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September 13, 2015

Designed by nature

What do a kingfisher, a termite mound, a shark and a coconut all have in common? Whilst it might sound like the start of a joke, they are all examples of designs in nature that have inspired innovations.

At Po-Zu we know something – OK, a lot – about the coconut example. Our coconut foot-mattress was inspired by the natural shock-absorbing properties of coconut fibres. When a coconut falls from the tree, there’s a pretty big impact, and the layer of fibres surrounding the nut need to be pliable enough to absorb that shock and prevent it from breaking when it hits the ground. So we had a hunch that they would be a perfect choice to give our foot mattress its special cushioning and bounce, with the added advantage for the wearer of being breathable and moulding to the foot as the shoe is worn. There is also the environmental benefit of utilising a natural waste product and the fibres being biodegradable once the shoes have been well worn.

Taking inspiration from nature in innovation and design is known as biomimicry. As Janine Benyus, one of its leading advocates says, ‘Nature knows what works, and what is appropriate, and what lasts here on earth’. 

Termite mounds and their sophisticated air flows and cooling systems inspired the design of the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. The natural air flow that is generated by the design of the building means that air conditioning is not required and uses about 35% of the energy required for temperature regulation in conventional office buildings.

The kingfisher inspired the design of a bullet train. The engineer, Eiji Nakatsu, a keen bird-watcher, asked himself the question “Is there something in Nature that travels quickly and smoothly between two mediums?” And the answer that came to him was the kingfisher. He modelled the front end of the train after the beak of the kingfisher – and the resulting train is not only quieter, but is also 15% more energy efficient and travels 10% faster. 

Biomimitician Fiona Fairhurst worked with the Senior Fish Curator at the National History Museum, Oliver Crimmen, to create the now infamous ‘shark skin’ swimsuit for Speedo, which Michael Phelps wore in winning a haul of medals at the 2008 Olympics, and which was subsequently banned for being too performance enhancing. She explains how, ‘through a process of evolution, the shark has developed ridges on its skin, known as denticles. These reduce the amount of water that comes into contact with the skin, thereby lessening the drag force on the shark." The swimming suit she designed featured a textured surface similar to these denticles. 

As Michael Pawlyn, an architect and another leading proponent of biomimicry says, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products, and all of those have benefitted from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it”.

Asking nature’s advice is perhaps something that we could all try to incorporate into our lives a little more; ‘What would nature do?’ Nature has some pretty smart – and sustainable - answers if we care to listen.

By Olivia Sprinkel