May 3, 2023

Schulich professor explores biomimicry at Calgary Zoo

Emerging discipline looks to forms, processes and systems of nature for inspiration to solve real-world human problems
Penguins at the Calgary Zoo
KSI Photography, flickr

A recent trip to the Calgary Zoo has taken on a new meaning for Schulich School of Engineering professor Dr. Marjan Eggermont, who is now working on a project called Biomimicry at the Zoo in hopes of unlocking the untapped potential nature holds in helping to solve our real-world human problems.

“Engineers are often trying to solve a problem — such as how to process information, how best to store resources and how to develop new materials, and the study of biomimicry can help find innovative solutions to these problems,” says Eggermont.

This emerging discipline looks at strategies that are used in nature to help solve challenges facing humanity. For Eggermont, BA’91, BFA’96, MFA’98, PhD’18, “These ways can be very different from our current engineering thought process.”

Nature has a vast breadth of diversity, making the list of possible solutions to our human problems practically limitless. As Eggermont points out, “Numerous solutions to our problems are proposed by looking at 3.8 billion years of evolution.”

Looking to nature to inspire innovation and design   

Take a gecko, for instance. It can stick to a wall thanks to millions of little hairs (setae) on its feet. It can detach and reattach itself with ease and without compromising the surface of the wall. Using biomimicry to study the gecko further can potentially unlock an innovative solution such as a medical tape that does not cause skin injury upon removal.

Biomimicry encompasses a wide variety of industries including architecture, agriculture, business, engineering, medicine and transportation. A study by the Biomimicry Institute found that, by 2030, bio-inspired innovation could account for approximately $425 billion of the U.S. GDP alone. This area has also piqued interest amongst both undergraduate and graduate engineering students, who have begun to enrol in Eggermont’s Engineering 523 (Bio-inspired Design) class to learn more about this remarkable field.     

Nature has the potential to teach us something we don’t already know. “Finding innovative ideas starts by looking at how nature achieves its objectives,” says Eggermont.

Zoos are the perfect place to teach people about biomimicry … and we can enrich what people see at the zoo by giving them access to the amazing strategies animals use which, at the same time, can serve as inspiration for human innovation.

Preserving the present for the future

Eggermont and her students, Matthew Travaglini, a fourth-year geomatics engineering major, Jessica Ritchie, a fourth-year electrical engineering major, and Bhavjeet Chatha, a second-year mechanical engineering major, have begun an open-source project called Biomimicry at the Zoo.

They are creating a curated audio playlist for global audiences that profile animals most individuals would find at their local zoo. These playlists serve as a valuable resource for students and summer camps and are a “great way for people to listen and learn on their next trip to the zoo,” says Eggermont.

The playlists also help preserve data for the future, as Eggermont notes that “the more we lose in terms of biodiversity, the less of that information is available to us.” She says we need to ask ourselves, “How can we become inspired and awed by nature, as there are many aspects that we’re not aware of that are quite incredible.”

The attraction to explore nature is quite crucial, for, if human beings “want to survive as a species, we have to learn as much as we can from other species and their ways of thriving on this planet,” says Eggermont.

Researchers like Eggermont say the ability to learn from, and co-exist with, other species in a harmonious way is a potential solution to many of humanity’s current challenges. Biomimicry is a sustainable design tool that will continue to grow and integrate into many areas of society, to help construct a new way of living that will span generations to come.

The next time you find yourself out in nature, observe what it is trying to teach you. Every moment spent in nature is an opportunity to learn. You don’t have to wait for your next trip to the zoo to listen to the audio playlists. They can be accessed here at any time. In addition, you can explore other in-depth biomimicry resources provided by Eggermont’s open-source journal ZQ and AskNature.

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