Biomimicry in Action

Discovering How Nature’s Systems Are Inspiring Sustainable Innovation

Emma Menebroker

10/24/20234 min read

Biomimicry in Action:

Discovering How Nature’s Systems Are Inspiring Sustainable Innovation

Continuing our quest for sustainable solutions, this week we are uncovering the ways that nature’s systems have inspired exciting innovations. Biomimicry, an age-old concept, invites us to examine the intricate systems and processes in ecosystems, learning from their lessons to enhance the sustainability of human society. From termite mounds to bee hives, these case studies show how overlooked marvels of nature are a wellspring of inspiration for a sustainable future!

  1. Termite Mounds & Sustainable Architecture

African termites have been quietly constructing air-conditioned, self-sustaining skyscrapers for millions of years. Building structures up to thirty feet tall, a termite mound functions as a chimney allowing heat generated by millions of termites below the surface to escape. This natural innovation consists of the hot air flowing up the tube, allowing air to be exchanged with the cool breeze through the porous sides of the tower. Architects and engineers have turned to these termite mounds for insights into sustainable building design. The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, is a prime example of this innovation. Modeled after termite mounds, this building relies on predominantly passive ventilation, pumping cool air in at night and allowing hot air to escape through chimneys during the day. The concrete and brick exterior allow for heat to be absorbed without dramatically changing the surface’s temperature, contributing to the dramatic reduction of the Eastgate Centre’s energy consumption (1).

  1. The Geodesic Dome: Inspired by Natural Geometry

Since 36 BCE, mathematicians pondered the benefit of the hexagon shape found in bee hives and today scientists have many answers for this ingenious design. They have hypothesized that these cavities, for storing honey and raising young, are the ideal shape to maximize space while minimizing surface area, requiring less energy to build the hive and fewer materials (2). This shape also has a high compression strength and is great at dispersing heat. Architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller identified the advantages of this design, creating an architectural structure called the geodesic dome to imitate its likeness. This structure today has been used in everything from greenhouses to sports arenas and has become an iconic representation of biomimicry in architectural design.

  1. Solar Cells Inspired by Photosynthesis

Researchers are developing light-harvesting cells that mimic the process of photosynthesis, using organic materials to capture and convert sunlight into energy more efficiently. Previous research on photocatalysts, molecules that convert light to consumable energy, has required that the primary molecule both harvest and catalyze light energy. Researchers are now uncovering a much more efficient form of converting light into energy where these steps are executed by separate molecules. This idea of division of labor was spurred on by photosynthesis in plants, where these two jobs are completed by different proteins working together. Using this new approach to light harvesting, researchers are now uncovering new efficient harvest/catalyst pairing useful in various physical reactions (3).

  1. Finding the Direct Path

Ant colonies and slime molds are being studied for their abilities to find the most efficient and direct path. The reasoning used by ants in constructing colonies can be applied to high-rise buildings. Developers looking to optimize the most direct path for wiring and mitigate voltage drop, if wiring is to come into contact with certain conducting materials, need only look at how an ant would travel through the structure (4). In the same vein, slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, has been shown to deduce the fastest route to food and has been referred to as a natural computer (5). Researchers from England and Japan discovered that slime mold can effectively do the job of engineers when it comes to designing rail systems. This was effectively demonstrated when the cities surrounding Tokyo were swapped for oat flakes and the slime mold was able to determine the most direct path to the food, simply mirroring the intricate Japanese rail system (6). Unique discoveries like these demonstrate the benefit of looking to other species for solutions that are not always clear to us.

  1. A Circular System from Industrial Symbiosis - Kalundborg, Denmark

Put into motion in 1972, Kalundborg Symbiosis offers a compelling case study in ‘industrial symbiosis’, a concept inspired by the circular systems of ecosystems. This circular approach to industrial waste consists of an agreement between seventeen public and private companies ensuring that their waste product, whether that be water, energy, or materials, is the input of a nearby partnering company. In this industrial town, a power plant, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical company, along with other industries, collaborate to exchange resources and energy. Waste from one operation becomes a valuable resource for another, reducing environmental impact and costs (6). The approach to the circular economy and ‘industrial symbiosis’ are inspired by the ecosystems in our backyards, where plants, animals, and fungi compose the continual cycle of life.

The Road Ahead: Applying Biomimicry in Our Lives

The stories of termite-inspired architecture, slime mold, and industrial symbiosis in Kalundborg, are just a glimpse of the remarkable possibilities that biomimicry offers. Biomimicry isn't just about imitation; it's a journey to understand the fundamental principles that drive nature's success. Circular systems, adaptive strategies, diversity, and resource efficiency, among other principles, are the lessons we draw from ecosystems. By embracing biomimicry, we're poised to create a world where innovation and sustainability go hand in hand, just as they do in nature.


  1. National Geographic. (2018, May 29) “See How Termites Inspired a Building That Can Cool Itself.” Youtube,

  2. Carstens, Andy. “Honeycomb Structure Is Space-Efficient and Strong Bees and wasps.” Asknature, Accessed 24 October 2023.

  3. Trafton, Anne. “This light-powered catalyst mimics photosynthesis.” MIT News, Accessed 24 October 2023.

  4. Bonifaci, Vincenzo., Kurt Mehlhorn., & Girish Varma. (2012). Physarum can compute shortest paths. Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 309, pg 121-133. Accessed 24 October 2023.

  5. Sanders, Laura. “Slime Mold Grows Network Just Like Tokyo Rail System.” Wired, Accessed 24 October 2023.

  6. Klundobrg Symbiosis, “Surplus from circular production”, Kalundobrg Symbiosis, Accessed 24 October 2023.