If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then mother nature is without a doubt the most honoured. Even our most sophisticated technology does not possess the complexities or efficiencies of organic systems.
For millennia, humans have turned to nature for inspiration and insight as we look to create technologies that are a part of our economies and societies. There is evidence that the Chinese attempted to make artificial silk over 3000 years ago. Fast forward to 2008, the Speedo swimsuits inspired by shark skin were such a success at the Beijing Olympics that they were banned as ‘technology doping’ after most records were smashed by huge margins.
Everywhere you turn, there are examples of how we are trying to reproduce what the natural world has already mastered in a process known as biomimicry.
From trains to buildings and autonomous systems, we are attempting to artificially recreate solutions that evolution and nature have already produced. Yet modern technology is still, at best, reaching for the elegance of the solutions in nature. My cat is smarter than the most advanced AI.
Increasingly, we are finding that the solutions to global challenges have always been all around us. As we progress deeper in the fourth industrial revolution, which is dominated by the power of digital technologies and data, there is a case to be made for how nature may make our existing technologies more efficient.
Perhaps the solution is not just about technology mimicking nature but about technology co-existing with nature in a symbiosis.
Nature-based services for technology
One of the responses to mitigate and adapt to climate change is the restoration of ecosystems and taking full advantage of services provided by nature.
In February 2021, the new EU Climate Adaptation Strategy was released where the need to leverage nature-based solutions came under the spotlight. “We need to prevent the un-adaptable and adapt to the un-preventable,” is how Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, articulated it. Nature-based solutions aid both adaptation and biodiversity and can be synergistically used with technological innovations.
For instance, they have long been part of the solution for responding to heat. From water-sensitive designs to the use of street trees, we have used nature as part of creating cities that people want to live in. But what if these nature-based solutions can also make technology function more efficiently?
We are learning now that nature, plants, and technology can work together. A great example of this is combining green roofs with solar panels to provide a cooler temperature, allowing solar panels to perform more effectively and increase output by up to 3.6 per cent. The reduction of dust and air pollutants on a green roof also reduces maintenance needed, while creating environments for insects and other fauna in a cityscape.
Meanwhile, agrivoltaics or agricultural PV, where agricultural infrastructure is co-located with solar power, has found to generate a range of benefits not only for productivity of the solar panels, but also the crops. The solar panels create shade for the plants, reducing the amount of water required for the crops and for some varieties, increasing yields. At the same time, the plants create a microclimate that helps to cool the solar panels and increases their efficiency.
A common ground for tech and highways
When we think about the future of agriculture and the future of cities, perhaps they have more in common that we thought.
Our energy systems, when combined with green roofs and vegetation, might become an important part of creating corridors for pollinators and insects.
The Butterflyway Project, for example, is growing highways of native plants in urban habitats for wild pollinators like butterflies, bees and birds across Canada to help provide food and shelter in an increasingly challenging environment. Led by volunteers, the project which began in Canada in 2017, has now established official Butterflyways in 75 communities and neighbourhoods.
This becomes even more important when faced with research that indicates more than 40 per cent of insect species globally are threatened with extinction over the coming decades.
What if a plant becomes the central feature of a technology stack?
Some mosses are particularly sensitive to air pollution and can sense changes and provide a physical response as quickly as manmade sensors. They are inexpensive, can regenerate and do not have a potentially polluting supply chain. When combined with cameras or other monitoring tools, moss and other plant-based sensors, are potentially a faster and cheaper tool to detect pollution.
But mosses and other plants, when used in sensors, can do more than just sense pollution. Restoring native vegetation near factories and other pollution sources could reduce air pollution by an average of 27 per cent and nature-based solutions might, in many cases, be better than technology.
In 75 per cent of the cases, it was also cheaper than technological interventions. The study suggested that nature should be a part of the planning process to deal with air pollution and that engineers and builders should find ways to incorporate both technological and ecological systems instead of keeping nature outside of its system boundary.
An emerging field in the green-tech space is taking the natural abilities of plants, in particular mosses and lichens, to filter air pollutants and deploying it as a technology in cities. One start-up has created a product called CityTree which uses moss to clean the air of urban environments. Developed with the support of the EIT Climate KIC and the European Union, CityTree has been trialled all over Europe
A plant-based technology future?
We truly have come a long way, technologically speaking. However, if we separate technology and how we live from our natural systems, we might be missing a myriad of opportunities to mitigate and adapt to how our climate might change over the next century. Like the swing-back of the pendulum, we need to relearn some things we used to know before we became so reliant on fossil fuels.
What is it we need to rediscover to respond to the challenges of this century as our planet, our economies, and communities respond to climate change? How should we work with nature instead of just seeking inspiration from it?
A common hopeful image of the future is a green city, full of verdant green growth, green walls, water, urban farms, and renewable energy. If we take advantage of the natural solutions already available to us, how can these cities of the future be achieved by rewilding technology and creating a symbiosis between what humans manufacture and what nature provides?