Following on from Green Vision’s excellent learning from nature twilight seminar in February, we are pleased to see that Leeds Sustainability Institute’s Rich MacCowan , one of our speakers for that event, has recently been featured in the Sunday people talking about Biomimicry and the principles behind it. As well as being the LSI lead for Biomimicry, Biophilia and Systems-thinking Richard formed the team behind Biomimicry UK in 2012 to take the research on nature-based design and finding a place for it in industry. The full article has been reproduced below;
The way busy worker ants defend their nests is being studied by scientists – to help busy human workers defend their emails.
In our hectic world of 24-hour living and instant information, it would be easy to think nature has nothing left to teach us. But top scientists know we still have plenty to learn from animals and plants. An exciting branch of science called Biomimicry uses nature to answer problems of modern life.
Ants, for example, are experts at keeping predators at bay because they are organised and share their workload across the colony. It is a principle that may work against unwanted email junk messages, which make up about 90% of emails and spread viruses. Ant colonies work like the human immune system, in which each cell is designed to fight off one or two different bugs, rather than being weighed down with every tool needed to battle all infections.
Biologist Deborah Gordon, at Stanford University in California, said: “Ants often make mistakes, and yet over evolutionary time it works out well enough that a colony can keep out all the bad guys. Because the chances are, when any particular ant of another colony comes along there will be an ant that recognises it.”
She said the same logic could be applied online. Emails are currently screened against blocklists, which stop messages from known spammers getting through. But the culprits are often skilled at staying one step ahead, and Dr Gordon says a smarter, more flexible system could be developed by studying ants. She said: “Spam filtering has evolved into a war with hackers. Once they figure out how the spam is being identified it is pretty easy to change things around so as not to be identified. What we are suggesting is a system where each part just reacts to the particular spam that it encounters.”
Ants are so amazing that even in zero gravity, when 600 were sent to the International Space Station, they stuck to their tasks and stayed organised as a colony. Teams of robots using such tactics could revolutionise search projects in dangerous environments, added Dr Gordon.
And it’s not just ants. Biomimicry has already changed all our lives and will continue to do so. The skin of sharks has inspired swimming costumes which cut drag and helped top performers such as Michael Phelps to smash records. And the shock-absorbing skull of the woodpecker, which drills trees up to 12,000 times a day with its beak, led a designer to create a super strong cardboard cycle helmet. A beetle’s ability to trap moisture from the air spurred scientists to try and grow trees in a desert. Meanwhile a fish is helping improve natural light in offices, pine cones have inspired a revolutionary clothes material and burdock plants’ hooks led to the development of Velcro. Birds’ hollow bones may improve jet plane design, while the reflective quality of butterfly wings are lengthening the life of batteries in electronic books.
Richard MacCowan, director and co-founder of Biomimicry UK, said: “It’s not just about sustainability. “It’s about what you can achieve that’s more beneficial, better for the environment, has better social impact. I t’s about tangible results, that’s why we’re starting to see improvement.”