Nature and Design

I recently came across an article in The Times which outlined how the French National Centre for Scientific Research had teamed up with the University of Liverpool in order to carry out a ground breaking study into maritime vessels that are attempting to evade authorities, to gain insight into illegal fishing hotspots. They fitted Albatrosses, birds that can stay flying for months on end, with devices that track radar signals from vessels that the birds come across as they fly across the oceans.

For six months, 169 birds were able to monitor more than 47 million square kilometres between them, relaying the location and identification of fishing vessels via satellite back to France, where they could be crossed referenced against a map showing every boat with an active AIS (Automatic Identification System). Those without an active AIS is likely to be doing so in order to evade the authorities. As a result of utilising the expansive flight of the Albatross, this study was able to cover far more ‘ground’ in a much more effective manner. Albatrosses were specifically chosen due to their tendency to find and follow fishing vessels. I think this is undeniably ingenious design, offering a simple solution to a near impossible task.

Through the years, design has often mimicked nature. Biomimetic design is where nature has directly inspired a product or a service and is seen all around us. Velcro, for example, was inspired after noticing how burrs stick to dogs fur. The Japanese bullet train was supposedly based on the beak of a Kingfisher in order to reduce the noise it created when entering tunnels, and wind turbines are proved to be more efficient and quieter when they take on the bumpy, ribbed design seen on the Humpback whale. While biomimetic design is everywhere around us, physically utilising nature in design is a more novel concept and seeing this example of Albatrosses tracking fishing boats has made me dig deeper to discover other examples of where nature aids our design.

Nature is often used in architecture. Tree houses are the first examples that come to mind. They use the natural cover and privacy created by the height and canopy to create an escape for kids (although this treehouse at my parents’ home doesn’t seem to have much privacy!) This house in Switzerland uses the natural shape of a hill to create an underground eco-home.

An interesting example that I came across was the flipside of the Albatross example. In that case, the product used nature as a ‘vessel’, but in this example the product works hand in hand with the natural world to benefit nature. Dutch Designer Matilde Boelhouwer has created artificial flowers that are able to turn rainwater into sugar, to provide a lifeline for urban pollinators, such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies. She says ‘flowers evolved to help insects, and insects evolved to help flowers’, but now she is designing to help keep this balance afloat in the inner city. Each pollinator is attracted to slightly difference flowers, and each have various characteristics, for example the length of their tongues, so Boelhouwer has designed flowers accordingly.

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