Schooled by mother nature

OCAD student Rui Felix created this diagram explaining how the barrel cactus shades itself using vertical ridges. The cactus is now inspiring the design of buildings

They’ve made little guitar speakers sound bigger by studying the noisemaking ability of cicadas, one of the loudest insects in the world. They’ve improved product packaging by exploring how leaves naturally unfold. They’ve also enhanced the efficiency of building designs by mimicking how certain organisms regulate body temperature.

The students at Toronto’s OCAD University are taking a different approach to design. Rather than tame nature through purely human-conceived models, these students are learning from and working with examples found in the natural world that have had the benefit of time – hundreds of millions of years – to achieve perfection.

“The way we teach biomimicry is we look at form, process and system,” says industrial designer Carl Hastrich, a biomimicry instructor at OCAD University, one of six North American schools with a two-year certificate program accredited through the Biomimicry Institute.

“Form is about functional improvements that can be created through physical manipulation in shape. Everything in nature has multifunctionality to it. Part of what we do is experiment so we can better understand that.”

Process, Hastrich adds, is about how things get made, how they grow, how they adapt. “We had one student do a project on how to create surfaces that age intelligently over time.” This is often linked directly to materials science. “Our students basically do exploratory work on how natural processes could inform packaging and products, such as textiles.”

At the system level, students particularly look at the relationships between organisms and structures in ecosystems. How do ecosystems change or emerge over time, and how can you use that as a model to design buildings, public spaces, and entire cities and communities?

“This is where we have the most fun as designers, because we like playing with big systems,” Hastrich says. “Part of that fun is we include those in material art and design, environmental design, industrial design, graphics design – even fine artists and advertising people get involved. We set the students up with a range of tools and let them find ways of applying them to their own area of interest. The results are very diverse.”

OCAD’s biomimicry program has been offered to students for seven years now, making it the second oldest of its kind on the continent. Hastrich expects interest will continue to build, judging from the behind-the-scenes embrace of biomimicry by industry.

“There are all sorts of different innovations occurring in the background, but for reasons of intellectual property not all companies are declaring them publicly,” he says. “For these companies, biomimicry represents a really different research direction.”

But it’s not easy, he adds. “As with a lot of leading-edge innovation it takes some time to experiment and learn how to do it. We at OCAD have the luxury of using the classroom to really follow through and take the research further.”

In a presentation that Hastrich and program leader Bruce Hinds, chair of environmental design, like to give, they outline five truths that students must learn when practising biomimicry: it needs to be introduced at the beginning, it can’t be used in isolation, it requires a multidisciplinary team and it can be metaphorical in its application.

The final truth is perhaps most important: biomimicry requires certain leaps of faith.

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