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Drawing inspiration from plants to solve design problems

By Patricia Mirasol

Plants have already solved a lot of the questions we ask ourselves how to solve. In a Business of Design Walk session entitled “Can Plants Give us New and Visionary Solutions to Design Problems?,” JA Studio’s Kigge Mai Hvid talked about drawing inspiration from the plant kingdom to create better lives for people and the planet. 

The artist and founder of the Index: Awards, the world’s largest design award, gave several examples for solving specific tasks. Solutions for cleaning up nuclear waste, for instance, might be drawn from sunflowers. Huge beds of the plant can be found thriving and offering cheer in the wastelands of Fukushima. Mangroves, meanwhile, with their capability to desalinate water, can be used to provide clean drinking water. Those looking to design structures with strength and flexibility, on the other hand, can scrutinize the pomelo. Because of its organized peel structure, it can be dropped from 30 feet up without harming its interior.

Plants, which are indispensable to the oxygen supply needed for sustaining human life, are also models of resilience. Ninety percent of a plant can be destroyed without it losing its basic functions.

Inspired design

Some of the world’s most famous landmarks have drawn inspiration from nature. The Sydney Opera House was designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon in January 1957 with orange peels in mind. Singapore’s Esplanade, designed by DP Architects and Michael Wilford & Partners, was designed to mimic the so-called king of fruits, the durian. The Gherkin, a skyscraper in the UK, has an air ventilation system similar to sea sponges and anemones, which feed by directing sea water to flow through their bodies. The skyscraper is likewise supported by an exoskeleton structure, and is designed so ventilation flows through the entire building.

“Can plants teach us something about beauty?,” asked Ms. Hvid. “That’s the largest reservoir of beauty we have in the world.”

Circular economy

Understanding the natural world also makes it easier to understand the circular economy, or the closed loop system wherein the focus is on eliminating waste by reusing, recycling, and refurbishing products and infrastructure for a longer time.

Ms. Hvid cited as an example UK-based biodesign research studio Faber Futures, which uses bacteria to color clothes. The studio works with Streptomyces coelicolor, a bacteria that produces pigment as it grows during its week-long life. Using biology to produce clothing could help create closed-loops fashion systems that mitigate the impact of fast fashion.

For all their utility, a fifth of plants are threatened by extinction due to invasive species, climate change, urbanization, agriculture, and humans at large. 

“A fifth of all plants are threatened by extinction,” Ms. Hvid said. “Why are we not scared about that?” She added that learning about plants and how they effectively partner with other organisms such as fungi and bacteria will improve the way humans collaborate, design, and build for a sustainable future.

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