Listen: Michael Pawlyn

While biomimicry has transformed the world of robotics and is being increasingly adopted in engineering and materials science, it is yet to be widely embraced by architects, says Michael Pawlyn. An architect and speaker focused on innovation, Pawlyn is the founder of exploration Architecture, co-founder of the Sahara Forest Project and the author of Biomimicry in Architecture - the second edition was published by RIBA Publishing in October.

Words Michael Pawlyn

Mention the idea of sustainability to a tutor in a leading architecture school today and you are likely to be met with a pained look of ennui. Even among greens the debate is fragmenting. There are hard-liners who insist that ‘It’s all about carbon’; those that proclaim ‘resilience’ as the new black; others that push for 100 per cent renewable-energy cities, and others still that argue (much more coherently and inclusively) for the idea of a circular economy. To those on the periphery of the debate - the ones we need to bring into it - this must seem like a bewildering mess. Should we be aiming for carbon reduction, renewable energy, resilience or cyclical flows?

The discipline that could unify these positions, and provide a jolt of inspiration for the jaded, has been emerging rapidly in other fields but has yet to be widely embraced by architects. It has transformed the world of robotics and is being increasingly adopted in engineering and materials science. The discipline I’m referring to is biomimicry - also called ‘biomimetics’ - design inspired by the way functional challenges have been solved in biology.

Biomimicry involves learning from a source of ideas that has benefitted from a 3.8-billion-year research and development period. That source is the vast array of species that inhabit the earth and represent evolutionary success stories. Biological organisms can be seen as embodying technologies that are equivalent to those invented by humans and in many cases have solved the same problems with a far greater economy of means. Humans have achieved some truly remarkable things: like modern medicine and the digital revolution. When one sees some of the extraordinary adaptations that have evolved in natural organisms, however, it is hard not to feel a sense of humility about how much we still have to learn.

Abalone shell for example is, at a chemical level, 95 per cent identical to ordinary blackboard chalk, but because of its microstructure it achieves 3,000 times the toughness. If we want to achieve radical increases in resource efficiency - and global trends indicate that we must - then there are few sources of innovation better than biomimicry to show the way towards buildings that use far less resources to build and less energy to operate, and towards regenerative cities.

Biomimicry starts with identifying functional challenges and biological organisms or systems that have solved those challenges. Then follows a process by which the potential solutions are translated into innovations that suit human needs and that does not need to be limited by what exists in biology; at its optimum, biomimicry is a synthesis of the best that biology has evolved with the most innovative that humans can devise. Biomimicry can be a very powerful tool for allowing the design conversation to identify the highest ideals and to then come back to something achievable within the constraints of the project and existing technology. Never start with reality: always start by identifying the ideal and then compromise as little as necessary.

Increasingly over the decades ahead we are likely to face resource constraints and it is reassuring to know that biology has a wealth of adaptations to many of those constraints. Employing this design ingenuity in dealing with water, food and energy challenges could go a long way towards avoiding resource-based conflicts. Resource constraints can, and need to, stimulate innovation and quite possibly lead to the greatest flourishing of human ingenuity since the start of the fossil-fuel age.

While much sustainable design has been based on mitigating negatives, biomimicry points the way to a new paradigm based on optimising positives and delivering regenerative solutions. In her book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein describes the shift from an extractivist mindset to a regenerative one as one of the most urgent transformations that we need to bring about. Architects have far more opportunities than most professionals to shape a positive future, and we should set our sights high.

As a mission statement, it is hard to beat Buckminster Fuller’s aim: ‘To make the world work for a 100 per cent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.’

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