Holistic biomimicry: A biologically inspired approach to environmentally benign engineering
Humanity’s activities increasingly threaten Earth’s richness of life, of which mankind is a part. As part of the response, the environmentally conscious attempt to engineer products, processes and systems that interact harmoniously with the living world. Current environmental design guidance draws upon a wealth of experiences with the products of engineering that damaged humanity’s environment. Efforts to create such guidelines inductively attempt to tease right action from examination of past mistakes. Unfortunately, avoidance of past errors cannot guarantee environmentally sustainable designs in the future. One needs to examine and understand an example of an environmentally sustainable, complex, multi-scale system to engineer designs with similar characteristics.
This dissertation benchmarks and evaluates the efficacy of guidance from one such environmentally sustainable system resting at humanity’s doorstep—the biosphere. Taking a holistic view of biomimicry, emulation of and inspiration by life, this work extracts overarching principles of life from academic life science literature using a sociological technique known as constant comparative method. It translates these principles into bio-inspired sustainable engineering guidelines. During this process, it identifies physically rooted measures and metrics that link guidelines to engineering applications. Qualitative validation for principles and guidelines takes the form of review by biology experts and comparison with existing environmentally benign design and manufacturing guidelines. Three select bio-inspired guidelines at three different organizational scales of engineering interest are quantitatively validated. Physical experiments with self-cleaning surfaces quantify the potential environmental benefits generated by applying the first, sub-product scale guideline. An interpretation of a metabolically rooted guideline applied at the product/organism organizational scale is shown to correlate with existing environmental metrics and predict a sustainability threshold. Finally, design of a carpet recycling network illustrates the quantitative environmental benefits one reaps by applying the third, multi-facility scale bio-inspired sustainability guideline.
Taken as a whole, this work contributes (1) a set of biologically inspired sustainability principles for engineering, (2) a translation of these principles into measures applicable to design, (3) examples demonstrating a new, holistic form of biomimicry and (4) a deductive, novel approach to environmentally benign engineering. Life, the collection of processes that tamed and maintained themselves on planet Earth’s once hostile surface, long ago confronted and solved the fundamental problems facing all organisms. Through this work, it is hoped that humanity has taken one small step toward self-mastery, thus drawing closer to a solution to the latest problem facing all organisms.