Biomimicry: how nature inspires innovative solutions to water management issues


An annual international challenge rewards the most inspired imitations of nature, used to solve human problems. Last year, the Biomimicry Student Challenge focused on water access and management.


When faced with a complex problem that requires solutions that your human mind can’t conceive, it is sometimes best to turn to nature. It is inventive and resourceful, and for billions of years it has been adapting to challenging environments in the most surprising ways: some living organisms have developed abilities that can inspire mankind to build equally surprising solutions. This inspiration process is called biomimicry.

Biomimicry, according to Wikipedia, “is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. »

The notion is important to both design and sustainability. As such, it is at the heart of an annual international challenge, organised by the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, a not-for-profit organisation “focused on promoting the transfer of ideas, designs, and strategies from biology to sustainable human systems design”. Each autumn, the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge focuses on a “real-world problem” and encourages college and university students from all over the world “to work collaboratively in teams to apply biomimicry concepts and tools to arrive at a sustainable and innovative design solution.” The 2012-2013 Challenge, focusing on transportation, is the third one set and is still in progress. Last year, students were invited to work on an issue we have often discussed on down to Earth: water access and management.


Camel gut, honeybees, spiders’ webs and fish gills


The winning team, from the German University in Cairo, focused on agriculture. They drew their inspiration from the camel’s digestive system to design “Dromedarily Sustainable”: the project tackles the problem of farm irrigation in Egypt, where water is drawn from canals filled with sewage, waste and bacteria, posing health issues. Their idea was thus to produce artificial waterfalls along the canals to create constant circulation and eliminate stagnant ponds. That is how a camel’s digestive system works – waterfalls aside. The vegetation in its belly is constantly shuffled by waves of muscle contractions, optimising digestion (read this interesting blog post to find out more about this).

The second award went to a team from the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, in Mexico. They chose to address water access for rural communities, and designed an efficient and sustainable way to collect dew and rain water: “CHAAC-HA”. They were inspired by two natural structures: a plant called bromeliad and the webs of the Eriophora ravilla spider. The plant’s epidermis is filled with trichomes, structures that retain water, and the team also copied its foliage arrangement. They drew inspiration for the structure as a whole from the spider’s web, generating resistance and efficiency.

Other projects copied honeybees to design a preservation chamber for fruit and vegetables with minimal water use; replicated the hydrological cycle on a miniature scale to purify water; imitated the Tillandsia landbeckii plant to collect water from the fog; drew inspiration from fish gills to remove the air in water pipes in a way that is more cost-effective than the usual air valves and vents, etc. (To learn more, see the galleries for round 1 and round 2 of the challenge.)

At a time when we are aware that mankind must change its ways to ensure a sustainable future for all, it is increasingly evident that getting closer to nature may not be the easy way forward – but it is the only way. Nature’s amazing inventiveness, both sophisticated and simple, should inspire us ever further in our quest to simultaneously feed the world, provide water to all and preserve our planet.


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