CAN AN ANCIENT PLANT TEACH US HOW TO CREATE HEALTHIER SOILS?
Fast-tracking nature’s design solutions to foster sustainability breakthroughs with the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.
Far up in the Andes mountain range, where the climate is harsh and unforgiving, ancient plants are paving the way for new species to survive and thrive. These plants have been playing this beneficial role for centuries. But more recently, thanks to a team of researchers and entrepreneurs in Chile, the plants may have helped unlock a solution for a very timely problem: how to restore our planet’s degraded soils.
Camila Hernandez, Camila Gratacos, and their team at the Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation (CERES) in Valparaiso, Chile, were searching for ways to improve soil health in the commercial orchards that dot the region’s lower-elevation lands. With 3 percent of trees in the orchards dying prematurely due to poor soils, it was important to the team to find solutions that would not only save trees, but also ensure that future crops could thrive. As they looked for clues in the surrounding ecosystem, one particular plant—the yareta, a type of cushion plant—stood out.
The yareta is what is called a nurse plant. A large, bulbous, otherworldly looking perennial, it not only thrives in cold, windy, mountainous regions but also provides shelter for other plant species, cushioning them against the harsh conditions, sharing nutrients, and helping them to grow and survive.
The team at CERES adapted the lessons they learned from the yareta to develop a soil restoration solution called BioPatch. By growing specific plants in tandem to mimic the protective mechanisms of the yareta, their innovation is designed to shield seedlings from wind and ultraviolet radiation, and to enhance the soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients. The BioPatch is biodegradable, self-sustaining, and low-cost. The team has demonstrated that, after one year, the plants growing within it are capable of reproducing the same conditions, and soil analyses show that the surrounding soil is healthy again.
By looking to nature for design solutions, this research team not only landed on a promising solution, but also won first place in the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, an international design competition and accelerator program that crowdsources nature-inspired solutions to big sustainability challenges. With the help of the $100,000 Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ray of Hope Prize ™, the CERES team is actively working to bring the BioPatch to market so that it can be applied worldwide to help feed the planet’s growing human population.
This is what the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge is all about. Much like the BioPatch and the yareta plant, the Challenge helps incubate and nurture biomimicry solutions, seeding the ground for radically sustainable solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. With the effects of a warming planet accelerating each year, we need to act quickly to develop new approaches. The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge is not only a way for entrepreneurs and students to learn biomimicry by applying it to real issues, but its Accelerator program helps to build a pathway for entrepreneurs to bring viable biomimetic design solutions to fruition and deliver them to markets where they are needed the most.
Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that taps into nature’s time-tested designs and processes in order to solve human-scale problems. Over billions of years, living organisms on Earth have learned to adapt and survive, just as we need to do today. By applying lessons from these living things, we can create solutions that fit in seamlessly to the ecosystems that surround us, making our products, processes, buildings, and even entire cities more energy and material-efficient, less toxic, and more resilient.
Biomimicry goes beyond simply creating things that look like something in nature (biomorphism) or using natural materials (bio-utilization) in designs. Instead, biomimics look to emulate how living organisms function within an entire systems context. It is this approach—looking to biology for clues on how our designs can actually contribute to a healthier planet—that provides a whole new way of approaching problems and creating breakthrough solutions to pervasive sustainability problems.
Most importantly, seeing the natural world as an endless source of research and development also lends biomimicry a deep conservation ethic. As species die off from human-made causes, thousands of potential solutions die with them. Biomimicry reminds us that there is much we have left to learn from the natural world and must work to protect it.
Solutions Are All Around Us
Biomimicry is still an emerging practice, but it has the potential to fundamentally reshape the way we build our world by offering a new way to create a resilient future. While specific issues may vary from region to region, our global community is tangling with the same overarching problems, like reversing climate change, achieving food security, restoring our soils, maintaining biodiversity, and creating sustainable consumption and production methods. These issues are reflected in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is a bold roadmap for how we can create the kind of world where everyone has the chance to thrive.
By issuing this call to action via the SDGs, the United Nations aims to point governments toward actions that will reduce poverty, improve the planet’s health, and ensure that everyone has a shot at living a peaceful, productive life. But where will these solutions come from?
That’s where biomimicry comes in. As both a toolkit for sustainable design and a systems-thinking lens, biomimicry offers us a way of jumping ahead to solutions that help us live within planetary limits. Through the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, we’re fast-tracking nature’s design solutions by tapping into the brainpower of thousands of biomimics worldwide and helping these innovators make their solutions a reality.
Each year, the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge focuses on a key sustainability issue. For the past two years, the focus has been on food systems and how living organisms can help inform us how to create a healthier, more equitable food system. In addition to the CERES team’s design for soil restoration, 12 additional teams have either completed or are just beginning their Biomimicry Accelerator experiences and are in various stages of making their innovations a reality. These include:
- An earthworm-inspired field drainage system that prevents nutrients in the soil from being lost in runoff.
- An aquaponics system that is designed to help subsistence farmers grow better food sustainably, improve nutrition, and generate more income.
- A self-sustaining system to help city-dwellers grow their own organic food, right on their balconies, inspired, in part, by lizards’ ability to collect water on their skin.
- A bio-inspired chamber for capturing edible insects, a protein-rich food source that is easier on the environment than typical meat sources.
- A desalinating solar still that is optimized to produce fresh water for irrigation and that costs five times less than traditional solar stills.
- A “groundless” modular growing system that gives people the opportunity to grow healthy food in tight, indoor spaces.
(Learn more about the Accelerator teams and their biomimetic innovations here.)
Join the Challenge
In fall 2016, the Biomimicry Institute launched a new round of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, looking for biomimetic approaches to solving climate change, including nature-inspired designs to create solutions to address energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, food systems, transportation, water management, coastal communities, and fossil fuel usage. The Institute wants big thinkers from across the world to develop their best nature-inspired approaches to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time. And there’s no time to lose. You can learn more about the Challenge, how to join, and how to support biomimicry innovation at challenge.biomimicry.org.
What deep patterns can we find in nature and adapt to solve our toughest global problems? While we work together to ensure that everyone on the planet can live free from hunger and poverty, lessons from the living systems that surround us—ones that have survived for billions of years—can light the way toward truly lasting solutions.
Erin Connelly is the director of communications and outreach at the Biomimicry Institute, a not-for-profit organization that empowers people to seek nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. Learn more at biomimicry.org and AskNature.org.
Banner photo: Cody Hinchliff