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Obernai, 29.07.2019

[Interview] Biomimetics by Idriss Aberkane

Biomimetics, a science known since antiquity, inspires and fascinates Man. In the 4th century Aristotle observed nature, then in the 15th century Leonardo da Vinci imitated nature by drawing his first plans for flying machines. The latter wrote “Go take your lessons in nature, that is where our future is.” Since then, we have witnessed the birth of many innovations inspired by nature: the aeroplane, Velcro, or the new generation of wind turbines. Idriss Aberkane spoke at the Hager Forum in 2016, giving a lecture on the economics of knowledge. Also a specialist in biomimetics, he gave us an interview on July 19th, 2019 in which he tackles this subject from an international and economic angle. In this first part, Idriss Aberkane sets out the current challenges facing companies and what biomimetics can do to meet them. In the second part that will be published later on, he will deal with future trends.

1. What is biomimetics ?

Biomimetics is being inspired by nature to innovate, sustainably if possible. At a more philosophical level, biomimetics is a movement that considers nature to be the greatest source of knowledge on Earth. We can see it in the 21st century: the solution to the most important and pressing political problem on Earth is to reconcile economy and ecology. We talk about downsizing, rationing tickets for commercial flights for example. We see that China has its back against the wall; if it doesn’t achieve around 7% growth in GDP per year, it may lose power. In any case, Chinese political elites know that the next Tiananmen will be ecological. The next time people demonstrate in China, it will most likely be because in Shanghai in winter you cannot see at ten metres, you cannot breathe clean air in some parts of Beijing and there are even “cancer villages”. This constraint applies to several billion people on Earth, including Brazil, Russia, India, China and of course all the rich countries. The country that solves it will most certainly have the greatest political leadership of the entire 21st century. Biomimetics is the answer to this problem: knowledge is found in the most abundant quantities in nature. In other words, by copying nature, we can create the most economic value.

2. At present, what are the areas of application, do you have concrete examples? Can biomimetics be linked to Hager’s know-how, namely the world of energy, electricity and building?

Absolutely. Literally the most monumental example of biomimetics is the Eiffel Tower, already more than 130 years old. The Eiffel Tower is inspired by the human bone. Not many people know this, but the structure of the Eiffel Tower makes it very light. It is lighter than the cylinder of air that contains it. If we take the cylindrical volume of air that goes from the base of the Tower to the summit at 25 degrees Celsius. This feat was made possible because Gustave Eiffel’s chief engineer had studied the structure of the human bone at the Polytechnic University of Zurich. Already at the time, this method was called bionics, which is the name for biomimetics in architecture. There are examples all around us. There is a lot of talk about Velcro, which is a classic example of bio-inspiration. For Hager, there is the whole field of data, big data, artificial intelligence, smart grids, smart meters, smart networks. The Waze app, for example, which is now used on almost one smartphone in four or five, is bio-inspired. The way Waze recommends the best route through crowded cities is inspired by ant colonies. Waze engineers studied how ants automatically calculate the best routes. This phenomenon is called Stigmergy. From the Greek stigma, meaning sign, and then synergy, working together. The ants, when they emerge from the anthill, deposit a fine drop of pheromone on the ground and follow the most highly scented path, which is also the most efficient. Waze copied this model, so that every time you hit the brake, it puts a minus on the map, as soon as you step on the accelerator, it puts a plus. By aggregating all these pluses and minuses in real time, they are able to calculate heat maps, which also have huge value in Big Data, well beyond giving recommendations. It allows you to calculate traffic in real time around stores, to forecast turnover, to know exactly which socio-professional category goes through which place. For Hager, typically, this issue of data is worth a lot of money. Facebook is so rich because it sells barrels of data. Even if the comparison between data and oil is not exact, in the 21st century, knowledge is to data what plastic is to oil. This data can be extracted using bio-inspired methods, distribution networks from nature, root networks, fungal networks and ant networks. This is true for any operator in infrastructure and technical solutions who wants to offer new lines of services, either for Big Data or for new products.

 

3. What are the current challenges for companies? 

Typically, companies face the challenges of nations. The current issue for nations is to maintain a rise in the standard of living and creation of wealth, while preserving the environment, which is today likened to a kind of war. We have what in my last book I call a “grey-green” war, like the 1914 war. It is an opposition between nature and employment that has dramatic consequences in the world. The idea that we cannot combine nature and employment at the same time, that when we talk about ecology we can’t talk about economics and that as soon as we talk about the economy we can’t talk about ecology, this is problematic. George Bush Sr. refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol because he was convinced that as soon as we talked about ecology we were not talking about economics, and today Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Accords for the same reasons. In the same way, in the “green” camp, beyond political parties, we are convinced that as soon as we talk about jobs, economics, we can’t talk about ecology, the two are opposed, it’s a real challenge ahead for companies. Companies are caught between two trends, that of being sanctioned for ecological reasons, as we’ve seen with Volkswagen, and that of doing their job, which is to create wealth, employment and solutions that are worth something, either for their business customers or for their consumer customers. Finding how to produce more while polluting less is one of the big challenges companies face. We find it with Tesla, which has been criticised in the sense that an easy analysis and something of a caricature is to say “Yes you know, all the same, lithium comes out of mines, mines have a certain environmental impact”. Despite these criticisms, Tesla brought the possibility of no longer emitting fine particles in the city, which is already huge. A mother in China is happy that some cars do not emit fine particles at a height where they’re breathed in by her children. Electricity generation may have an environmental impact, especially in China, but at least it is not at the height of a child’s bronchial tubes. These small steps are made in the creation of value, while also sharing an environmental value: that of believing in both, not by saying that you’re making a compromise. It is to say what value I create, while trying to have a better environmental footprint. Companies that are able to solve both at the same time, and there are plenty of them, are the companies that will win the most market share in the 21st century. 

 

 

knowledge is found in the most abundant quantities in nature. In other words, by copying nature, we can create the most economic value.

Idriss Aberkane

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