Collaborating with nature on the future

What better way to understand the meaning of context, the role of experimentation or the power of adaptive design than to observe the results of 3.8 billion years of research and development? That is what biomimicry is about: learning about the processes, materials and flow of resources employed by natural systems, and finding ways to apply them to our most challenging design problems.

It’s an important and growing approach to design globally, and South African practitioners are active locally and internationally in research and projects that apply nature’s lessons to design.

One of the keynote speakers for Department of Design is Claire Janisch, a chemical engineer who is also a biomimicry professional and instructor. She heads biomimicrySA, an organisation involved in research, education and consulting. Claire says:

“If you understand how everything is connected, you begin to see that genius lies everywhere. And seeing new connections allows you to invent things. Once you’re in that way of thinking, it’s addictive. Problems become opportunities. And with biomimicry, you don’t have to solve the problem – you just have to identify what it really is and then see how nature’s already solved it. Then you just translate it.”

Members of the biomimicrySA team are working on a wide range of projects to do just that. There is the “Genius of Place” project that, in collaboration with Dutch firms, is beginning with finding context-specific solutions to water problems in the Western Cape.

There is the partnership with US firm John Todd Ecological Designs that addresses water pollution by remediating water systems in ways that also create employment in poor communities. Also, the “Naturally Knysna” initiative, which considers how nature can inspire the form of Knysna’s economic development. And the Abuja City design that asks how Nigeria’s capital city can be designed to function like a mature ecosystem.

In her 2009 TEDx Johannesburg talk, Claire points out that there is a role for everyone. “One of the teams on our design challenge looked at how [the ecology of termite mounds] could be a model for how we can uplift rural communities. How they themselves can look at the genius of their own place and find out how they can emulate that.”

Biomimicry can be applied to virtually any human design endeavour, whatever the scale. And we will hear more about the immense possibilities this affords us when Claire visits Department of Design on the 9th of July.

Posted in News.