More Than the Sum of the Parts….
Emergence is a natural phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties that are exhibited by none of its constituent, smaller entities. Termite “cathedral” mounds are often cited as one of numerous examples of emergence found in nature, characterized by organisms that communicate with each other by exchanging small bits of information frequently and which, over time and through mutations, evolve behaviors that are not only efficient for each organism, but more importantly, are effective for the collective’s survival. Decentralized decision making is a key aspect of such emergent systems, where no “master and slave” control structures are required and are, in fact, highly discouraged.
Emergence has also been applied to much more esoteric topics such as understanding the development of consciousness in brains2. Most scientists and philosophers generally agree that consciousness is not a property that is exhibited by any of the brain’s individual constituent neurons. Yet, when taken as a whole, brains in general–and human brains in particular–exhibit this mysterious phenomenon.
The Power of the Swarm and Self-Organizing Systems
This brings us to the notion of “swarm intelligence,” which is also often explained in terms of emergence theory. Examples of swarm intelligence abound in nature. Ants, bees, termites, geckos, sharks, flocking birds and buffalo herds… these are just a few examples. Surprisingly, even slime mold, which is composed of amoebae that have no “brains,” exhibits an elementary level of intelligence, such as learning to traverse a maze3. The life cycle complexity of the simple amoebae is a scientific curiosity that demonstrates the extremes of nature where swarm intelligence is exhibited.
It is interesting to speculate whether we humans, who are migrating rapidly to larger cities and becoming increasingly connected through the “cloud,” will eventually start exhibiting new and unexpected “swarm intelligence.” This could lead to some interesting consequences for the human species, whose brain size is a compromise between higher intelligence and the food necessary to support our larger brain size.
In fact, human brains are, for mammals of our body size, extraordinarily large, approximately three times the volume of those of chimpanzees and other great apes, the result of an enormous evolutionary expansion of the cerebral cortex during the past two million years. “If you want a big brain, you’ve got to feed it,” points out Todd Preuss of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
If we find ourselves as individuals depending more and more on our swarm intelligence, while at the same time having less food to feed an expanding global population, human brain size may begin to decrease. Interestingly, there are some indications that this is already happening. The growth in the size of our brains actually ceased around 200,000 years ago, and in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years the average size of the human brain compared with our body has shrunk by three or four per cent.
Some see this as no cause for concern. Size, after all, isn’t everything, and it’s perfectly possible that the brain has simply evolved to make more efficient use of its grey and white matter. Others, however, believe rather pessimistically that this shrinkage is a sign of a slight decline in our general mental abilities. David Geary at the University of Missouri-Columbia, for one, believes that as complex societies have developed, the less intelligent are beginning to survive on the backs of their smarter peers, whereas previously they would have died – at least before finding a mate.
Biomimicry: Imitation as a Science
So, let us now consider our entitled subject, “biomimicry.” As the word itself implies, biomimicry is the art and science of mimicking biological systems to our benefit – turning to nature and the processes of natural selection for fresh and creative ideas and solutions.
For those of us interested in the etymology of words, the term “biomimetics” was first introduced by the American biophysicist and mathematician Otto Schmitt, appearing in the title of a paper he published in 19695. By 1974 it had found its way into Webster’s Dictionary. Its derivative term “biomimicry” first appeared in the literature in a paper published in 1982 by Connie Merrill at Rice University6. Biomimicry was later popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus defines biomimicry as a “new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” Benyus suggests looking to nature as a “model, measure and mentor” and emphasizes sustainability as an objective of biomimicry.
Just Look Around You
To understand biomimicry, we don’t really need to understand how emergence or swarm intelligence produced the wonderfully evolved diversity of nature we see around us; we simply need to observe and apply what we see to solving problems. This could be as simple as a hunter mimicking a bird or animal call, or as complex as designing an airplane wing or a bridge.
Learning from the lessons of termites, lotus leaves, coral and honey bees, for example, we are creating everything from more resilient cities, to self-cleaning toilets, eco-friendly cement and energy-efficient air-conditioning systems.
Today there are numerous examples of the successful application of biomimetic principles to engineering problems. A biomimetic approach to problem solving can utilize any facet of biological systems. Examples include Velcro, originally inspired from thistles, and the honeycomb-based structure for aircraft, which was patented by Hugo Junkers in 1915.
Aerodynamic designs have traditionally relied on rather basic principles that emphasize smooth surfaces and sleek lines to maximize lift and minimize drag. However, many species throughout the animal kingdom exhibit shapes that depart from these traditional designs. The Humpback whale, for example, uses bumpy, tubercle fins for propulsion, which runs contrary to traditional hydrodynamic engineering principles. Tests conducted by the U.S. Naval Academy, using model flippers, determined these biomimetic fins reduce drag by nearly a third and improve lift by eight percent overall. Whale Power, a company based in Toronto, Canada, has already capitalized on this latest tubercle technology with biomimetic wind power blades, which purportedly generate the “same amount of power at 10 miles per hour that conventional turbines generate at 17 miles per hour.”
Biomimicry and Smarter, More Efficient Buildings
Applications of biomimicry principles to building facilities include examples such as the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, which uses ducts and 48 huge chimneys to passively move hot daytime air out, and the Khoo Teck Puat hospital in Singapore, which includes fins that are built along the walls to channel prevailing winds into the building, thereby enhancing airflow by 20-30 percent.
Biomimicry also plays a key role in the concept and execution of “Living Buildings.” The Living Building Challenge is a green building certification program and sustainable design framework that uses the metaphor of a flower as its ideal because its goal is to create buildings that function as cleanly and efficiently as a flower. A flower creates its own energy from the sun. It collects the water it needs from moisture in its immediate environment, and it does not pollute. One such structure is the Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion, Texas.
The 5,000-square-foot pavilion is a site for meetings and educational events at the Dixon Water Foundation’s Leo Unit in Cooke County. The pavilion was completed in spring 2014, and starting October 1, 2014, the building began a one-year performance evaluation, after which the pavilion was granted certification as Texas’s first Living Building.