Design and the Elastic Mind

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Jayden D. Harman, PAX Scientific, Inc. Lily Impeller (Prototype). 1996

Stainless steel, 7 1/2 x 4 1/4" (19.1 x 10.8 cm). Gift of the manufacturer

PAOLA ANTONELLI: This is the Lily Impeller. It’s used to keep water circulating in public water supply systems across the country, but it does so in a way that can reduce associated energy use by 85 percent.

The Lily Impeller was created by Pax Scientific, a California-based engineering firm that roots much of its work in natural designs. When creating the device, the company studied how water flows in nature, and then designed the Lily Impeller to replicate and focus that movement. The resulting shape is evocative of a calla lily, hence its name.

This idea of studying, understanding, and adopting the forms and structures found in nature to solve human problems … is called biomimicry, a concept that has been around for perhaps as long as humanity itself. But in 1997, a book called “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” by Janine Benyus, launched a decade of biomimicry research and innovation.

Benyus pointed out that evolution has been testing and retesting designs, patterns, and organizations for nearly four billion years. If a design doesn’t work, it doesn’t last. Benyus also reminded us that nature’s designs are brilliant they use energy efficiently, are built out of biodegradable materials, and blend seamlessly with their surroundings.

Today, designers, scientists, businesses and governments are studying nature’s designs in search of solutions to big problems. In one example to your left, scientists are trying to emulate how flies, centipedes, and rays move to help design more efficient vehicles. Farther to your left is the work of researchers who are making better solar panels by studying the way leaves capture the sun’s energy.

Humanity is beginning to harness what is perhaps nature’s greatest asset: design. And the potential for revolutionary innovation is profound.