Biomimicry and Permaculture

Showing the intrication between Permaculture and Biomimicry requires some digging.

Permaculture is not solely a replication or an inspiration of, and from, natural functions, it is as well “using directly and intensively nature”, integrating the functions and cycles of nature in the processes of food and habitat production.

This usage is based on the respect of biodiversity, qualitatively and quantitatively.

This respect of biodiversity finds its foundation;

  • In Permaculture; as a wish to recognize the human genesis and biology as intrinsically related to nature. This way biodiversity becomes a constituent of human ethic. Permaculture is an eco-friendly interface between human and the environment. The ethic dimension requires here the dedication of an area (zone 5) to the development of an autonomous biome, not invaded by human domestication.
  • In Biomimicry; as considering nature an inspirational reservoir, a knowledge database of materials and functions and eventually a way to develop eco-friendly (here in the sens of economy and ecology) solutions. Biodiversity is a capital the corporate world should preserve. Biomimicry is (mainly) an eco-friendly  interface between corporations and the environment. In some cases, of course, non-profit applications may be developed.

If Biomimicry is the observation and replication of natural functions then Permaculture goes further and transform human into an element connected to natural cycles. Permaculture could be seen as a Biomimicry way to integrate back human into nature, together with its technological background.

To approach this subject in more technical terms we will need to divide Permaculture epistemology in its different dimensions;

  1. Design methodology of functions and landscape including spacial integration and scheduling of functions and resources
  2. Systemic approach as a framework for ecosystem observation, analysis, tuning and optimization
  3. Processes hybridization (integration of technical functions in biological cycles)

And see how the biomimicry perspective is related to these different domains of Permaculture.

1) Design methodology of functions and landscape including spacial integration and scheduling of functions and resources

Let’s differentiate

  • the design of a specific function
  • the design of a landscape (spacial integration of functions including earth shaping, fauna and flora)
  • the design of a process (scheduling functions and flows)

The design of a function is typically associated with the possible usage of biomimicry as would do an engineer wanting to create an efficient and eco-friendly mechanism. Here biomimicry applies fully and Permaculture literature reminds his students about the shapes of nature; lines, curves, structures, volumes, fractal and the inherent physical properties of the various geometrical forms.

To open the scope of the relationship with biomimicry;  a design should include the optimization of recycling. For example we may design an object based on the size, shape, life spam  and particularities of the materials found in the commerce, in landfills or in natural systems. E.g. The size of the roof I’ll do is a multiple or easily adjusted to the size of the roof sheet I may find available in order to have no waste. Here biomimicry methodology is kind of constrained to certain obligations that may not exist in the industrial world; some dimensions of nature properties (elimination of waste and recycling of resources) should be always part of the process of design inspiration.

The design of a landscape, meaning mainly the architecture of the ecosystem, with its  various biotic and abiotic elements, will respond to 3 factors; human logistic, flows of energy, nutrients and pollution, and the synergies between elements.

If human logistic requires optimization, the tracing of the routes will be done avoiding erosion and make a good usage of gravity in its design, the periodicity of attendance of the different functions will require zoning  (a way to simplify a “graph theory” mathematical problem in finding the shorter path in accessing the different activities) and finally access path to critical resources will have to be secured in the sense of having 0 down time (always available). Here biomimicry may help in the analysis of the notion of niche in various species, with various locomotion modes and the way priorities are given to different moving behaviors. Biomimicry can help as well in finding synergies for transportation. In this area we cannot prescribe how biomimicry can play a role and options are really open from landscape shape design to energy efficiency in transportation.

The Flow of energy, nutrients and pollution has a very organic dimension, system wise. The contribution of Biomimicry may come from direct analogies in the different elementary functions, meaning the optimization of each specific materialized flow (water,  wind, rain, dust, nutrients, noise, etc.) or it may provide some topological solution in a more global perspective, considering these flows as a circulatory problem within a complex organ. This dimension of Permaculture requires particular attention. Systemic approach plays inherently with the notion of “Russian dolls” and every ecosystem can be considered as an interrelated set of subsystems. For example the soil can be considered as a substrate including microorganisms and a complex food web or it maybe be considered as an organ, our planet organ, in charge of digestion and recycling, giving life to the fauna and flora on top of it. In this perspective Biomimicry may give clues to optimize the circulatory flow of nutrients, energy  and toxins inside an ecosystem as it would best fit in an organ.

Synergies between elements. Synergy and emergence could be compared to the egg and the chicken, who appeared first ? An emergence is a byproduct of a complex structure however it will create a synergy, meaning a productive event, only if having a supportive value in the initial realm (prior substrate giving birth to the emergence). A synergy is in itself an emergent relationship which will change the structure of a system in a richer level. Biomimicry capital could be compared to the sum of the successful genetic transformation where the link between an ecosystem seen as a substrate and the emergent functions from this system create a relationship increasing the inner structure quality of the initial ecosystem. If biomimicry applies in the most impacting way in the different ways to handle agroecology it is in this domain. Synergy is maybe the cornerstone linking Permaculture and Biomimicry. In Permaculture the emphasis is put on relationship between elements to create synergies, in biomimicry it includes with emphasis the notion of structure (which is actually the same thing considering the spatial juxtaposition of even or odd elements).

An illustration of biomimicry is the creation of a food forest. It replicates the forest structure, the best adapted to tropical climate, and includes in the fauna both productive trees (fruits, nuts, useful wood, …) and supportive trees for the ecosystem. Studies show that the choice of species (assuming enough biodiversity) is not determinant in the viability, carbon productivity and resilience of a forest when there is an equivalence in the variety of shapes. This capacity allow a certain degree of domestication and orientation of the forest toward food and habitat production. Here the replication does not encompass “a priory” the understanding of the mechanisms at work for each element but consider the forest structure as a productive system for human.

2) Systemic approach

Permaculture is an instantiation of agroecology using a customized systemic approach. It shares with Biomimicry a strong drive consisting in observing ecosystems (mainly single organisms) to identify determinant and positively impacting functions. From there the scope of types of analysis between the 2 disciplines may vary, Permaculture focusing on a systemic value addition and Biomimicry focusing on the determinant function reproduction. We may assume more correlations in the different set of tools used by both approaches in the future when Biomimicry will mature and complexify the scope for design of its platform.

3) The process design and hybridization.

Here again versatile Biomimicry includes in its scope any kind of spacial and scheduled series of events that may occur in nature. In both discipline it seems more difficult to understand processes than elementary functions. Most of the time applied Biomimicry will focus on determining the value addition of a limited process close to the function to avoid the replication of systemic complexity. Permaculture will empirically play with a set of elementary functions to create an hybrid platform where nature and technology are integrated. The process perspective is certainly the most uneasy (although normative) method of development Permaculture may explore in a farm development. The common denominator between the 2 disciplines is the identification of specific natural cycles and techniques to externalize certain steps (and make a technological function from them) to help managing an hybrid cycling. Permaculture will then focus on closing the loop, Biomimicry on replicating the externalized function.

Conclusion

From this analysis we may project the idea that in front of the profusion of nature creations Biomimicry will naturally use more and more systemic tools and integrate a cradle to cradle quality to its creations. We may assume as well that Permaculture will benefits from the technological pool of functions coming from Biomimicry to optimized its hybrid processes.

We may say that Biomimicry is consubstantial to Permaculture.

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