College of Charleston biologist uses nature to solve human problems

November 15, 2022

As a biologist, Deborah Bidwell can tell you about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees. She can also tell you how that understanding of nature can help solve human issues and problems.

Bidwell, a senior instructor of biology at the College of Charleston, is a member of a professional cohort that has been developing the emerging field of science and design called biomimicry. It is an interdisciplinary collaborative practice that applies nature-inspired designs to human engineering and invention. Biomimicry translates well-adapted strategies and mechanisms from nature into human structures, processes and systems to help solve problems in ways that are more innovative and sustainable.

“What we are doing is asking nature for advice,” says Bidwell.

There are many examples of how nature has already sparked innovation in industry:

  • The design of swimsuits made for professional swimmers is based on the structure of shark skin.
  • Velcro was inspired by burrs a Swiss engineer pulled from his dog’s fur.
  • Air conditioning and circulation systems of various large buildings are inspired by low energy, passive cooling of termite mounds.
  • Eco-industrial parks link waste heat, steam, ash and water from one industry to supply them as input needed in other industries.

Bidwell says that many of the issues we’re facing today have already been solved by nature’s billions of years of research and development.

“A sustainable world already exists, we just need to rethink our relationship with nature,” she says. “Biomimicry is a modern awakening of an ancient practice. Indigenous communities have not lost the ability to humbly seek nature’s wisdom, but many modern western cultures have a perceived disconnect from nature and need to relearn how to do so.”

Recently, Bidwell co-authored a chapter about biomimicry for the book, Beloved Economies. Based on extensive research with dozens of organizations and companies, the book offers readers seven specific practices as a springboard for changing how we work. Bidwell and her team were part of a multiyear collaboration to understand whether and how the seven practices align with natural evolutionary strategies.

“We have to be able to envision a future where humans fit in regeneratively without causing harm to our planet,” says Bidwell. “We need a future where the economy works for everyone and where both biodiversity and humans thrive.”