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From natural building materials to the way birds use their wings. More and more scientists are taking inspiration from nature when developing new materials or techniques. This is known as biomimicry. According to Mauro Gallo, lecturer in biomimicry at the Inholland University of Applied Sciences in Delft, Aires University of Applied Sciences in Wageningen and Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden, biomimicry is much more than just ‘copying from nature’.

Gallo’s lectorate is a cooperation between three Dutch universities of applied sciences where students, companies and researchers not only apply biomimicry in order to develop sustainable products. They also look at how such a product is made and which social aspects come into play. With the aim of achieving more sustainable and circular production.

When Mauro Gallo was appointed as a lecturer in 2017, he had never heard of biomimicry. With a background as a mechanical engineer, he was mainly busy with fundamental research in the field of heat transfer and thermo-fluid dynamics. “But I have always been fascinated by how efficiently human skin is able to regulate body temperature. You start sweating to cool down, or your blood vessels shrink. The body uses all sorts of strategies to regulate this. You see that everywhere in nature. There is no single solution. Whereas a conventional heating system has only one strategy for transferring heat. This is where we can learn from nature.”

Whale fins as a source of inspiration

“Take the blades of wind turbines, for instance. They have small protrusions on them that are inspired by whale fins. Scientists had long thought that this was a flaw of nature, but they discovered that in a wind tunnel, these protrusions provide more lift and less friction. Engineers have translated this into more efficient and quieter blades,” Gallo explains via a video link.

Copying irregularities on whale fins onto the blades of wind turbines is, therefore, he says, a small part of how we ought to apply biomimicry. “Don’t just look to nature for the actual product. You have to see it much more broadly. Where do fibers come from? What impact will the glue have on the climate? We also need to think about what happens to the blades when the wind turbine is scrapped. Can you reuse the materials? Or use them in some other way?”

He continues on with a sense of enthusiasm: “When leaves fall from trees, it is not waste. They contain all kinds of nutrients that other plants and insects benefit from. Nature is a holistic entity. We, as humankind, can benefit from this systemic approach. We can also look at our production in the same way. Where a waste stream from one person is the raw material for another.”

Scientists speak different languages

In order to do that, it is important that the many different disciplines work together and share their knowledge, and within biomimicry, that is precisely where the challenge lies. According to Gallo, each scientific discipline tends to speak in its own language. “Take biologists. They analyse a lot of things under a microscope and are very descriptive. While I, as an engineer, am used to seeing reality in black and white. Something either works or it doesn’t. And social scientists have a completely different reality with plenty of grey areas.”

Gallo remembers the first time he worked with a biologist who explained to him how microorganisms give off light underwater. “She was intrigued by this system and described all the different biological characteristics and functionalities. How proteins generate light, for example. Since I don’t know anything about this, I tried to translate the main functions into the terms that I am familiar with. But in the process, I oversimplified the complex workings of these microorganisms. This made it feel to her as if I did not appreciate her knowledge. That social aspect is essential for cooperation between different disciplines. It doesn’t work if we’re not open and aren’t willing to learn from someone else’s knowledge.”

Building bridges between different disciplines

As a lecturer in Biomimicry at these three universities of applied sciences, Gallo prefers to see himself as a bridge builder between different disciplines. Not just in terms of scientific subjects, but also in terms of different sectors. He challenges students to look at the whole system. “Take the textile industry as an example. It is a heavy polluter. And that’s due to several reasons: the monoculture of cotton plantations, the large-scale use of synthetic fibers and the production processes that require a lot of water and chemicals. But also the way we as consumers deal with clothes plays a big role in this respect.”

This is why, according to Gallo, it is important to look at the textile industry in a systemic way if we want to make it more sustainable. “We can replace a significant amount of synthetic fibers with biobased fibers, but then we have to grow them on biobased agricultural models, such as agroforestry. Here, trees and crops grow on the same soil. Unlike the monoculture we have today in agriculture, this creates more biodiversity and healthier soil. We can gain a lot of inspiration and strategies from nature on how to reduce the climate impact of the clothing industry. And perhaps more importantly, we can also learn from nature how we can break down clothes at the end of their life cycle. So as to make the industry, like nature, circular. To do this, we need to come up with dedicated circular business models that bring value and prosperity to all parties involved.”

All players at the table

“In order to make this happen, it is important that all players involved in this system are communicating with each other, they all need to sit down at the ‘drawing board’. Not just farmers and textile manufacturers, but also biologists, engineers, economists and teachers. Together, they can redesign the textile industry and make it more sustainable by taking a systemic approach. But it is also important to involve social scientists, consumer behavior experts and government policy makers in this design process. Scientists and engineers are able to develop technology; that’s usually not the problem. A lot of technology is simply already there. Perhaps the most important thing is to develop policies and tools for consumers that enable them to make more sustainable choices which can benefit society as a whole.”