Nature Has the Best Strategy to Your Problem

In the harsh desert climate, how are termites, camels, and snails able to adjust their temperature without air condition? Nature has developed many efficient structures and mechanisms that humans can learn from in order to accomplish our goals in a more effective manner. As such, imitating nature has become a key strategy in achieving a circular economy.

In 2019, Taiwan’s average temperature reached a record high. As the demand for air condition increased under such hot temperature, the use of air conditioning also ironically adds to global warming, causing a vicious cycle.

According to the Industrial Research Institute, the amount of electricity used by air condition during the Summer months can be as high as 47% of the total energy consumption in many households. Although air condition manufacturers are continuing to make improvements on the technology and efficiency of their products, Taiwan’s electricity consumption by air condition continues to climb. It has become clear that our innovations cannot keep up with our demands.

Yet in nature, there are many surprising examples of how this problem can be solved. For example, under the blazing heat of the African desert, temperature during the day can be as high as 60 – 80 degrees Celsius, but at night, it can drop below 10 degrees Celsius. Under such dramatic temperature fluctuation, termites are able to maintain the temperature in their nest at 26⁰C without air condition. How is this possible?   

Termite nests are full of tiny holes to help them balance temperature and air pressure. (Photo credit: OUT & ABOUT)

How are Termites Able to Maintain a Temperature of 26⁰C Without Air Condition?

Hot air rises, cold temperature drops. These are the basic scientific facts that have been taught since elementary schools. As nature’s engineers, termites applied these fundamental lessons to their extreme condition. The termite nest is made up of countless tiny little holes that connects the inside to the surrounding environment, creating a system that can make precise adjustments in order to maintain a stable temperature inside.

The first structure to mimic the termite nest is the Eastegate Shopping Centre in Harere, Zimbabwe. This building imitates the natural ventilation system of the termite nest and is able to maintain a stable inner temperature without an expensive air condition set-up. As a result, the shopping center has been able to reduce its operating cost by 10 – 15%.

Outside of Africa, topical Taiwan also faces the same problems when it comes to heat.

Citizens of the Earth, an environmental NGO based in Taiwan, uses the same ventilation concept in their headquarters in Kaohsiung. Air is drawn in through the balcony, where it is filtered and dehumidified before it enters the office. A glass partition is also installed on the west side of the office, which helps to keep cold air that has been circulating in the office from escaping. This creates air pockets that can cool the air and isolate heat, which greatly reduces energy consumption. As a result, the office is capable of remaining cool in the hot Summer months and achieve its goal of never using air condition.

Real Circular Economy Innovations Comes from Asking the Right Questions

When a company develops a machine that blows out cold air, the result is an air conditioner. But in nature, animals do not ask: “How do I create an air conditioner?” Instead, they ask: “How do I adjust the temperature?”

There are many ways nature adjust its temperature: termites use tunnels to control the temperature inside their nest; zebras use their black and white strips to create convective air movements to cool down; camels uses the blood circulations in their nostrils to evaporate heat during the day (through exhaled air) and prevent heat loss at night; desert snails use their highly reflective and low conductivity shell to shield itself from heat, and etc… These animals all adjusted based on their environment and the resources available.  

Camels can adjust their body’s temperature and moisture level through their nasal cavity. In addition, the airholes around the camel’s nose can collect water droplets that were exhaled out and return them back into the mouth when needed. (Photo Credit: Sarfraz ali Shaikh on Unsplash)

In order to increase its profit in a competitive market, an air conditioning manufacturer will use more resources to make more products and subsequently more waste. This is the flaw of the linear economy.

On the contrary, companies should consider how to provide a “temperature adjustment” service company that will not only provide value, but distinguish itself amongst the competition. Because their vision is not only on one product, they can assuredly create new value by using innovative methods and different supply chains.

In a circular economy, businesses that provide product as a service can use less resources to create more value and distinction. They will also have greater opportunities in a world with diminishing resources. Only when we stop relying on the model of consuming more resources to make more products in order to make a profit, can we reverse the environmental damage caused by the “manufacture-use-discard” pattern.

Finding Answers in the 3.8 Billion-Year-Old Nature

During 2019’s Asia Pacific Circular Economy Roundtable Discussions, Ms. Julia Chiang, Secretary of Biomimicry Taiwan, pointed out that “nature has been evolving for 3.8 billion years and experienced various extreme climates. Only 1.2% of the species have survived.” Humans have only been in existence for 200,000 years, which when measured in relations to earth’s history, is merely 24 minutes.

How much do humans understand of the wisdom that have guided the evolution of these species over hundreds of millions of years?

To “learn design from nature” and turn that insight into systematic knowledge and method, is called “biomimicry.” This concept was developed by the Biomimicry Institute, located in Montana, USA.

The level of innovation can be determined through biomimicry by asking the “right question” and determining the right “function.”

For example, do we as humans still need “PET bottles” or a “water transport service?” Do we need very hard helmets or do we just need a way to prevent the head from violent impact? Do we need glue or do we just need a way to attach the carpet to the floor? Do we need packaging, or do we just need a way to keep food dry? Do we need to wash the walls on a regular basis, or do we need walls that won’t stain?

Ooho, a non-pollutant, edible sphere that contains water, created by a student at the Skipping Rocks Lab. (Photo credit: Ooho)

Once you have the right question, the next step is to ask the right “biology strategy.”

To seek a biomimicry strategy, just stay in nature for a while. Thanks to modern high-speed internet, with a click of a button, we can wander into an ocean of “biomimicry knowledge.”

Ask Nature is an online think tank that was developed by the Biomimicry Institute. It contains over 1,500 lifeform strategies that have been translated into human design ideas. Whether the function is related to moving, storing, manufacturing, decomposing, maintaining a community, or managing information, one can find relevant strategies that can assist in the development of innovative ideas.

In Taiwan, Viachi’s AgriDragon Biomimicry Farming System imitates the rainforest in its diversity of plants and effective use of sunshine and space. Its design is similar to the human skin and capillary delivery system, where the surface stays dry while the soil underneath remains moist with an enhanced evapotranspiration system. This highly effective system is able to produce many vegetables and fruits without chemical fertilizers. It is also able to reduce damages caused by insects to the plants. There is also a new venture, TecHome Technology, that has successfully created a new breathable building material that mimics the human perspiration system. It combines water-repellent reservoir sludge with cement mortar, which allows water evaporation to escape without damaging the structural integrity of the material.

AgriDragon Biomimicry Farming System finds the answer in nature and focuses on healing instead of intervening. (Photo Credit: Viachi)

The wisdom of nature has been functioning for 3.8 billion years, creating an ecological system that has continued to survive. The economic system created by humans should try to do the same. So far, only 12% of our strategies are consistent with biomimicry, and the remaining 88% is waiting for us to learn from nature. Facing linear economy’s biggest crisis and challenge, biomimicry has shown us a path to circular economy and a way to coexist with nature.    


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