Imagine you could fly like an eagle.
Whenever you wished, you could take to the air and survey all the land below you. Your eyes could zoom in on the tiniest trail from several miles in the air, searching for a rodent to prey on. You could scan the land for the best perches to land on. And by harnessing the winds, you could travel as far as you’d like.
Now, this might come as a shock, but you actually can fly. In fact, you’ve been doing it for many years.
You do it when you use Google Maps.
Think about it. When you open the app, you fly high into the sky, seeing the entire world before you. Like an eagle, you can narrow down to the smallest part of the map to get a detailed look, with all the roads, shops and houses in clear view. You can inspect the land before you in astounding accuracy.
Online maps allow one to put on the wings of an eagle and soar high above the world. This “bird’s eye view” alludes to a much larger phenomenon—how nature plays an inextricable role in our lives.
The Covid-19 pandemic is probably the most relatable example. A virus, a tiny force of nature, shackled all of us behind doors. It showed how globalisation provides the ideal breeding ground for a deadly pathogen. It united the world against a common foe in a way that wars, drugs or racism never could.
The inner workings of the natural world is something we’ll forever be blind to. We can never truly know what it is like to be an eagle, owl or termite. But through these interactions, we can get a taste of it.
But that is very obvious. Everyone knows that. There are much more subtle ways that nature snakes into our lives.
Take our vocabulary for instance. Our lexicon holds numerous references to nature. We use them so regularly that we’ve grown blind to this connection.
Consider this. At a party, you make a beeline for your crush across the room. The mere sight of her flutters up the butterflies in your stomach. But on reaching her, you chicken out and end up horsing around. You accidentally let the cat out of the bag, revealing your resounding dislike for her best friend. Suddenly, you’ve both locked horns. You apologise until the cows come home, but it’s futile. Finally, you drop it. Your friends convince you there are many fish in the sea. So tomorrow, you start this wild goose chase again.
(I speak from personal experience 😁. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)
Take the building you’re currently in. If it has central air conditioning, chances are it’s modelled after termite mounds. These tiny insects live in arid regions, yet they manage to maintain a cool temperature in their underground homes. They dig a complex set of tunnels and vents to sustain continuous airflow, cooling the entire structure. AC engineers have studied these systems, copying them as best as they can. (Read more here!)
If you’re in the subway, you’re on a train designed after the anatomy of birds. Their rigs replicate the curves of owl feathers, which allows them to fly silently at night. The support shaft mimics the smooth structure of an Adélie penguin, which grants it frictionless passage through the water. Cumulatively, this ends up in a quieter and more energy efficient train. (Watch this video)
This field of mimicking nature is called biomimicry and it is an emergent form of design today. It argues nature has been around for aeons, steadily whittled by the unforgiving hand of evolution. Animals have been competing for millenia, with only the ones best adaptations coming on top. Evolution ensures that animals adapt in the best way possible. Biomimicry sees this and applies those tactics to design.
On some level, biomimicry is harnessing the “Wisdom of Crowds” on steroids (It is the idea that, statistically, many minds solve problems better than just one). You’re outsourcing the design thinking to natural processes that have occurred over millennia.
(The pandemic also put a whole new spin on the word “viral”. Why not make this post go viral by sharing it?)
The inner workings of the natural world is something we’ll forever be blind to. That is what enamours me. We can never truly know what it is like to be an eagle, owl or termite. But through these interactions, we can get a taste of it.
I keep looking out for nature in our surroundings. Not just literally (birds, plants, animals), but even figuratively, in the everyday objects that govern our lives. It fascinates me that while nature might have vanished from our immediate atmosphere, it lives on in these products. And it will persevere here as long as we acknowledge it. In a world where AI and machines dominate the popular discourse, this recognition would benefit all.
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