Thinkers: Amina Khan Examines Nature's Blueprint for Innovation

Fawn Fitter

Fish instinctively swim in schools arranged to help each individual travel farther and faster with less effort. Termites in the desert grow fungus in their mounds to maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity on even the hottest days. When Los Angeles Times science writer Amina Khan started to explore the physics and engineering challenges that humans are trying to solve from scratch, she realized that nature already holds many of the answers. Her new book, Adapt: How Humans Are Tapping into Nature’s Secrets to Design and Build a Better Future, invites us to consider billions of years of evolution as an R&D lab.

We talked to Khan about biology-inspired design, how fake leaves could create an energy revolution, and what business leaders can learn about algorithms from ants.

Q. What do you mean by biology-inspired design?

Amina Khan: We’re reaching the limits of what engineering can do in many areas, and we’re running out of raw materials. Researchers have started to pay attention to how biology succeeds in solving complex problems. It’s about studying nature’s secrets and applying them so we can innovate more sustainably.

For example, many companies need to get goods, services, or equipment to multiple locations, and backtracking or repeating stops wastes time and fuel. Even with machine learning, it would take years to solve this problem perfectly. But ant colonies create routes that aren’t perfect yet are efficient enough to let the ants do what they need and move on with their lives. Scientists have built mathematical models of ant colony behavior to create logistics algorithms that quickly generate traffic and shipping routes that work a lot better than what came before.

Q. How else can nature help us make organizations more effective and profitable?

Khan: One thing we can do is to think of businesses as species and markets as ecosystems. A species doesn’t thrive if all it does is consume resources. Ecosystems have to be balanced to be sustainable. It’s not altruism; it’s a way to use resources smartly in a way that benefits everyone.

One of the organizations I studied for my book is a plastic parts company that cools molded plastic faster and produces more items in the same amount of time by using molds inspired by leaves: the netlike pattern of their veins disperses heat efficiently. These solutions benefit customers and create profit even as they’re more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Q. What do you think will be the next breakout technology to emerge from natural phenomena?

Khan: I can think of two promising possibilities. One is the ability to combine biology-inspired architecture with 3D printing at large scale using environmentally friendly materials. We could construct highly energy-efficient buildings that are dynamic—that change in response to the environment—just as termites do, and we wouldn’t waste as much building material.

The other promising technology is artificial leaves that use nanotechnology to make clean, renewable fuel out of water. It sounds impossible, but plants do it every day. Imagine being able to replicate photosynthesis—and powering a building or a data center with it.

Bringing these technologies into the mainstream will require new regulations and infrastructure, like new building codes and changes to the power grid, but if they get off the ground, they’ll be game changers. D!

Fawn Fitter

About Fawn Fitter

Fawn Fitter is based in San Francisco, where she writes about the spots where business and technology intersect.