Nature Replacement Business

April 25, 2010

Are you in the nature replacement business?

In some ways I am. I design buildings for a living, and a big part of my work is in selecting and specifying the materials that are used to put these structures together. In that role I am at the dead center of the nature replacement business. Much of what I try to do is thwart gravity, protect from rain, snow, sleet and sunlight, predict and prepare for fire, flood, earthquake, tornado and whatever else mother nature might throw at us. The materials that I select day in and day out are often synthetic replacements for natural solutions. Sometimes I pick them because they are the ‘industry standard’, sometimes because they are alternatives that have proved to be cheaper and perhaps more effective. 

It seems like all to often we are tasked with trying to find solutions in industry to things that have already been solved by nature. There are amazing habitats large and small around the world and instead of trying to reinvent their solutions perhaps we should just copy them. The basics of nests, hives, reefs and lairs all offer key lessons on the organization of materials, modern construction techniques, design and methods of finding harmony with the surrounding environment.

Even in the work of designing everyday products we have much to learn from nature. From simple containers to complex tools there are basic lessons available on ways to create effective beautiful products that leave a smaller footprint. The solution may not always be in modern engineering or chemistry, it may be right under our noses. The problem is we simply are not asking the right questions.

Instead of asking how can we invent something new to do X, we should be asking how did nature solve this problem already and how can we adopt those strategies?

One of my favorite examples of a simple product that was derived from finally asking the right question. It came from a company that has started on a journey to drastically reduce their natural impact (although they have a very long way to go). The company is Interface, a carpet company and the product is Tac-Tile. They make a number of outstanding products that are used in buildings around the world, but their basic material source is petroleum. They like many other textile companies are reliant on an available source of crude oil. In more recent years after their founder Ray Anderson had an epiphany (most of his employees thought he went off the deep end) they have started to investigate how they can become more sustainable. One area where they examined alternatives was the glue that is used to secure carpet to the substrate below. Interface put together some of their smartest chemists, scientists and engineers to figure out ‘how does nature do glue?’.  They did exhaustive research on various animals and plants that have ‘sticky’ qualities and continued to have trouble finding the right solution. After many months of exploring the problem one of the individuals involved in the project was challenged by her boss as to why they hadn’t found a solution yet.  In a bit of frustration she responded simply ‘Nature doesn’t do glue, nature does gravity’. It was a moment which changed the whole conversation and set Interface on a path to create Tac-Tile, a simple smart product that eliminates the glue required to secure floor tiles together to the concrete.  

Now I honestly believe that companies like Interface can continue to do better at moving towards reducing their impact. Similarly I know I have to be more careful about asking some of the less obvious questions in my own work about how I can create in a way that is more symbiotic with nature as opposed to trying to replace or thwart nature.

Maybe you to should ask yourself the question ‘am I in the nature replacement business?’.

If like me, you are in that business, maybe this is an opportunity to change the conversation.


One Response to “Nature Replacement Business”

  1. Peter Williams said

    Great article and very relevant to our time. In a period of scarce resources – it’s a useful reminder that innovation doesn’t always require reinventing the wheel. Biomimicry since the days of DaVinci using birds to develop models for air flight, has been a worthwhile process to adopt. I admire and aim to be among those whose output and process are consistently informed by what nature already has to offer.

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