Innovation by Observation

The Rise of the Biomimetist

by Yann Cramer

Innovation by ObservationOne of IDEO’s ten faces of innovation is the anthropologist: the one who observes human behaviors and actions to discover wasted effort that could be turned into an innovation challenge. In the past decade, an eleven’s face has been quietly but steadily rising to prominence in the innovation team: the biomimetist, who observes animal and plant characteristics to discover supreme efficiency that could be turned into an innovation breakthrough.

The kingfisher’s beak isn’t just a fashionable accessory that the bird has picked on the shelves of supermarket nature. It is the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The biomimetist starts from the humble assumption that, even if it is not obvious at first, there may be a good reason why nature has designed animal and plants as we see them. The kingfisher’s beak turns out to be supremely efficient at crossing the air-water interface with the minimum amount of turbulence, thus making the bird more successful at catching fish by surprise.

It was the source of inspiration for the design of the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. Obviously the train does not dive into water, but it has many tunnels to pass through. Tunnels tend to create an air-air interface between the inside and the outside, which, when crossed, generates turbulence and noise. The efficiency of the design has enables engineers to create a train that is the most silent of its kind.

Likewise, attentive and questioning observation of the lotus leaf inspired glass manufacturer Saint-Gobain. How does the lotus leaf manage to remain clean in a muddy environment? Electronic microscope observation of the surface of the leaf revealed a hydrophobic nano-structure on which mud does not stick. It then lets the lotus maximize its exposure to sunlight for photosynthesis.

This surface structure that enables the plant to yield maximum benefits from natural resources, namely the sun and the rain, became the inspiration for Saint-Gobain’s design of a self-cleaning glass. The company designed a hydrophobic surface structure on which dirt that is decomposed by sunlight is washed away by the rain.

Observing nature, humbly, questioningly, letting it fill us with wonder, can be a fantastic source of inspiration. Not only for its beauty, but also its efficiency.

Don’t miss an article – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Continuous Innovation group!

Yann Cramer is an innovation learner, practitioner, sharer, teacher. He’s lived in France, Belgium and the UK, he’s travelled six continents to create development opportunities with customers or suppliers, and run workshops on R&D and Marketing. He writes on and on twitter @innovToday.

Posted in

Yann Cramer




Why the World Cup is a Big Deal

By Braden Kelley | June 30, 2006

After living overseas in Germany and England and now coming back to the United States, I have a completely different perspective on Football (or Soccer as we call it in the United States). With the World Cup in full swing, I thought I would tackle the subject of Football and why it is the most popular sport in the world.

Read More

Credit Card Shenanigans

By Braden Kelley | June 16, 2006

It must be great to be in the credit card business in the United States. Demand is relatively inelastic and regulation is lax, so you can charge whatever you want for an interest rate, increase your fees once or twice a year, and make additional money off cash withdrawals and foreign exchange transactions.

Read More

No Comments

  1. Johanna Raquel on November 18, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Great post. Thank you for explaining the role of observation as an innovation technique.

Leave a Comment