxide, is sourced through titanium mining and its nanoparticles have been flagged as potential carcinogens. Making an alternative possible, Impossible Materials has manufactured a safe bio-based colorant from cellulose.
Recapturing water in manufacturing facilities
Much of the water used in industrial cooling towers at manufacturing sites or power plants leaves the facility as high-density water vapor. Infinite Cooling turned to the fog-harvesting prowess of the Namib desert beetle to address this inefficiency, developing a product that can be added to cooling towers in existing manufacturing facilities. The solution saves customers millions of dollars and hundreds of millions of gallons of water annually.
Spinning silk like a spider
The silk of a spider is one of the strongest biological materials in the world. Spintex Engineering has mimicked the precision of a spider’s spinnerets to produce artificial spider silk for use in textiles, apparel, aerospace and automotive industries. The startup’s process works at room temperature, is 1,000 times more energy-efficient than the production of synthetic plastic fibers, has only water as a byproduct and uses no hazardous chemicals.