Innovation by observation: the rise of the biomimetist
One of IDEO’s ten faces of innovation is the anthropologist: the one who observes human behaviours and actions to discover wasted effort that could be turned into an innovation challenge. In the past decade, an eleventh face has been quietly but steadily rising to prominence in the innovation team: the biomimetist, who observes animal and plant characteristics to discover supreme efficiency that could be turned into an innovation breakthrough.
The kingfisher’s beak isn’t just a fashionable accessory that the bird has picked on the shelves of supermarket nature. It is the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The biomimetist starts from the humble assumption that, even if it is not obvious at first, there may be a good reason why nature has designed animal and plants as we see them. The kingfisher’s beak turns out to be supremely efficient at crossing the air-water interface with the minimum amount of turbulence, thus making the bird more successful at catching fish by surprise.
It was the source of inspiration for the design of the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. Obviously the train does not dive into water, but it has many tunnels to pass through. Tunnels tend to create an air-air interface between the inside and the outside, which, when crossed, generates turbulence and noise. The efficiency of the design has enables engineers to create a train that is the most silent of its kind.
Likewise, attentive and questioning observation of the lotus leaf inspired glass manufacturer Saint-Gobain. How does the lotus leaf manage to remain clean in a muddy environment? Electronic microscope observation of the surface of the leaf revealed a hydrophobic nano-structure on which mud does not stick. It then lets the lotus maximise its exposure to sunlight for photosynthesis.
This surface structure that enables the plant to yield maximum benefits from natural resources, namely the sun and the rain, became the inspiration for Saint-Gobain’s design of a self-cleaning glass. The company designed a hydrophobic surface structure on which dirt that is decomposed by sunlight is washed away by the rain.
Observing nature, humbly, questioningly, letting it fill us with wonder, can be a fantastic source of inspiration. Not only for its beauty, but also its efficiency.