27 June 2008

Designing Nature's Way

What would it mean to design products and processes the way Nature does? This is a question posed by the industrial ecology movement. According to their website:

Industrial ecology provides a powerful prism through which to examine the impact of industry and technology and associated changes in society and the economy on the biophysical environment. It examines local, regional and global uses and flows of materials and energy in products, processes, industrial sectors and economies and focuses on the potential role of industry in reducing environmental burdens throughout the product life cycle.

Jonathan Porritt argues the importance of encouraging businesses to ‘match the metabolism of the natural world’. By taking ecology into account when they create production systems designers can gear them to nature’s metabolism. An example might be making sure that all the unwanted by-products from production can decompose in a way that aids soil fertility. Or creating 'buildings that, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water'.

Biomimicry - or deriving specific design ideas directly from nature - is another aspect of industrial ecology. The most famous product 'invented' in this way is Velcro, which was famously derived from the Burdock's 'burrs' which its inventor found in his dog's fur after a country walk.

A more interesting example is the tunnelling machine invented by Marc Brunel - the father with the bizarre choice in names - needed for his ill-fated project to tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping between 1825 and 1843. He was impressed by the tunnelling properties of the wood-boring beatle that destroyed naval ships, the Teredo navalis:

He examined the perforations, and subsequently the animal. He found it armed with a pair of strong shelly valves which envelops its anterior integuments, and that, with its foot as a fulcrum a rotary motion was given by powerful muscles to the valves, which, acting on the wood like an auger, penetrated gradually but surely, and that as the particles were removed, they were passed through a longitudinal fissure in the foot, which formed a canal to the mouth, and so were engorged. To imitate the action of this animal became Brunel's study.

His explorations inspired the design of a machine based on this animal - a curse to the British naval fleet - which set the standard for burrowing, tunnelling machines. Brunel pere is also a fine argument for being liberal about accepting refugees. He arrived here fleeing from revolutionary France and invented machines to mass-produce pulley-blocks and soldiers' boots that were the unglamorous explanations for British victories in the Napoleonic Wars.

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