Oh! To Live Again Using Nature to Rethink, Reorganise Human Settlements

Biomimicry or biomimetics is as deep as it is extensive in its scope, it is micro, as it is macro in its application. It begins as a philosophy and manifests as a creation.

Driving through the streets of busy commercial districts of a megapolis, I come across names of towers like Hyperion, Helios, Icarus and the like. Before, had never cared to ponder what else is named after these lofty mythological Greek characters. Chancing upon some literature in my pursuit of all things sustainable, I came across the context of these names, among other things.This blog is one more voice to add to the growing clamour for sustainable habitats. It looks at rediscovering ways in which nature’s settlements could be woven back into human cities and perhaps begin actively thinking of ‘going back’ to the way we had once lived, despite being modern day big city creatures.

You will have to read further to find out the connection between those Greek heroes who exist much in the same way in our midst, even today.

Inventors have always been inspired by peculiar phenomena in nature which in turn served as inspirations to mimic or imitate. These became their inventions. 20 th century history in particular and a few centuries prior are replete with chronicles of natural phenomena being used to devise solutions for human problems. The earliest instances are the Torpedo fish and Leydan Jar experiments that inspired the storage of electricity powered by the battery (Volta and Dynamo). In both these, biomimetics was used to invent the devices. Nowadays it is commonplace to include biomimicry in architectural designs which are nature inspired designs like the Burj Khalifa’s hymenocallis desert flower design, or the famous Lotus Temple in New Delhi, shaped like a lotus flower as cases in point.

How many would know and agree that biomimicry or biomimetics is far deeper and wider in its scope and understanding? It contains within it, ways to rejuvenate human way of life by borrowing from the age-old wisdom residing in nature.

Movement in favour of biomimicry

The proponents of the cities of the future, propose bringing back the abilities of modern societies to emulate the way earlier human societies borrowed from and lived with nature. Needless to mention these societies were far more resilient than the ones in which we live today. This they term as ‘life- regenerative’ and ‘life- compatible’ cities. One could thank Janine Benyus and Hoagland, the initial crusaders, for making this idea fascinating enough to merit further contemplation. Thankfully their collective work is gaining traction and the world now has scientists, sociologists, designers, engineers, architects, economists, entrepreneurs and in some yet sparse cases public policy leaders looking at how to bring about social change in

favour of biomimicry/biomimetic solutions. The need is for a very fresh perspective on regenerating mass systems to make them sustainable, functional and aesthetic within the current context of humankind.

According to Janine, who designed the Lavasa Township in India while constructing this city ground up, used this very life generative concept. The final design was proposed after closely studying the seasons, sun, air, water, native soil, flora and fauna. The design and building were in tandem with all things natural despite creating a whole new built environment. The idea was to keep intact the core resilience of the natural while transferring that to the built systems.

Biomimicry Needs Systems Thinking

Despite the growing adoption of green building design and construction, use of building physics and so on, it remains as piecemeal attempts quite inadequate to make any great dent in global warming, destruction of bio diversity habitats, pandemics, or loss of arable land. For countries who are party to the COP21, achieving the sustainability targets as also the SDG Goals would be almost impossible. This is because policies and programmes remain devoid of systems thinking. In the systems thinking approach there would be adequate consideration and accounting of the net carbon footprint, environment footprint, systems life cycle analysis of elements included in the design stage.

Interestingly, the lack of systems thinking appears to be a uniquely human phenomenon. In nature, interdependence and best use of resources is tacit knowledge which is improved upon and passed on in a continuous loop within the ecosystem. The ability to act relatively autonomously, and oblivious of the larger consequences of one’s actions, backed by public institutions, has led communities to spring up less symbiotically in the last century.

The Hyperion, Helios and Icarus are names of giant redwood trees in the famous Californian redwood forests that are more than a couple of thousand years old. These giant trees have spawned thousands of offspring over thousands of years. They are heroes of our world, even today!

Read on to know more about how the redwood forests endure natural calamities with a collective resilience.

Redwood resilience

The redwood forests in California exist in an otherwise ‘difficult’ natural environment due to excessive precipitation washing off nutrients in the soil. Furthermore, difficult climatic situations like global warming, add to the hostile habitat. Despite this, highland redwoods grow up to 500- 600 metres tall. Redwoods create a sequestered coalescent layer of the coastal fog within its confines to fulfil its moisture needs. While the atmospheric challenge is being met by the moisture capture, on the ground they remain sturdy enough to resist insect attack, fungal infection and rot. This they do by ‘communicating’ with each other. The intertwined roots,
though shallow, are so strongly enmeshed with each other that they enable the trees to withstand the strong coastal lateral winds while allowing the trees to grow in height. How is it that they show resilience against rising atmospheric temperatures? One finds that the massive ecosystem operates on an incredible intelligent system where individual micro elements are fused in a partnership with the larger system. The interdependency is so unique that each individual unit adds to the strength of the whole system, while simultaneously receiving its ability to survive and thrive from the whole system. The ‘burl’ at the base of a big redwood tree has within it a whole self -sustainable living system that can clone itself and grow next to the parent tree. The tiny cones spread around the main tree to form a ‘fairy ring’ of new trees. The complex labyrinth of roots holds together the entire forest above the surface (like a counter load anchor) which withstands storms and heavy winds (Fig1).

The trunk has a thick, spongy bark that is resilient to fire and termites and keeps the tree alive longer. The tiny microstructure inside the bark is marvel in itself. The spiral ringlike fibre has a hollow in the middle. This enables the trees to resist lateral wind loads and prevents breaking, despite the massive heights they reach (Fig2).

Fig. 1 Shallow overlapping roots support the weight and structure Fig 2. Microstructure of redwood tree fibres The question that begs to be answered is that if redwood trees through collective intelligence are equipped to survive over 2000 years why are city buildings being constructed with shorter life spans and unable to exist symbiotically with each other? What could be the reason behind this?

The answer is YES! Janine Benyus maintains we could learn from natural systems and ‘adapt, communicate, cooperate, self- organise, and build effective networks’ in order to be resilient. When one knows that cities and their citizens are responsible in causing harm to the environment with its negative carbon footprint (upto 80 percent of the GHGs), it would help to sit up and take notice. Human communities and societies not able to adapt to nature have ended up either migrating or becoming extinct. Beginning from design institutions to technology and engaged public discourse steer public policy. Through the use of systems thinking processes to emulate nature, there would be a fair chance for humankind not to commit hara kiri on itself.

This process would speaking figuratively entail putting entire natural habitats inside our cities that are currently devoid of it the latter more resilient while also being kinder towards nature.

Asian and African action -based imperatives

Of even greater urgency is getting it right in Asian and urbanising African cities. To enable this, citizen involvement with city planners, academic and technical institutions, technocrats, and youth is the only way forward. An approach where pilot grassroot level biomimetic innovation is introduced at a neighbourhood level and replicated over entire cities through subsequent planning and building permit interventions. Biomimetic design and technology innovation can be mandatory in planning of greenfield and brownfield township projects using zonal development control rules and regulations. This way the local climatic conditions, vernacular building materials, topographical attributes etc would be considered and built into the project plan. One would subsequently adopt systems approach for neighbourhoods using vernacular layouts, construction materials, renewable tech, waste management at higher performance thresholds. In all this design and technology schools have to shape and prepare human talent that can
produce biomimicking designs for the built environment.

Urban planning and project level examples

Few examples that use biomimicry are Masdar City in the Gulf, Lavasa Township in India, and the long- term Singapore Green Plan which aims at making Singapore a ‘City in a Garden’. At a project level, biomimicry has been applied in the design of Zimbabwe’s East Gate Centre building. The design imitates the massive termite mounds, borrowing their passive architecture principles to stay cool. Termite mounds can reach up to a height of 30 feet. Inside the mounds an intricate system of ventilation prevents the interiors from overheating. The building material
to build these massive mounds is the humble earth, scraped over thousands of years of termite activity.

Daunting but doable

Have we forgotten, or have we stopped learning from the 3.8 billion years of tacit, evolved intelligence existing in nature? Is it time we unlearn the prevalent unsustainable ways and relearn from the natural systems that ancient communities adopted? Can we take the effort to apply higher level intelligence to achieve contemporary scale?

Indeed, understanding the philosophy of biomimicry or biomimetics is like gathering the whole forest and putting it into a planter. Let’s see how the analogy could be applied to a city.

Beginning with greenfield and brownfield projects, neighbourhood pilots that lead to urban renewal programmes, humanity has the ability to reinvent itself in the face of calamity. Adapting biomimicry or biomimetics to human habitat systems can be introduced, a project, or a neighbourhood at a time. From building houses to planning entire transit networks (applying ant theory), we could reimagine urban lives. Inspiration is everywhere in slime moulds, or the human body, nature has the answers. As long as there are inventive and problem -solving minds, aided by advanced digital systems to capture and transmit intelligence, there’ll be hope for humanity.

Biomimicry or biomimetics is as deep as it is extensive in its scope, it is micro, as it is macro in its application.

The only question is will there be the gargantuan resolve to make it happen?

Dr. Mona N. Shah

Mona N. Shah, is an expert and thought leader in the field of education and research. Her work in the built environment has been considered noteworthy in providing thought leadership to the sector. The built environment is a vast sector that covers practically the whole gamut of human activities. As founder and director of Vayati Systems and Research she leads initiatives in leadership, education, skills training and research in projects, infrastructure, real estate sector and related industries.


Jennifer Levine (2016).  Why redwoods are one of the great wonders of the world. Published September 07, 2016.

Yeang and Wai (2018). Biomimicry- A new design to building support system.

Matthew Palmer (2018). How Biomimicry Could Change The Way We Build Our Cities. Social Innovation: How would Nature Do It?

Knippers J., Nickel K., Speck T., (2016) Biomimetic research for architecture and building reconstruction. Biological Design and Integrative Structures. Springer, ISBN (ebook) 978-3-319-46374-2.

Oliver Scheffer (2016). From Biomimicry to Ecomimicry: Reconnecting Cities- and Ourselves- to Earth’s Balances.

Dissertation Rodney S. Hanley (2015). Biomimicry and sustainable communities: the urban challenge. University of Cambridge. es_The_Urban_Challenge

Linda Poon (2016). Researchers studying the potential of organic materials such as seashells say future cities may emulate the ultimate designer—nature. Bloomberg City Lab

Óscar Jiménez Salvador (2014). Biomimicry and city design. Architecture_MPS; Ravensbourne; Woodbury University.

Image courtesy

City Scape

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