Using biomimicry to reform urban infrastructures

Much of today’s energy and water infrastructure systems come from the industrial revolution era. Their designs responded to the challenges faced by this era. Nowadays, as we try to create more sustainable and resilient cities, these designs are no longer appropriate.

In order to reform these infrastructures, architects and designers have started looking into biomimicry. The innovation method derives inspiration through the study of natural designs, systems and processes to resolve human problems. It studies how nature solves problems, to explore solutions and new directions for our built environments.

What are the major stakes in biomimicry?

The application of biomimicry could help reform this old infrastructure. Biomimicry is based on the idea that nature has already solved many problems with which we are struggling. The idea, has been around for centuries. ”Learn from nature: that is where our future lies” said Da Vinci. The term, however, gained momentum after the scientist Janine Benyus explored it in her book “biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature” published in 1997.

There are three key elements to biomimicry; The form, the process, and the systems.

1- the form

The most evident element is the imitation of the form or function of natural designs. This stage explores the patterns, shapes, and structures that occur in the natural world in order to apply them to the human design. An example of this approach is the steel-cable technology in suspension bridges. It was inspired by the structure of tendons in the human body. The tendons in our forearms which are twisted bundles of cables, are very similar to the cables used in suspension bridges.

2- the process

At a deeper level, biomimicry also analyses the processes that occur in nature. It explores the assembly or chemical processes that nature uses to create things. At this level, it is not the organism itself which is mimicked but its behaviour. The information management by ants is a good example. Indeed, the collective behaviour of ants can help provide solutions to some of the challenges we face. Computer scientists have used the ant’s way of selecting the shortest path from the nest to a food source to create networks of optimisation and control. These are called “ant colony optimization algorithms”. The algorithms are already being tested in air transportion and communication network security. This innovation could be an excellent way to optimise and create the the shortest paths, especially in vehicle routing and waste management.

3- the systems

This is the most complex level of biomimicry. It explores the ecosystems that occur in nature. Nothing exists in isolation in the nature. An example of this may be an eco-industrial park. In this case, waste of one company could become an important resource to another company just like in a natural ecosystem.

Potential implementation on infrastructure

1- Energy infrastructure

Solving the challenges faced by energy infrastructure is essential in order to ensure the sustainability and resilience of our cities. Now, how can we use biomimicry to solve them?

Biomimicry can be used to challenge the ways in which we obtain energy. The primary source of energy in nature is the sun. Yet, nowadays, most of our energy comes from the ground. Through the application of biomimicry, scientists have challenged this model. They have developed photovoltaic panels as well as tracking systems that mimic sunflowers by following the sun.

Scientists have also used biomimicry to create more efficient systems that require less energy. For example, they have created a system to create self-cooling buildings. These are inspired by termite mounds. The living organisms have a series of strategically placed vents that produce convection currents ensuring the temperature within the mound is maintained to 31 degrees. Inspired by the termite mounds, several buildings are now using this approach to reduce energy consumption of their buildings. For example, the Eastgate building in Harare. It uses 10% less energy than conventional buildings of the same size.

2- Water infrastructure

Similar to the energy infrastructure, water infrastructure is essential for inhabitants of cities. The challenges faced by it are huge. Thus, it is essential to create innovative solutions to source, treat, and distribute water to cities. We will explore how some cities have applied biomimicry in order to achieve this.

At the sourcing level there is the example of an organism that obtains water through its back. The beetle buries itself underground during the heat of the day so that its back is cold when it emerges into ambient air. As humid breezes sweep across, the water in the air condenses and pools in the peaks and troughs of the beetle’s back. The beetle’s water sourcing has inspired the Australian based Airdrop Irrigation system that works by pumping air through a network of subsurface pipes, cooling it to the point where water condenses and delivering it to the roots of crops.

At the treatment level, the biolytix filtration model mimics the decomposition of leaf litter on the forest floor to clean wastewater without chemicals. The system uses worms, beetles, and microscopic organisms to convert the waste into structured humus which acts as a lung that oxygenates and cleanses water that can then be used for irrigation. Since it is based on natural processes, the system requires less energy.

Biomimicry clears the way to numerous opportunities, even if they are often in the process of being imagined or developed. To meet the challenges of the coming century, and in particular all the consequences of climate change, nature is an important source of imagination for our infrastructures, our buildings and our cities.

Article written by Jade Plancke for Urban Chronicles™

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Green SoluceUsing biomimicry to reform urban infrastructures
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