Joy today: What the rainforest can teach us about product development

This week in my biomimicry program, I got to study patterns in tropical rainforests and apply them to products as if I were a product development consultant (which is what I’m planning to do with my degree when I finish my program.) It was such a blast and I got a lot of supportive feedback on my ideas from my classmates so I thought I would share them with you as well.

My audience is a set of product developers who have been tasked with making their products and systems more sustainable and less toxic.

What are the three most compelling patterns in life’s strategies in the rainforest that you want to bring to the table?

1.) The rainforest produces vibrant colors without toxic chemicals.

2.) Leaves of plants close to the rainforest floor under the dense canopy have structures that collect and focus light.

3.) Animals in the rainforest have adaptations to help them regulate their body temperature.

Articulate simple design principles for each of the three patterns.

Pattern: Color creation

Biology model:
The blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) are magicians of color. Luckily for us, science demystifies their powers and teaches us how they get their trademark iridescent blue color. Its secrets lie in the architecture of its wings. Imagine this beautiful butterfly with an 8-inch wingspan flitting from flower to flower in the Colombian rainforest’s sunshine. The light hits its wings and rather than absorb and reflect back light as most objects do, the morpho’s wings diffract and interfere with the light. When we look closely, a morpho’s wings aren’t smooth. They have peaks and valleys that overlap, similar to roof tiles. The space between the overlapping scales and the height of the ridges of those scales on its wings have a direct impact on the color. In the case of the morpho, the spaces between the scales are exactly half the size of the wavelength of blue light. This is what causes the intense, iridescent blue of its wings.

Pattern: Focus light

Biological model:
Clubbed begonia (Begonia cucullata) grow along the floor of the rainforests in Asia. Because the canopy of a rainforest is dense, plants on the lower levels need to develop adaptations to collect as much light as they can to perform photosynthesis. Begonia leaves have a set of cells on the surface that focus light, similar in function to glass lenses. This allows them to collect and concentrate diffuse (indirect) light. Then it directs that light to the grains of chlorophyll in the leaves.

Pattern: Regulate body temperature

Biological model:
The common toucan (Ramphastos toco) lives in the canopy layer of the rainforests of South and Central America. In an environment where the temperature ranges between 70 and 85 degrees and the humidity is 77% – 88% year-round, the toucan has to expertly regulate its body temperature. The genius adaptation it uses is its beak—the largest beak (and therefore surface area) relative to body size in the animal kingdom. By regulating the blood flow to its beak, it controls its thermal radiation and therefore its body temperature. This adaptation is seen in a number of other animals structures such as the large ears of elephants and jackrabbits, and the skin of iguanas.

What simple application ideas, inspired by your design principles, would you use to help this group of designers understand some possibilities of ‘emulating nature’s designs’?

Color creation:
1.) Cosmetics that use the same microstructures rather than toxic chemicals to create color.

2.) Clothing / textile colors that use surface textures rather than toxic dyes.

3.) Paint that contains microstructures to produce vibrant colors without the use of toxins.

4.) Food coloring with microstructures rather than toxic colorants.

Light collection and focus:

1.) Solar cells that mimic the structures of begonia cells to collect and focus light, even during overcast days.

2.) Glass for building, home, and greenhouse windows that allow it to regulate light on cloudy days in order to reduce the need for artificial indoor lighting.

3.) Glass for cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions that allow for brighter displays outdoors without having to brighten display and use the battery or electricity unnecessarily. (The brightness of screens is one of the biggest drains on energy of electronic devices.)

Regulate temperature:

1.) Building architecture that uses recycled water systems below the outside surface to help regulate temperatures.

2.) The use of recycled water systems just below the surface of sidewalks, roadways, and bridges to regulate temperature (prevent overheating and freezing).

3.) Using recycled water systems to regulate the temperatures of vehicles—cars, boats, buses, planes, etc.