Biomimicry

Around 200 years back in the early 19th century, in a city of Switzerland, there was a system for businessmen from around the country to meet once in a year to showcase their new products and services. This conference was a place for making and breaking of deals and new businesses getting started as well as destroyed. Those days we had clocks but no wrist watches. A small group of 5 artists had come up with an idea of adding a chain to a clock and making it small enough to look elegant on soft wrists. They showcased 10 wrist watches as jewellery articles for women in the annual conference with the hope that the design would be bought by one of the clock making businessmen. Instead, those who made clocks saw them as a threat. As soon as they realised that the artists took 2 months to design one wrist watch, they came up with a plan to consume their product instead of promoting it. They purchased all the 10 watches at a healthy price and hid them by gifting them to ladies they were related to. However, the artists came with 20 watches next year. The clock making businessmen repeated what they did the previous year. The trend continued for another two years. By the fourth year, the clock making businessmen (now converted to registered companies) started coming with a pre-approved budget and arrangement for consuming the watches made by the artists. However they were caught by a surprise in the fifth year when the artists displayed ten thousand watches. The clock making companies ran out of their capacity to consume the watches. On the contrary, they had unknowingly created enough buzz about wrist watches by selectively gifting it to some eminent women in Switzerland, which helped the artists sell the 10k watches at a healthy price.

This imaginary story is an example of what is known as Biomimicry, where you adapt a phenomenon exhibited by nature for solving a problem in human life. Velcro is one of the most popular examples of Biomimicry, where George de Mistral (also a Swiss Engineer) found some seeds stuck on himself and his dog after one of his walks. As he dug deeper, he noticed the special design of the seeds, which allowed them to get stuck not just to George’s dog, but to any animal that has a little hair on its body. While this digging deeper led George to come up with the design of what is used in multiple consumer products as a fastener, it is also interesting to dig deeper into why trees do this. Since trees cannot walk, they use animals, wind and water to send their seeds to long distances. Unlike humans and many other animals, plants want their off-spring to grow as far from themselves as possible. This avoids competition for resources between the parent and child plant. Different plants adopt different strategies to achieve this distant dispersal of seeds. Some make their seeds light enough to be easily carried by the wind while some add unique design features (like the helicopter seed), which make the seeds spin, thereby maximising the time for which they stay in the air. This enables them to travel long distances via wind. On the other hand, some trees lure the animals by producing tasty fruits, which the animals consume. The fruits contain the seeds, which get excreted by the animals at a place away from the parent plant. Some seeds, like chestnuts and acorns, are consumed directly by the animals like the squirrels. If the seeds get eaten up, why do trees make them that way? Well! The squirrel eats some of the seeds and hides the extra ones. It often forgets some of the hidden ones. However, the hidden and forgotten seeds are only promos from the trees. These trees give a surprise during one of the years by increasing the number of seeds produced by 10x. Typically you have one squirrel living on one tree. Though it is a treat for the squirrels, there is a limit to what they can consume. This mechanism of producing more seeds as a surprise is called masting. The business model adopted by the wrist watch artists mimics masting. Have you seen other businesses following this model? Though humans may mimic the model, can we figure out and mimic the communication and collaboration shown by these trees? It is nothing less than magic how all the trees in a region synchronise so as to perfectly time the masting event simultaneously!