Biomimicry is slowly bleeding into everything around us. Our manufactured world is starting to imitate natural life.
Human beings haven’t been around for a very long time. Our greatest technological contribution thus far is the wheel. Controlled explosions are too destructive to be considered as a contribution and fire occurs naturally. The wheel is integral to our existence and there isn’t another creature on the planet that can harness its mighty power. Think about it: if you were a lion and could steal one technology from another species, wouldn’t you take the wheel?
Tharalelo Mokgokong is a part-time lecturer at the Tshwane University of Technology, industrial engineer and lifelong fan of biomimicry; he wants us to learn from lions. “Don’t you find it strange that lions can organise themselves on a hunt?” he probes. “They have different strategies for different kinds of prey. Then they arrange themselves. It’s always the fastest one that will start the chase and then the slower ones will box in the buck and the heaviest will jump on its back to bring it down. How do they know to do that? Do they have a meeting before they go out?” ponders Mokgokong.
There’s a lot of truth to his query, but the reasoning is also fundamentally flawed. It’s the separation of humans and animals that is the biggest problem. Assuming that people are on a pedestal above all other animals undermines the very essence of biomimicry. But the opposite causes a dangerous problem: if humans are considered as animals it follows that all of our technology is natural. But why then does it destroy the world?
Before we unpack more of Mokgokong’s world view, let’s go back to where this line of thinking first started.
Humans have always mimicked what we saw in nature to help make our lives easier. Leonardo da Vinci looked to birds to inspire human flight. Isaac Newton contemplated falling apples and gave birth to physics and calculus. Biomimicry, however, was first recognised in 1950 when biophysicist Otto Schmitt created the term Biomimetics to describe the engineering of a device to replicate a biological system. In his case it was the Schmitt trigger, which replicates the way a squid’s nerves fire. The technology forms the backbone for a CMOS chip, which you probably use every day if your smartphone has a camera in it.
It’s a fairly new field of study in South Africa, though. Biomimimcry SA boasted its first graduate in the field as recently as 2010. Strange, then, that just over the border in Harare there’s a shopping centre (Eastgate Centre) that uses natural means to stay cool. The building is designed to mimic a termite mound and uses about 10 per cent of the energy a conventional building of the same size would use. At the time of completion in 1996 it was a world-first venture, with 31 600 square metres of commercial space (retail and offices) being cooled by Mother Nature.
Practical examples, however, are few and far and it would seem to the untrained eye that the field is still very theoretical in nature. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Claire Mollatt, a former ecologist who is now heading up a phase of the planned Berg River rejuvenation project in the Langrug informal settlement in Franschoek, is busy with one such example. The project is backed by the City of Cape Town and the Stellenbosch Municipality and is tackling the pollution issues as far upstream from the dam as it can. Langrug was identified as a problem area because it is far enough upstream and a farm neighbouring the settlement has already called for an intervention because a reservoir on the property was being violated by community members.
At the moment, Mollatt’s company is working on grey water treatment solutions that complement the work the municipality are doing on the stormwater infrastructure. “Biomimicry is the translation of the mystery of [Nature’s] amazing existing systems to practical examples,” explains Mollatt of the philosophy’s importance as the backbone of In/Formal South’s involvement.
Mollatt’s background as an ecologist who did her honours in informal settlement waste management makes her perfect for this particular project. In/Formal South are using biomimicry’s foundation principles to help ease the pollution from mismanaged grey water and divert it from the stormwater systems. This involves changing community habits and introducing low-maintenance solutions, of which the community will then be the custodians when after the project is complete. This approach has seen her take on a role as a link between the newly established Project Steering Forum and the designers and engineers.
The community-led forum is slowly starting to find its feet, but this is an important step because they are contracted to share a percentage of the implementation costs. This has also caused logistical problems: such as the objection to having Popular Mechanics do a site tour because of an over-reliance on unanimous decisions within the forum.
A cost-sharing model enforces a formal commitment from the community and allows for an easy handover when the engineers move on to other projects. There have been area upliftment initiatives in the past that have succumbed to vandalism and neglect because the community they were built to serve wasn’t invested in the sustainability of the ideas. That’s the problem with foreign aid; it has all the good intention and is thoughtfully designed, but doomed to fail when implemented without thorough research. To clarify: a foreign university group built public ablution facilities in Langrug with studio space to support a small business. The idea was that users would pay for access to the facility; the money raised would support a worker to maintain and clean. The plan failed.
What the Genius of SPACE project proposes is a system of tree wells by means of which residents can dispose of their grey water that will then drain off through a network of pipes and aggregate material. It is further filtered by indigenous plants and discharged into a John Todd system. The final effluent was intended to fertilise and irrigate the school sportsfield at the foot of a hill before entering into the Berg River. Labour is sourced from the community as far as possible and there is a strong focus on skills development.
While the biomimicry side of the project isn’t immediately apparent, it is revealed in the details. There is a specification the final effluent needs to meet before it can be considered for discharge into the river – and the all-natural filtration system has shown that it will meet that specification in testing. The pipework is designed to follow the natural flow of the settlement so as to take full advantage of natural forces and not to rely on additional pump power to move water along. Bricks, supplied by the municipality, are all Rambricks made from compressed earth taken from a landfill. This dovetails neatly with the notion that Nature doesn’t create waste, but recycles (or rather, if you want to be on trend, “upcycles”) it.
A central concept in biomimicry. Everything has a natural flow and the thinking is to design to follow that flow and harness that energy. Langrug was identified as a project not only because of its position upstream from the Berg River Dam, but also because the community has organised itself according to a natural flow. People have always established settlements on higher ground and in response to river flow and landscape undulation. In Mollatt’s words: “Form is a function of the flow.”
“I was brought on to this project because of my experience with solid waste, but I find as an environmental scientist that I’m not really involved in the science [on the Langrug project] I’m more on the social side,” explains Mollatt. That’s easy to understand, since the central idea is for the community to take over responsibility for the infrastructure when the 2018 deadline is met. Long-term goal is that the treatment system starts enriching the community. There are grand plans to grow flowers and vegetables, which can be bartered with the more affluent side of Franschoek, and for the solid waste to act as growing meal for soldier fly larvae, which in turn can be sold as high-protein feed for livestock.
Shannon Royden-Turner and, in turn, In/Formal South, have ambitious visions for the future. Cities will be redesigned to mimic cell structures with green public areas and a water source at the centre, suburban sprawl in concentric circles towards the outer rim, where the high-rise city buildings and industries are. Transport is arranged in a hierarchy that places non-motorised traffic at the top and connects to other cells via green corridors of high-speed public transport powered from renewable sources.
This vision almost became reality when, to celebrate Nigeria’s centenary, the company was invited to design a sustainable city near Abuja. “You need answer many questions when implementing life’s principles in the design phase. Most important is ‘how do you want materials to flow through your city?’” explains Royden-Turner. “You model where water wants to flow and create structure to the flow and design cities around that.” The Abuja project never made it out of concept phase, though, so we are yet to see a ground-up biomimicry city.
There’s a push to get biomimicry into university from the foundation phase, but it’s currently a post-graduate specialisation or degree. It is backed wholly by the Sustainability Institute.
If you want to know about biomimicry in South Africa, you need to speak to Claire Janisch. If you ask her about it, she’ll tell you about how to shift our perspective to use nature as our model. She’ll explain how leaves are the best example of a solar panel and how biomimicry learns from Nature. She’ll then stimulate your thoughts by posing a question so profound that you’ll wonder why the most powerful countries in the world haven’t answered it yet: “Each leaf contributes to a tree’s life. What would happen if every house contributed to the country?”
Then she’ll spin you a story about how Elon Musk is going to own the world one day. About his Solar City idea, where residents buy solar panels to then feed into the power grid, then buy a Tesla car to run on that energy and a Powerwall to store some charge for a rainy day. Maybe Tesla will release a smartphone that will last a week between charges. Or a laptop. And maybe climb on board as an Internet service provider?
But that’s not biomimicry. Those technologies are manmade, just borrowing a few touches from Nature. The system will employ rapid feedback loops to manage energy consumption. Like ants or bees finding a new food source. Or slime mould. The interesting thing about slime mould is that it finds the most efficient path to a food source and can distinguish between more and less nutritious foods. Japanese town planners overlaid slime mould experiments on existing infrastructure plans and found many inefficiencies in the transport network.
Janisch operates out of KwaZulu-Natal, from where she can keep a close eye on another landmark South African biomimicry project, Hulett (the sugar people) in Tongaat. The company is facing some uphill from the municipality about the condition of the wetlands. In/Formal South has been called in to restore the wetlands and then identify the best building areas for the 900 hectares of land being sold off to developers to improve the surrounds of the nearby King Shaka airport. The process starts by establishing ecological performance standards and then developing a wetland policy.
From there on it’s a mixture of historical mapping and monitoring mineral use to find out what a healthy system looks like. Once they know what they’re working towards, then design work can start to add structure to the flow.
It’s refreshing to see the municipalities plug into a new way of thinking. South Africa is emerging as a leader in the field of copying Nature and it seems to be happening from the top down, from government to the developers. Sustainability is in our future. Biomimicry isn’t just the topic of conversation over a cuppa at the trendiest coffee spot, but being legislated into the design process. How do we design our future cities to store carbon and reduce emissions, while also being energy-efficient? How do we make ourselves less reliant on energy transfer and start harvesting energy from abundant natural source?
Tharalelo Mokgokong was presenting his thesis, which used ants as a model to make the post office distribution chain more efficient. Shannon Royden-Turner and Claire Janisch presented at the same event. They had never met and Mokgokong wasn’t yet allied with Biomimicry SA or Janisch’s Imaginature. He is an industrial engineer from the University of Johannesburg who spent his childhood tending cattle in rural Polokwane and his varsity downtime watching National Geographic videos he used to get at the library.
Claire Mollatt also got involved in biomimicry after seeing a Royden-Turner presentation. To be honest, a Janisch talk at a Mensa meeting was the spark for this story. If the science behind biomimicry is sound enough to attract some of the best minds in the country to the discipline and the arguments are convincing enough to get government buy in, then surely biomimicry is the answer to our immediate sustainable engineering questions. The solutions exist in Nature and the possibility to retrofit to existing infrastructure is as endless as the human imagination.
“If you are doing research it has to contribute,” says Mokgokong. “Identify a real-life problem to solve. Then we need to mimic Nature at the point of design. Currently biomimicry is limited to design; we want to move into processes. To operational managers.” The movement is gaining momentum on all fronts. The revolution, it’s clear, will be naturalised.
Cape Peninsula University of Technology Design Department (especially Industrial Design and Communications Design)
University of Cape Town’s Chemical Engineering Department (Prof Harro von Blottnitz – 2nd year)
University of Cape Town’s Life Sciences Department (Andrea Plos and Biomimicry Youth)
University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Art, Architecture & Design (Prof Ken Stucke: Architecture and Angus Campbell: Industrial Design)
The Sustainability Institute Stellenbosch (includes biomimicry within its eco-design module)