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The following is an excerpt from Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change (2012, Laurence King) by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose.
Biomimicry is the practice of emulating nature’s patterns and strategies to direct product design, processes, and policies, and as such draws its inspiration from the living world. Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, contrasts the rich and diverse natural world with the systematic taming and simplification of nature through human activity and the subsequent destruction of species. “We understand that the only way to keep learning from nature—and its wellspring of ideas—is to safeguard its naturalness,” she says. That the study of biomimicry can trigger this level of understanding in designers is in itself of great value. It draws us far beyond the limits of the narrow and intellectual habitat of industrialized design and reminds us of the dual nature of our present circumstances as designers: how small a part we play in, and yet what enormous responsibility we have, to the “whole.”
Donna Sgro’s “Morphotex” fabric apes the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings, which appear cobalt blue despite lacking any intrinsic color.
That nature’s processes are irrational and spontaneous and may take millennia to evolve can be a challenging concept for designers to grasp since we work to such short deadlines and “lock in” our designs before production. But an effective visual metaphor is provided by Donella Meadows’s reference to fractal geometry.
The Koch snowflake illustrates that biomimicry is not simply a tool for copying.
Using the example of an equilateral triangle, Meadows explains that when another such triangle is added at the center of each side and the pattern repeated, an elaborate shape results—called a “Koch snowflake”. Meadows notes that out of a few simple rules of self-organization, enormous diversifying crystals of technology, physical structures, organizations, and cultures can grow—including our own.
The Koch snowflake helps us understand why mimicking the complexities of evolved nature is difficult. But it also illustrates that biomimicry is not simply a tool for copying. Rather, it is understanding and applying nature’s principles—surprisingly simple at their core—that is more the point. This distinction of purpose is critical, for in our culture where the market, high speed, and low cost direct design “innovation,” it is all too easy for designers to fall into using biomimicry to serve the status quo of manufacturing and selling novelty, and degrading the environment in the process.