SXSW Eco Conference Explores Biomimicry In Design


Mother Nature is getting some serious attention from the design community. Attendees at the third annual SXSW Eco conference were buzzing about the latest innovations influenced by biomimicry – engineering and production modeled after the systems and processes we find in nature to come up with better design solutions. This science is producing more eco-friendly and cost-effective products on the market. Examples of biomimicry include the super fast, energy efficient Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Train, designed after the kingfisher’s beak – and Qualcomm’s commercialization of Mirasol display technology, based on light reflective properties of the Morpho butterfly’s wings, which reduces the reliance on heavy metals and toxins.

Now more industries are taking note and are looking to biology for ideas on how to design smarter. One of the SXSW Eco panels broaching the subject was Telecom & the Armadillo: A Biomimicry Story. In November 2012, Sprint approached the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for Bioinspiration with a simple task – how to create smarter packaging for their mobile phones. Soon after, Sprint’s team of designers and packaging partners began working with the center’s experts on coming up with solutions for sustainable, cost-effective alternatives. The team studied plants and animals in nature, including the tortoise’s durable shells and the symmetry, protection and flexibility of the three-banded armadillo for ergonomic packaging inspiration. The result are packaging designs that are both lightweight and durable. Darren Beck, Sprint’s Director of Environmental Initiatives, said that should start seeing these concepts roll out on the market within the next two years.

Architects are also paying heed to biomimicry. We’ve seen how buildings can be inspired by nature – but now architects are attaching architecture to nature more directly by building sustainable urban ecosystems. Experts in the field of sustainable design discussed that LEED certified buildings are functioning more like self-sufficient living organisms than unresponsive structures that consume wasteful amounts of water and energy.

Digital Water i_pavilion. Photo courtesy of hanrahan Meyers Architects.

Victoria Meyers is applying robotic technology to her biomorphic designs. The acclaimed Los Angeles-based architect was promoting her new book Shape of Sound by highlighting some examples of how she bases her designs using scientific studies on sound and light. She foresees a future of “smart homes” – living environments that act like human cells or plants that respond to changes in temperature and light. “Imagine attaching yourself to your toaster,” she said while discussing how human enhancement will extend to the “sensor revolution” during her session Robots, Buildings & You: How Cyborg Technologies Will Win.

Case in point: Meyers’ firm hanrahan Meyers architects (hMa) conceived the Digital Water i_pavilion, managed by Asphalt Green in Battery Park City’s North Neighborhood Community Center. The “built landscape” (which had a soft opening this summer) features a 550-foot curved glass wall etched with a visual interpretation of New York composer Michael Schumacher’s WATER. Once the project is complete, the public will be able play WATER by waving their smart phones in front of the glass.

The coolest thing about the design? The technology applied to the interactive glass wall came about from studies on chameleons’ color-changing, electrostatic skin.

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