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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lessons from the Ostrich Egg

I've been sharing my experiences at the recent Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference in Boston, where a heady mix of dreamers and doers came together to talk about how to build our future the way nature would do it.

We asked ourselves "How would nature design buildings and cities that fulfill the ecosystem services of the original habitats they replaced?" and then, the more nitty-gritty question, "How would nature design the materials we use to build them?"

Tom McKeag, co-editor of the beautifully-designed and bio-inspired digital magazine, Zygote Quarterly, talked about the elegant simplicity of the ostrich egg. The egg has contradictory design requirements. It has to be strong enough to survive intact, but break apart for hatching. It has to be easily turned by the parent, but not roll away. It has to let waste gases out, but keep fluids in. All these contradictions are opportunities for innovation, he said.

Nature solves problems like these with "smart" low-cost structural arrangements of a handful of polymers, rather than creating a new polymer or plastic for every problem, or "plugging in" an energy-intensive answer. The sea cucumber, for example, instantly goes from soft to rigid, just by changing the orientation of tiny cellulose "whiskers" in its jelly. Nature uses very few materials, locally sourced, recycled, and recyclable. Simply genius.

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