Got a tricky problem? Just look to nature

Makers of Japan's Shinkansen Bullet Train solved its noise problem by modeling its front end on the beak of kingfishers. /Sankei/Getty Images
Makers of Japan's Shinkansen Bullet Train solved its noise problem by modeling its front end on the beak of kingfishers. /Sankei/Getty Images

Here's a philosophical question for our time: never mind the wisdom of nature, what about the nature of wisdom?

According to the director of BiomimicrySA, Claire Janisch, all the answers we need to face the burgeoning population on planet earth are right there in nature.

Speaking at African Utility Week in Cape Town last week with 7000 delegates from around the world, Janisch explained that biomimicry "is about recognising that we can learn from nature's 3.8 billion years of experience to develop sustainable and resilient solutions for our world".

"Solutions to our problems already exist in nature. We can improve our physical world by following nature's example," she said, adding that this was particularly applicable to infrastructure.

"Africa's natural ecosystems and organisms are particularly well adapted to our context and therefore a rich knowledge economy exists from which we can draw local innovative solutions," she said.

Examples of how nature's "wisdom can be copied" to alleviate the pressure on natural resources include: emulating the humpback whale's attack manoeuvre in wind turbines to increase efficiency; learning about desalination from mangrove trees that use sea water to survive; and learning from termites how to design buildings with efficient energy use for air-conditioning.

One such example is the Eastgate building in Harare that mimics the self-cooling nature of termites' nests. In Japan, the noise of the Shinkansen Bullet Train, the fastest in the world, was reduced by modeling its front-end on the beak of kingfishers.

In South Africa, Janisch has been working on various projects where nature is the main source of information.

One such is the Genius of Space project in Langrug, an informal settlement near Franschhoek. Here, 6000 residents live with little to no infrastructure, washing clothes and dishes in buckets in the dusty roads of the settlement.

The grey water from these activities flows down to the Berg River. As a result, drinking water is contaminated and agriculture has been affected.

BiomimicrySA came up with a simple system that takes the grey water along underground pipes where it lands up in a spot where it can nourish newly planted trees after first going through a very simple filter system.

Janine Benyus, from the Biomimicry Institute, hopes to see many such projects proliferating around the world.

"We're awake now, and the question is how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make asking nature's advice a normal part of everyday inventing?" she asks.

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