The marketplace is looking to nature for some of its best tech ideas. Over 60 years ago, a Swiss machinist, George de Mestral, took his dog for a walk in the forest surrounding his shop. When he returned, he noticed burrs clinging to his dog's fur and examined the "hook and loop" design with a microscope. His curiosity led to one of the 20th century's most popular inventions: Velcro.
This popular story puts nature back in the position of teacher, and encourages us to look for new technologies in a realm that is "imaginative by necessity."
This principle was given a name and a philosophical basis in Janine Benyus's seminal book Biomimicry.
The field has exploded in the last few years.
Consider the humble mussel. It clings for life to the hulls of ships all over the world. It can cement itself to almost any surface with a blob of protein many times stronger than the strongest artificial adhesives. And in a feat that boggles the minds of materials scientists, it can do so under water.
Scientists working with the U.S. Department of Energy have recently begun the difficult process of modelling the protein it produces in the hopes of mass-producing it for building materials, underwater repair jobs and possibly even a super-adhesive for those finicky dentures.
Scientists have their eyes turned toward other marine life as well. Sharks, for example, have ridges on their skin that create tiny whirlpools in the water, helping them swim faster. At the 2000 Olympics, Speedo debuted its FastSkin, a wetsuit with ridges modelled on sharkskin, 400 million years in the making.
Spider's silk, perhaps the most famous material in nature's toolkit, turns out to be five times stronger than steel, but is also highly elastic. It's said that a large fishing net-sized spider's web could stop a jumbo jet in mid-flight.
Companies like Spinox are scrambling to create spider silk for use in bulletproof fabrics, bridge cables, artificial limbs, even biodegradable fishing line. What has stymied scientists so far, though, is how the spider manages to create this material at room temperature from only the flies and crickets it ingests.
Quebec-based company Nexia has managed to isolate the silk-making gene and implanted it into goats, which then excrete the silk protein in their milk. Out of this they make their super-strong BioSteel.
Architects, too, are using the structures they find in nature. A new planetarium in Valencia, Spain, is based on a human eye, complete with retractable metal "eyelids." The recently completed Milwaukee Art Museum has a roof that opens and closes like the wings of a bird.
Architect Filiz Klassen from Ryerson University tells me about the innovative materials found in Ford's new Model U car. It features "soy-based body panels, seat foam and grease, as well as corn-based tires and sunflower-seed-based engine oil.
"We might be more accepting of biotechnology within this context than in our kitchen," Klassen notes.
One of the earliest biomimics, Buckminster Fuller, remarked, "In nature, technology has already been at work for millions of years."
Our tradition of science and technology pales by comparison.