Biomimicry is on the upswing, but watch out for drifting

Inspire nature rather than enslave it. Doesn't that make more sense? Since antiquity man has observed nature for inspiration. During the Renaissance, the great Leonardo encouraged his contemporaries to take lessons from nature because that is where our future lies. Today, with our industrial language, we are discovering that nature is 3.8 billion years of R&D. It is a reservoir of inventions, each one more ingenious than the next, the fruit of a series of trial and error and rigorous selection. But this is where the stick starts to hurt. For drawing inspiration from nature is not just a means of enriching the industrial fabric with new discoveries, of drawing on it shamelessly as we have already done, until it is exhausted. It is above all a philosophy, a way of acting and thinking. For nature is not just a model that can be copied. It must also be a stallion and a master.
Sf nature's inspiration was to seek to manufacture the latest electronic chip, the drone imitating the bee so perfectly, or the hyper-adhesive coating... biomimicry would be just one way among others to feed the rivers of innovation that tend to overwhelm us. Nature's inspiration would become a kind of label, which clever marketers would see as a good seam. This biomimicry would be just one word, overused, carried by its great market gurus. One would be ecstatic to be inspired by the eye of a fly to make the latest fashionable camera, or by the chameleon's clothing to offer us cars or multicoloured eye shadows. The living world would be a formidable laboratory for inventing new materials, new coatings, hyper-resistant alveolar structures, etc. There are so many innovations in store for anyone who can take a closer look at living things and copy and paste them.

Paradigm shift

But things aren't that simple. For taking inspiration from living things takes on another dimension today, at a time when we are becoming aware of the depletion of nature, climate, ecosystems and their diversity. We can no longer draw as if from an endless reservoir the riches that nature offers us. Nature can no longer be dominated and domesticated. If we seek inspiration from it, it is because we recognize its genius and superiority. The way we look at it must change radically. Nicolas Hulot expresses this paradigm shift very well: " nature is no longer an inexhaustible source of raw materials, it is an inexhaustible source of knowledge » [1].
Every living organism is a treasure trove of knowledge capable of taking us to horizons we cannot even imagine. Each ecosystem is a library of knowledge that is for the most part still unknown to us. These treasures, this diversity of knowledge, we ignore them when we do not let them disappear, sometimes in the most total indifference.
The knowledge that nature offers us is most valuable. It is all the more precious because natural engineering works without the use of fossil fuels, without destruction, in symbiosis with the environment and other species. Biomimicry is primarily interested in nature in order to copy its forms. We often cite the example of the kingfisher's beak, which inspired Eiji Nakatsu, the inventor of the Japanese high-speed train; or that of the lotus, whose nanoforms present on the surface allow the flower to clean itself. But it is in the field of materials that nature should inspire us the most. As Janine M. Benyus explains in her book [2], bible of biomimicry, living materials are produced at room temperature and pressure, in non-toxic solvents. Nature, unlike our industrial models, does not manufacture its materials by heating, pressurizing or applying extreme chemical treatments. The inner shell of abalone is twice as strong as our best ceramics; each strand of spider silk thread is stronger than the best hardened steel; bones, wood, skin are all materials unmatched by industry. And yet these highly sophisticated materials are made from the most common chemical substances such as carbon, calcium or water, without considerable energy expenditure. Because nature, unlike us, knows what sustainability means. Inspired by it, but in a sustainable way. Is this really possible in a world addicted to energy-intensive industrial processes? The revolution to be led is not only that of ways of thinking. It is also the revolution of our production models. And this is no small task.

Reinventing and reinventing oneself

In his book The living as a model [3], Gauthier Chapelle reminds us that "[3]... practically all our objects are made of materials that can be improved by a biomimetic approach, whether in terms of the energy consumed to produce them, their origin, toxicity, recyclability, etc. ». But to be inspired by it would mean implementing breakthrough innovations on such a scale that they would require an overhaul of all our industrial structures. Making ceramics as shellfish do would mean reinventing all current industrial processes, machines and methods. This is not for tomorrow. For reasons of cost and investment, but also because changes in practices inevitably lead to risks that industrialists are reluctant to face. Commercial successes are still rare when we embark on sustainable biomimicry.
Gauthier Chapelle tells in his book a symptomatic story, that of the tubercles of humpback whales' fins. These animals have strange protuberances on the leading edge of their pectoral fins. Intrigued, an American physicist, Laurens Howle, set out to understand the mystery. The leading edges of airplanes are perfectly smooth to ensure a better penetration in the air, so why does the humpback whale clutter its fins, similar to wings, with such tuberosities? Wind tunnel tests showed that these protuberances greatly improved the performance of the fin.
On the strength of this discovery, the physicist had the idea of applying it to wind turbine blades. His prototypes quickly proved their effectiveness on traditional models: the wind turbine starts at a lower wind speed and produces twice as much electric current. On paper, Howle's turbine is more efficient, more productive, more wear-resistant and less energy consuming than its competitors. This is a great way to make the wind turbine market explode!
And yet, this invention was a commercial fiasco. Traditional wind turbine manufacturers, overwhelmed by demand, had no desire to change their designs, and banks saw no financial incentive to invest capital to change wind farms. The industrial habits of the old world were already in place and impossible to move. Laurens Howle's biomimetic innovation remained in the drawers.

A steep path

Biomimicry is such a natural and fashionable approach that it is sure to arouse the interest of the general public and the enthusiasm of the younger generations. But beyond intentions, the biomimetic path is steep. Students from engineering and architecture schools are constantly asking for training in this new discipline. They come up against the reluctance of academic circles and have to fall back on more or less serious private training courses. Those of the Desirable futures or the CEEBIOS stand out from the crowd.
Industrialists are showing their interest in biomimicry. Important meetings such as the forum Biomim Expo organized by the CEEBIOS testify to this appeal. Major companies are present (Renault, L'Oréal, Eiffage, Dassault) but few innovations have really yet seen the light of day. Is the industrial and/or commercial risk too great? Is the approach still only in its infancy, reserved for a few more or less hacker experimenters such as the student designers of theENSCI ? Would biomimicry only serve to fuel the projects of a high-tech industrialism obsessed with economic growth and the conquest of new markets? In what way do the few innovations presented guarantee sustainability? Where is their awareness of the challenges of the anthropocene?
Interviews with Gilles Bœuf, Gauthier Chapelle, Emmanuel Delannoy, Kalina Raskin, Jacques Rougerie made by UP' Magazine on the occasion of the Biomim'Expo 2017 forum.

Drawing inspiration from the principles of the living

Biomimicry cannot be used to feed our technological fantasies. Remaining in nature's copy-paste by keeping the same modes of production will only feed the maelstrom of agitation, obsolete trivialities and pollution. To be inspired by nature is to be inspired by all the principles of life and to review our old organizational models from top to bottom. It means changing the way we look at other living organisms, it means showing humility in the face of the complexity, sustainability and invention of the most banal of forests. In his interview with UP' Magazine (see above), Gauthier Chapelle explains that the hierarchical models of pyramidal organizations born in the days of the unlimited industrial boom have long since died out. We must now draw inspiration from the heterarchical models of nature's organization: " In living things, there is no ecosystem that functions in a hierarchical way. In a forest, there isn't an oak tree in the middle, which collects all the information, discusses it with its board of directors and says: 'It's okay, guys, you can get the leaves out, the temperature is good'. That's not how it works. It's connected intelligence, networked intelligence and local intelligence. ".
Biomimicry is not just about inventing new shapes and materials. It can also mean proposing economic systems that take their cue from living organisms. Emmanuel Delannoy invented the term "biomimicry". permaeconomics "to designate economic alternatives with a positive impact on the environment. According to him, " New revolutionary models are already at work: circular economy, economy of functionality, biomimicry... Permaeconomics is the new paradigm that makes it possible to bring them into line with each other. ». A new paradigm that is ambitious and at the same time very simple to formulate: to invent and implement an economy which, by maintaining the conditions for its own sustainability, will create the conditions for sustainable human development that is compatible with the biosphere. Quite a programme! But what a programme! To bring us back to the principles of the living world from which modernity and excessive industrialization have led us away. A return to a dimension that is not only ethical but also a guarantee of our survival.
Notes :
1] Preface by Nicolas Hulot to the book by Gauthier Chapelle and Michèle Ducoust, Le vivant comme modèle, Albin Michel
[2] Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry, The Ecopoche
3] Gauthier Chapelle and Michèle Ducoust, Le vivant comme modèle, Albin Michel

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