This is a fascinating topic on which one could spend hours, but I'll try to boil it down to a two-minute read. At the end of it, I'm sure you will want to learn more, so please do look at the links at the bottom.
On the Biomimicry.org website, a sentence immediately jumped out at me: "A sustainable world already exists." What?? Where was this world, and how come I didn't know about it? It turns out, I did know about it, and I do live in it.
It's our very own world, filled with the wonders of Nature. Nature has already solved many of the problems we are struggling with, from building waterproof material, recycling, efficiently distributing water without pumps, using CO2 as a building block instead of emitting it, ergonomic designs, flight, fascinating multi-room housing, and so on. Nature will tell you- "Been there, done that!"
Biomimicry is a relatively new field- an approach to solve human challenges by mimicking what Nature has already accomplished sustainably. Micro organisms, animals, insects, plants fish, and humans are marvelous engineers, doctors, architects. Humans became more reckless somewhere along the way and forgot to work with and learn from nature. The discipline of biomimicry is trying to change that.
An early example of biomimicry that we are all familiar with, is using birds as an inspiration for building early flying machines. Leonardo Da Vinci, although unsuccessful in building a flying machine, studied birds and made sketches as early as the 16th century. The Wright Brothers were inspired by pigeons when they successfully built their machine circa 1903.
Scientists and innovators need to partner with Nature to find creative, natural solutions to the problems we are currently facing. We should all take a moment to get out in nature to look at patterns, colors, noises; we should wonder at the distribution of branches of a tree, or the waterproof back of a bug, the complicated structure of an ant colony or a wasp's nest, and the way a kingfisher dives from air into water to catch fish without displacing a drop. Nature has been perfecting its art, science, technology, architecture for millions of years; plus there's nothing wrong in plagiarizing Nature's work.
Designers have been trying to mimic Nature's form, processes and even whole eco systems.
Form: I would define this as the physical form of something found in nature- e.g. self-cleaning lotus leaves, the snout of a dolphin, the legs of a spider.
One of the most famous examples of Form Mimicry is of the Shinkasen bullet train in Japan which was so fast, it created a sonic boom every time it came out of a tunnel. The engineer Eiji Nakatsu was tasked to look into this unacceptable, very loud problem. Nakatsu was an avid bird watcher. He decided to study birds for their aerodynamics. More particularly, he studied owls and kingfishers, and based on his observations, he was able to reduce the pantograph’s (a kind of current connector, connecting cable lines to an electric train) noise by creating many small vortices in the structure inspired by the noise-dampening feathers of an owl. He streamlined the nose of the train after studying the kingfisher's beak.
The train now travels more quietly, using 15% less energy while travelling 10% faster.
Process: This is the process that nature uses to make something. A great example is self-repairing polymer composites. Nature often uses material that can self-repair- e.g. our skin and bones, starfish arms, insect exoskeletons.
A firm has come up with an idea of self-repairing concrete. This new concrete uses microfibers instead of coarser material. When there is a small crack, the dried concrete absorbs moisture from the air. The exposed concrete becomes softer, 'grows' and fills in the crack. The calcium ion in the crack absorbs moisture and CO2 and forms a material similar to seashells, strengthening the concrete.
Eco systems: Ecosystems are how living organisms live and use their non-living environment to act as an ecological unit. What can we learn from ant colonies? How do trees branch out, die, rot, and return to the environment to benefit other species? Humans can adapt and learn from this to enhance the concept of circular economy.
Fascinating studies are being done on slime mold. Slime mold are single cell organisms that are intelligent and efficient enough to create extensive pathways between food sources. When the mold fails to find food, or a food source dries up, it leaves behind a marker to remember the pathways it has taken, thereby using the least amount of energy and resources to forage for it's next source. Designers can use this slime to create algorithms to determine the shortest distance between data points- think space, radio communication, infrastructure.
Janine Benyus is a pioneer in the field of biomimicry. She is a biologist and innovator, and wrote a book in 1997 titled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. This book was one of the first to popularize the term 'Biomimicry'. She started the Biomimicry institute in 2006, with a goal to make biology an integral part of the design process.