Drawing on natural ecosystems in order to create innovative solutions, biomimicry has been inspiring designers for decades, many times without our full understanding of this discipline. Yet creative minds around the world have been increasingly turning to biomimicry–banyan tree leaves, butterfly wings, a bird’s beak–for new, sustainable and ecofriendly designs. This approach has the goal of finding solutions to human challenges by replicating what nature has, in a sense, solved through time-tested processes.
This rapidly emerging field of study captures knowledge from the enormous array of solutions already found in nature, solutions which have been constantly refined through billions of years of evolution. One group leading the field in how biomimicry is applied in the built environment is the London-based practice Exploration Architecture, a collaborative team of architects, designers and researchers with a broad range of specialties that have designed a variety of innovative projects.
According to Exploration Architecture, “whereas sustainable development has often been based on mitigating negatives, biomimicry represents a new paradigm and reveals solutions that go beyond ‘sustainable’ to be restorative and deliver net positive impacts.” The firm’s mission is to produce solutions that address some of the major human challenges, which they see as climate change, biodiversity loss, resource scarcity and energy, food & water security.
How can architects build a new world of sustainable beauty? By learning from nature. At TEDSalon in London, Michael Pawlyn describes three habits of nature that could transform architecture and society: radical resource efficiency, closed loops, and drawing energy from the sun.
One of these innovations by Exploration Architecture is the exciting Mobius Project, a concept that could be applied to many existing urban areas and new sustainable masterplans. The idea seeks to reconnect people with food while addressing sustainable infrastructural challenges in urban areas.
For Yaniv Peer, one of Exploration’s Associates, Biomimicry represents a culmination of three lifelong passions: biology, design and the environment, and it is his belief that a synthesis of these interests is crucial to addressing major contemporary challenges. In the context of his participation as a speaker in this year’s Demand Solutions and the upcoming Cities Week at the IDB, we asked Yaniv about his views on how to improve the quality of life in the cities we live in:
ESCI: Mayors from all over the Latin America and the Caribbean will be present at Demand Solutions. If you could give a piece of advice to one of them on how to make their cities more efficient what would it be?
I would start by asking the mayor what is his or her priority issue, which almost certainly will be common to the challenges that a great many mayor’s face. Such as, Energy Consumption, Air Quality, Poor Infrastructure, Traffic Congestion, Employment, Health, Education and a loss in young educated professionals, to name but a few. I would then invite the respective mayor to consider that prioritising human wellbeing is the very same approach to making their cities more efficient. Rather than seeing efficiency as a planning exercise they should consider what initiatives they could take to improve their citizen’s health whilst making their cities more liveable.
In the 1970’s Portland made a number of decisions based around infrastructure and human wellbeing that differentiated them from almost all other cities. Whilst other cities were growing as a relentless sprawl and widening their roads, Portland instituted a skinny streets program and invested ($60m over 30 years) in good cycling and walking infrastructure.
Portland, Oregon represents just one of many successful examples of how successive and bold leaders have chosen to prioritise people’s quality of life, in a contradictory way to conventional thinking that has most certainly yielded a more ‘efficient’ city. What should be clear is that the multiple challenges common to many cities around the world are resolvable through a human centred approach. Moreover, that the benefits of taking this approach far outweigh those of traditional thinking both in terms of tangible and intangible costs.
ESCI: The world – and particularly Latin America and the Caribbean – is becoming increasingly urban. In your opinion what makes cities a unique place to live in?
Our cities are unique because they offer us hope for a better future. They are our most extraordinary innovation to date as they represent the greatest potential for mankind to find a balance with nature for our collective long term survival. Whereas once cities were seen as the epicentre of negative environmental impact, today we know that with well-considered design approaches these places offer the best chance to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint whilst protecting our planets ecosystems and the invaluable ecosystem services they provide (for free).
ESCI: In your opinion, what could we learn from nature to better design our cities?
We need a shift in mind-set that allows us to look to ecosystems for inspiration on how we design our cities. Whereas man made systems are very wasteful, dependant on fossil fuels, use long term toxins, are resistant to change, maximise only one goal and are extractive, natural systems produce no waste, run only on current solar income, use no long term toxins, are constantly adapting to change, optimise a system as a whole and are completely regenerative to their environments.
There are already examples of projects that have adopted some of the principles of ecosystem thinking. Take for example Kalundborg, the world’s first industrial ecosystem that has championed the principle of zero waste so that the by-product of one enterprise is the used as a resource by the next enterprise in an effort to move towards a closed loop cycle.
If we were to adopt ecosystem design principles then we really could, as Buckminster Fuller said, “Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”.
Are you interested in how to design your city according to nature? On September 29th, join Yaniv Peer and some of the world’s leading creative minds at Demand Solutions: Ideas for Improving Lives in Cities, a one-day event to discuss innovations and solutions to urban challenges. The event will take place at the Inter-American Development Bank headquarters in Washington D.C. Register here to attend or to join the livestream.