Nature is her teacher
What is biomimicry?
Biomimicry is emulating nature’s genius to solve human challenges, but particularly with a sustainability focus.
If you look around in nature, every material that we need is already there.
Nature uses five polymers that are life-friendly, and have been tested over eons. We use 360 polymers for the same functionality, but very few are life-friendly.
Here’s an example: if you boil petrol and sulphuric acid together at 750ºC and put it through high pressure, you get Kevlar, the strongest, most flexible material humans make. Spiderwebs, made with dead flies and water, are stronger than that.
Biomimicry is about understanding the recipe and mimicking it. Biomimicry is relevant to everything, from architecture, design and information systems, to business, engineering and material science. And the speed at which the field is growing is mind-blowing.
I went to Maritzburg, Wits and UCT and studied chemical engineering. I thought that one day I’d make something like chocolate or beer, but finding out about the horrors of the pollution involved in most chemical engineering processes made me rethink.
By chance, I ended up getting a fully paid Master’s scholarship to study clean technology. After that, I kept searching for ways for processes to get cleaner. I got into organic agriculture, worked with the UN, did urban planning and wrote strategies for local government.
I wanted to understand how the whole system fitted together and could work better.
I wanted to go to the Amazon rainforest and study biomimicry. So I wrote to the Biomimicry Institute and, sure enough, there was a workshop coming up in the Amazon.
I did the two-year training, starting in 2008, and then became a teacher for it. At the same time, I decided we should grow this field in SA, so we’ve started at schools and universities, aquariums, zoos, businesses and NGOs.
It’s beyond dissemination. It’s nurturing the growth of something.
Biomimicry is bringing feminine wisdom (I’m deeply passionate about Mother Earth) into this masculine world of technology, and merging them. I didn’t want to start an organisation by raising funds. I wanted to try a different way.
So I’ve applied this approach of just loving it. Every time biomimicry needs my attention, I love it. I love the people who want to be in it and I love the work that I do. And there’s no structure to it, other than a website and the people involved. It’s the result that matters, not the structure.
Internationally, the favourite thing I did was with a company called Calera in San Francisco, mimicking the way coral reefs turn carbon dioxide into coral. Limestone is actually ancient coral reefs. Nowadays, we heat up limestone until the crystalline structure changes to make PPC cement.
So what Calera does is mimic the recipe of how a coral reef is made by taking carbon dioxide as feedstock, putting it through saltwater, and turning it into limestone. And then turning that limestone into environmentally friendly cement.
And this is why I love biomimicry, because instead of seeing carbon dioxide as a pollutant, we see it as a feedstock – which is what nature does.
Biomimicry is inter-disciplinary, but we also have to work well in teams. So we’re always having to do tests to determine where our strengths lie. Mine come up as “futurist”, “imagineer”, “connector”, “inventor” and “learner”.
If you understand how everything is connected, you begin to see that genius lies everywhere. And seeing new connections allows you to invent things.
Once you’re in that way of thinking, it’s addictive. Problems become opportunities. And with biomimicry, you don’t have to solve the problem – you just have to identify what it really is and then see how nature’s already solved it. Then you just translate it.
The best thing about nature is understanding what leadership is. If you understand ants as a superorganism, there is no leader.
The superorganism runs as a highly attuned system, with simple rules and short feedback loops. Some ants leave trails saying “We’ve found something” so that other ants can quickly follow. Being completely locally attuned and responsive is the way forward.
I would like to know that I’m effective in leading to shifts and changes in the world, particularly where things are needing change. In chemical engineering, hazardous waste and dangerous chemicals are the norm. I’m passionate about bringing the functional life-friendly recipes from nature to this field. I can say: “Listen, you can make that same material, with that same functionality, but in a way that enhances life.” People are won over by sense, not idealism.
Are you hopeful?
I am beyond hopeful. I’m aware of how your mind and attitude affect your life every day.
I once sat down on a beach, watching hazardous waste pour into the ocean. It nearly destroyed me. But then I realised I have the capacity to change this. Biomimicry convinces me that our problems are solvable. I’ve seen that it’s possible – now it’s just about making it happen.
Biomimicry SA is filled with free spirits, people who are convinced that anything is possible. South Africans are energised, passionate and want to do something inspiring. This place has an incredible energy, where anything can happen.
* To find out more, visit www.biomimicrySA.co.za Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.