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Bio inspired design

Inspired by nature

A design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or for the realization of an activity or process, or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a prototype, product, or process. The verb to design expresses the development process of a project. Design, in its different forms, can be widely applied, as a discipline, to various fields such as art, engineering, and production processes. The principles around which it is articulated vary according to the field of application. For example, in graphic design, there are rules that a designer must follow to create an effective and attractive composition. Emphasis, balance and alignment, contrast, repetition, proportion, movement, and empty space are some of the parameters to consider and balance when creating a graphic design. In product design, the cornerstones of the process start from the use, and not only the aesthetic enjoyment, of the final product. Therefore we proceed with the user experience in mind, the product functionality, and effectiveness, the seamless integration in existing actions and ecosystems. In process design, starting from the objectives of a process, we design and implement performance and workflow using the most suitable technological solutions and data sources, pre-establishing control systems, and smooth integration with existing processes. Wanting to find a common and transversal assumption to these guiding principles, we observe that, with sometimes different purposes, design plays around the relationship between form and function. In previous articles, we have explored how living systems can also be considered with respect to the relationship between their structural and functional aspects. Moreover, it was mentioned how evolutionary processes result in the generation of forms and functions that are then selected and, so to speak, refined, resulting in the optimization of certain functionalities, and in the generation of complex structural and functional patterns.

From this comes the analogy between evolutionary processes and design processes: both seek forms and functions in relation to each other to achieve an optimal result. Unlike evolutionary processes, which are emerging, i.e. result from the complex interaction of many sub-processes and are not guided from above, design processes are determined by the will and means of the designer himself. Evolutionary processes suggest a model through many attempts at implementation; design processes focus on creating a model, and then implement it directly, organizing the sub-processes from above. The two processes meet when creating a model, even if they come from two somewhat mirror-like paths. In particular, design practices have much to learn from biological processes, because the latter are refined by millennia of evolution. And this is the premise of design inspired by biology. Bio-inspired design considers the possibility of learning from natural systems as a strategy of innovation. In particular, it aims to translate functional, performative, and aesthetic principles from biology to human technology. Guided by an interdisciplinary exchange between engineering, biology, medicine, art, architecture, and business, biomimetic design involves many areas of design and technology.

Here are some examples. The aerodynamics of the famous Japanese Bullet train was inspired by the shape of a bird's beak.


High-speed passenger trains in Japan used to be a real headache because the way they were designed caused a loud thud when a train was pushing air through tunnels. But the chief engineer of the West Japan Railway Company was a birdwatcher, and he had observed how a local bird species dived into the water barely making a splash. Starting from this observation, using a biomimetic approach, he and his team created a shape similar to the beak of a kingfisher to be mounted on the front of the train, so that as it passed this would separate the air rather than compress it, and solve the problem of the roar.

The Eastgate Centre, largely made of concrete, has a ventilation system designed to imitate this intricate and efficient thermoregulation system.

Termite mounds serve as nests for their inhabitants, who would otherwise suffer from environmental fluctuations. The architecture of the termite mounds of different species adapts to local environmental conditions, with the common goal of maintaining optimal conditions inside. Termites in Zimbabwe build giant heaps within which they cultivate a mushroom that is their main source of food. The fungus must be kept at an exact and constant temperature, while outside temperatures vary enormously between day and night. Termites manage to maintain a constant temperature by constantly opening and closing a series of heating and cooling vents throughout the day. With a system of carefully regulated convection currents, the air is sucked into the lower part of the mound, through grids with muddy walls, and rises through a channel to the top of the termite mound. The termites laboriously dig new vents and plug the old ones to regulate the temperature. The air that is sucked in from oustide is heated or cooled by the building depending on which is warmer among the two. It is then used to ventilate the floors and offices before leaving through the chimneys at the top of the building. Velcro is one of the most useful materials to make two surfaces stick together.


The idea of Velcro was born through a biomimetic process: some plants have structures able to anchor themselves to animal tissues and furs. George de Mestral, observing them, noticed how the adhesive properties of the plant derive from numerous small hooks. Velcro, which imitates this microstructure, is today one of the most used materials to make two surfaces stick together.

 

These are just some of the many examples of the application of biomimetics, or bio-inspired design, to design and technological processes. To access a vast source of such examples, please visit https://toolbox.biomimicry.org/, which gathers and organizes them to facilitate biomimetic design processes.

There is another way natural systems can contribute to design processes, and the next article will cover that.


Roberta Bardini is a researcher in computational Biology and systems. She currently works at the Sysbio Group, Polytechnic of Turin, where she obtained her PhD. She deals with the development of multicellular organisms, and their enhancement in the business environment.
 

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