Innovation inspired by nature

The gecko: A disruptive innovation

Imagine a laboratory devoted to the research and development of complex systems. It costs nothing to run and doesn’t have any senior managers. All of its products are open source. And it’s managed to remain relevant over 3.8 billion years of changing market conditions.

Many scientists use the products of this laboratory (aka “nature”) as inspiration for cutting edge technologies. Velcro is the oft-cited example, a manufactured version of the tiny hooks on burrs that cling to fabric. The philosophy is biomimicry.

Biomimicry got a huge boost when Janine Benyus released a book under that name in 1998. Benyus describes solar panels based on super-efficient photosynthetic bacteria and industrial glues based on the proteins mussels use to stick to ships.

Chemists at the University of Dayton, Ohio, have developed a nanotube-based material that sticks to surfaces much like a gecko’s foot does. A tiny square of the material 4 mm x 4 mm can support 1.6 kg of weight.

The gentle curl of a nautilus shell has been used by PAX Scientific Inc. in moving rotors. The logarithmic design matches the flow patterns of fluids in nature and increases motor efficiency by up to 85% and reduces noise by 75%.

The philosophy of biomimicry can inspire more than just cool products. A recent paper by Robert K. Logan of OCAD’s Strategic Innovation Lab suggests looking to the very structure of the natural world to guide entrepreneurs through the process of product design.

Evolution and the mechanism by which it works – natural selection – functions through a process of genetic modification and selection. Logan asks us to see our products in the same way, competing in a marketplace for scarce resources.

Evolution is both constantly disruptive and tightly iterative. Market strategies should emulate this to achieve true innovation. Quickly prototyping products with slight changes should be favoured over designing the “perfect” product. “Fail early and often” is a mantra often heard in the design-thinking community.

Much like natural selection has designed a remarkable array of species perfectly adapted to their ecosystems, Logan’s “biological design thinking” results in products adapted to their users’ changing needs.

Call it survival of the fittest product.