Consider the Tardigrade
By Tiffany Meyers, January 2011
The fast-growing field of biomimicry encourages innovators to look to nature-in all its wonder and weirdness-for solutions to our trickiest problems.
ONE AFTERNOON IN Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dayna Baumeister stands in a room full of Herman Miller employees, next to a trunk filled with seashells, feathers and other natural miscellany, and hands a sea cucumber to Carolyn Maalouf, a blindfolded R&D engineer. Don’t guess what the object is, Baumeister says. Guess what it does. Maalouf takes a shot. Well, it’s spiky, she says. Maybe it needs those spikes to ward off predators?
Another blindfolded colleague, meanwhile, is holding a swatch of sharkskin. With some guidance, he eventually deduces, correctly, from the smooth surface that his object is designed to move fast.
That they stumble through the exercise is pretty much the point. By eliminating sight—the sense that would instantly provide the “right” answer—the exercise succeeds in what Baumeister calls “quieting our cleverness.” This is crucial. Baumeister is the cofounder of The Biomimicry Guild, a group that promotes the increasingly popular notion that many of the best solutions to problems facing humanity can already be found in nature. “Biomimicry represents a paradigm shift away from the belief that we humans are the cleverest and most perfectly evolved,” says Baumeister. “When people believe that humans are the cleverest species, they might say, Why would I bother trying to learn from nature?”