Nature-driven innovation lays the design for a thriving world

ShutterstockPeter Waters

“We are on the cusp of the biggest industrial revolution ever," said biomimetic inventor Jay Harman at VERGE SF 2014 on Wednesday. He was in good company.

On the same stage, author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken explained on Tuesday how “the Industrial Age has been dispersing elements, creating pollution [carbon into the air, metals and toxics in the waterways] whereas nature concentrates and reassembles those same elements to generate resources.” His conclusion? Now is the time to “run the industrial revolution backward.”

A few hours later, Mark Hatch, TechShop's founder and a leading figure of the maker movement, would go on to describe the nascent renaissance of 3D-printing-driven manufacturing as the reassembly of people's mental, cognitive and emotional dimensions whose disassociation was brought about by the Industrial Revolution; and as the advent of a manufacturing age centered around the needs of the individual, whether creator or consumer.

For all the Silicon Valley focus on, and investments in, self-learning machines, autonomous cars and computer-supported personal health, could we just as surely be headed for a near future of nature-emulating, resource-generating innovation age that is respectful of both the natural environment and the human beings who depend on it?

“Forget about 'sustainability': we either augment or diminish life on Earth,” said Hawken. The simple question becomes, how do we augment life on Earth and create clothing, food, transportation, energy, habitat—all that we, humans, need to live on this planet.

Fortunately, answers are readily available. "Nature has already solved all the problems faced by humans today," stressed Harman. 

“Life is good at concentrating water, photons, carbon and metals,” explained Hawken's business partner, Biomimicry Institute founder Janine Benyus. “We already know how to take water from the air, condense photons to generate electricity, and collect carbon from the air to produce plastic.”

Indeed, existing initiatives can give us a glimpse of what a world where technology emulates nature could look like. Picture buildings kept clean by the rain just like butterfly wingsspider web-inspired non-reflective glass that ward off birds; solar panels as cheap, portable and effective as leaves; streets illuminated at night by glowing trees.

EarthDay creator Denis Hayes stepped on stage at VERGE SF 2014 to showcase the Seattle Bullitt Center, a “living organism” that was designed and built to have an Ecological Footprint (including energy and water) close to zero.

Bringing together nature and additive manufacturing even opens up exciting possibilities, suggested Benyus.

“3D printers are ideal manufacturing devices for biomimicry since they already mimic the way nature builds things up, without cutting out waste,” she said. “Imagine how we could infuse biological intelligence in a 3D printing file so that it resides in objects that people use everyday.”

Nature could even provide a welcome answer to what makers themselves admit to be currently the biggest pitfall of 3D printing: raw material. For now, most printing filament commonly available is plastic-based.

“We have to make it work financially or we may end up with more plastic junk than ever before,” said Type A Machines CEO Espen Sivertsen on VERGE makers panel. His company sells corn-based, biodegradable PLA and takes empty spools back from its consumers for reuse.

“We could use any raw material available in nature, like cellulose, and apply to it a disassembly process that also mimics nature,” suggested Benyus.

Imagine —the world could be our oyster.