Thoughts of an Eaten Sun

through the mind of kyle tolle

Natural Design Cues

I’m going to further explore the idea of using nature as inspiration for technology, over the course of several posts. This idea has grown tendrils and will take more than one piece to examine. However, I’ve got to start somewhere, so here we go!

The major quality setting human invention apart from nature’s machinery is that humans use non-living materials and nature uses living materials.

Cities are a prime example of this difference. We build our shelters and living spaces using glass, concrete, metal, wood, brick, and asphalt. But this gives rise to the urban heat island - “a metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities”. What’s the cause? “The main cause of the urban heat island effect is from the modification of land surfaces, which use materials that effectively store short-wave radiation.” Think of an asphalt road. It sits and bakes in the sun all day, absorbing the sun’s energy, only to slowly emit it later as wasted heat.

Rural areas have more vegetation and other physical characteristics that make it cool more easily. It’s sensible to expect we engineer our cities to be more organic and cooler. We live in nature and its proven technology - billions of years and generations in the making. So we ought to build like we’re a part of it. Luckily, we mustn’t look far for inspiration. We simply need to take our design cues from the living world.

Forests and jungles are good source material. Around the world, they house trillions of individual animals. The forest canopy absorbs sunlight and, through photosynthesis, produces the fuel which the trees use to live. Imagine our buildings productively using the sunlight that falls upon them. Instead of uselessly warming up and later radiating away the heat, we could harness that energy and turn it into fuel. Does this sound like solar panels? Let’s take it a step further: a sunlight-harvesting system which is an integral part of the building’s structure and exterior. Taking in the sunlight’s energy, converting it to some other form, and then transporting it for use in another area. This is exactly what trees have perfected over eons.

The plants in a forest are later fuel for fungi, animals, and other plants. They’re organic and are recycled by the environment when they die. Most of our buildings are nothing like this now. When they become dilapidated or are demolished, they may take many hundred of years to be reclaimed by nature. Investing in organic building materials would make it easier to extract, process, and refine those substances. Organic materials are abundant on the earth’s surface. Metal ore and oils are buried deep underneath it. Renewable components would help reduce worries about waste and pollution, although not eliminate them completely.

And now, what about that heat which accumulates in our urban areas? Forests, again, have an interesting design to consider. Through evaporation and transpiration, vegetation cools the environment and encourages the formation of clouds and rain. Additionally, the canopy provides shade for anything underneath it. The materials in and the processes going on within a forest are naturally aligned to keeping that area cool. Imagine the amount of money and energy we’d save on climate control if we had an environment which both provided shade and actively worked to stay cool. It’s not necessary that our constructions passively absorb massive amounts of heat!

I shouldn’t forget to mention that vegetation produces the oxygen we breathe by consuming the carbon dioxide we emit and exhale. We should be intensely investigating technology which takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. This would go a long way toward correcting the effect we’re having on the global climate.

An organic city based on vegetation-inspired buildings and roadways which releases oxygen and cools the environment isn’t an impossibility. It’s just different from anything we’ve ever made before. We’ve not yet taken our design cues from nature, and it shows.

There’s an enormous amount of effort and money invested in our current foundation, making it difficult to step back and re-imagine our technology. Fortunately, human spirit, will, and curiosity are powerful motivators. We can study nature’s design now, and build a more sustainable foundation for our civilization and the other creatures we share this planet with.