From Leonardo da Vinci’s bird-like flying machine to biomorphic Art Nouveau designs, for centuries people have been inspired by nature and applied it to their designs.

Nowadays, 21st century scientific knowledge together with cutting-edge technology and design tools enable us to examine nature and apply its genius in new and exciting ways.

This discipline, known as biomimicry, represents a rich and under-explored territory that can provide solutions to design challenges and deliver radical increases in resource efficiency. Biomimicry can inspire imaginative and beautiful architecture and provide solutions to complex issues such as water shortages and waste management.

While people of the past built domes over ecclesiastic structures that mimicked the concentric circles of sea shells, scientists today can examine the composition of these shells to make materials that are tougher and structures that are more enduring, argues British architect and biomimicry specialist, Michael Pawlyn.

The author of Biomimicry in Architecture, Pawlyn will be a keynote speaker at the Green Cities 2015 conference, and will explore his work on projects that take their cues from nature – from roof structures based on giant amazon water lilies to whole buildings inspired by abalone shells.

Pawlyn points to the work of professor Julian Vincent, a member of his design team, who is currently collaborating with company Swedish Biomimetics on a new form of bio sprinkler inspired by the bombardier beetle. This six-legged tank-like beetle fires a fine, high-pressure spray of hot, acrid gas that repels predators.

“Professor Vincent is looking to adapt this to create a fine-spray fire sprinkler that uses far less water, as water damage can far exceed fire damage in offices.  And using less water means buildings don’t need massive water tanks in their basements,” Pawlyn said.

The potential of the bombardier beetle

The potential of the bombardier beetle

The work with the bombardier beetle also has the potential to help engineers develop more efficient fuel injection systems and medical researchers create super-fine needles.

So, how do we address the fact that many species have different drivers to human beings – such as tiny energy and water requirements or no desire for personal wealth or possessions?

And how do we build on the common sense ideas that we’ve heard at previous Green Cities conferences, including Gunther Pauli’s talk of creating 100 innovations based around materials, structures and resources that we already have – such as recycling coffee waste for mushroom farming or using maggots for wound treatment or animal fodder.

Pawlyn agrees that there are “some things that work in biology, but not in architecture,” pointing to work recently undertaken with world experts on termite mounds.

“We were looking to extract new ideas from the mounds, but found that they weren’t applicable to office buildings because the air quality that termites will tolerate isn’t acceptable to humans,” he said. “Biomimcry is not about slavishly imitating nature, but about looking at how things work in nature, and developing new solutions.”

“Looking at how we mimic entire ecosystems offers huge potential for rethinking the metabolism of our cities. Nature’s examples provide a guide to help us transform our cities from wasteful linear to resource-efficient, closed loop systems. This will help us make the shift from the industrial to the ecological age.”