Nature is a design tool

There is a beetle that can detect fire from 80 km away. That’s 10,000 times further than current fire detection systems. Spider web silk is stronger than aramid fibres. These use lots of energy and pressure during production and cause pollution, while the spider needs no more than insects and water, and the beetle makes used of an ingenious condensation system to get water out of the desert wind.


These are just a few examples of how resourceful nature is. Biomimicry is the use nature as inspiration for better design. Michael Pawlyn is a world-expert on the subject, and he spoke about biomimicry in design during Material Xperience.

During his talk, he explained that to use such ingenious solutions and to preserve the balance of nature to solve our own problems we are going to have to change the way we use the resources available to us in three important ways.

Three major changes

1. Radical increases in resource efficiency

2. Linear to closed loop

3. Fossil-fuel economy to solar economy

Nature can be seen as a huge catalogue with the most fantastic products. A few projects where Pawlyn applies this principle:

The Mobius Project

Waste for one is food for another. For a greenhouse restaurant local, biodegradable waste was converted into heat through an anaerobic digester. There was also a water treatment system that converted dirty water into clean water through plants that also generate energy from solids, and worms which become food for the restaurant’s fish farm.

The Sahara Forest Project

In the times of Julius Caesar, deserts were forests. The desert beetle absorbs moisture from the wind using a hydrophilic shield, bringing condensed drops to its mouth. The Sahara Project is based on this principle. A greenhouse in the project uses a grill through which wind blows, leading to condensation in the cool greenhouse, which is collected as water. More water is produced than needed, enabling the surroundings to be watered.

A side effect from this process is crystallized salt – so what should be done with it? Again, taking a lesson in symbiosis from nature, that salt is collected for use as a building block later on.

Energy is harvested from the sun via the concentrated solar power, or CSP. This system does require demineralised water, which is delivered by the greenhouse itself.


With such forward thinking work, Michael Pawlyn shows that there is a new, positive and challenging future for us. More importantly, he demonstrates that in this process, nature can be our companion and our teacher.


Images via Exploration Architecture/Michael Pawlyn.