May 31, 2005


JFS Biomimicry Interview Series: No.8 Linking Research Labs and Society: JFS Seminar: "What Can Technology Learn from Nature?"

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.33 (May 2005)

On March 14, 2005, Japan for Sustainability held a seminar, entitled "What Technology Can Learn from Nature -- The Wisdom of 3.8 Billion Years," to complete its one-year "biomimicry" project.

Our aims were to share examples of technologies learned from nature in Japan and to exchange views on how to further develop such technologies. For these purposes, we invited the three experts we had interviewed for previous issues of the newsletter (one expert from a research fund, one from a research lab, and one from environmental education).

About 80 people attended, including researchers and students who are interested in environmental education and the relationships between the environment and technology, and who hope to adopt the perspective of learning from nature.

In holding this seminar, we wanted to ask three questions of the speakers. First, what significance do you find in biomimicry (and what kind of roles can it take in building a sustainable society)? Second, to what extent have biomimicry-based technologies spread through Japanese society, and what are the obstacles to their further development? And third, what is needed for the further spread of such technologies?

The discussion in the seminar gave us a wide range of ideas, which are summarized in this article.

- Mr. Kazuo Maeshima, Director, Sekisui Integrated Research Inc.
Presentation - "Development of Technologies from Nature"
(Past interview)
- Dr. Katsuya Yano, Assistant Prof., Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences, Nagoya University
Presentation - "To Learn Effective Utilization of Phosphorus Resources from Peanut"
- Mr. Yasushi Umezaki, Nature Interpreter & Environmental Education Planner
Presentation - "Three Principles to Learn Nature's Design
(Past interview)

(Moderator) Junko Edahiro, Chief Executive, Japan for Sustainability

Why Focus on Biomimicry?

Under Sekisui's Research Fund for the Development of Technologies from Nature, Mr. Maeshima spoke from the standpoint of a corporation that provides grants to researchers of biomimicry. In his presentation, he said that the fund's current role is merely to support researchers, but in the future they also hope to conduct their own studies on these technologies.

One of the reasons for this interest, he said, is that the development of ecologically sound materials is indispensable to create sustainable societies. Another reason is their pure amazement and respect for nature's technologies. "Corporations are often proud of nanotechnologies that enable us to develop ultra-precise products, or semiconductor technologies that make it possible to work on such a small scale. But in reality, what living things are doing is much more amazing," he explained.

How do university researchers see nature's technologies? Dr. Yano's research has focused on peanuts, which use phosphorus more efficiently than other plants. Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for plant growth, a potentially valuable trait amid recent concerns that the depletion of resources could negatively affect future food production.

Dr. Yano stated, "Although researchers have been studying technologies that utilize nature (for example, even on the soil of barren fields peanut cultivation works well), farmers have a better knowledge about them through their own experience." He believes that researchers' responsibilities are to discover and explain what is behind traditional technologies, which humans have learned from nature over the ages, and to share the wisdom of nature with many.

Lastly, how do environmental education and biomimicry relate to each other? Mr. Umezaki pointed out that what is essential to create sustainable societies is lifestyle education, in which we learn how to live in harmony with nature. "For example, the natural cycles in forests generate no waste. Seeing that, we must ask how forests function, and look for comparisons in human society." He believes that learning from nature is a key to lifestyle education.

What are the obstacles?

Technologies learned from nature have great significance for businesses, researchers and environmental educators. But those technologies have not spread as much as one might expect throughout society. What are the obstacles to becoming more widespread?

For businesses, Mr. Maeshima said, one of the challenges they always face is the money problem. Companies have to consider how long it will take to make a profit in return for investment in research and development.

University researcher Dr. Yano pointed out that "the lack of interface between researchers and social needs" hampers the diffusion of the technologies learned from nature, despite their potential usefulness to society. He said that researchers and professors in universities are conscious of the importance of such research, but in fact, they lack the ways to link it to the needs of society. "The gap between us and society is wide," he says. Although universities have much knowledge and many technologies, they lack good communicators who can serve as a bridge to the real world.

JFS co-founder Junko Edahiro agreed with him that this is also the case in other research fields: researchers may recognize their duty to contribute to society, but cannot determine what society expects of them because of the scarcity of opportunities for communication. As a result, researchers often present their technologies to the real world only after completing them, only to find that their efforts were not of much help to society.

For Future Progress

What is necessary to overcome the obstacles cited above and for technologies learned from nature to spread further?

One important step is to create "forums" for research on such technologies. Specifically, it is important that there emerge research schemes at university level. Mr. Maeshima introduced several university-level initiatives.

Nagoya University Nature COE (Center of Excellence) - Nature-Guided Materials Processing

Osaka University 21st century COE program - Creation of Integrated EcoChemistry

Doshisha University, Biomimetics Research Center

In August 2005, these programs will jointly hold an international symposium in Nagoya, Japan, titled "Nature-Guided Materials Processing." Such fora for research and sharing are much in need.

21st century COE Symposium "Nature-Guided Materials Processing" (August 5-6, Nagoya University)

Another key to the progress of such technologies is two-way communication between the research lab and society. Dr. Yano stated that "a scholar's job is to talk about difficult subjects in an easy-to-understand manner." And society can tell researchers about its needs, asking them to develop technologies to solve specific problems. Researchers can respond by showing the potential that technology already has to offer, or by conducting more research. In communication between society and researchers, non-governmental organizations and people who can play the role of interpreter are very much needed.

Finally, it is important that children have numerous experiences to learn from and experience nature. It is they who will be the future scientists and researchers. Dr. Yano stated that in the past science and other disciplines tended to take an approach of focusing on just one function, such as that of the brain or DNA. But as the saying goes, we cannot see the wood for the trees. "To know is not just something intellectual. It is more about touching, experience that is based on a more visceral sense." Technology learned from nature can be made possible through such approaches.

And such approaches are made possible only through an accumulation of physical experience. Mr. Umezaki added to Dr. Yano's views, saying "We must have repeated experiences where we 'feel' nature as something 'real,' not just through images or on the screen. Only then we can reach a point where we know nature not just in our brains, but with every cell in our body."

This seminar has provided us with some key ideas about biomimicry. When we succeed in applying all of them together, we may reach a point where society realizes that it is only natural to have technology that we have learned from Nature.

(Kazunori Kobayashi, JFS Biomimicry Project)

*This interview series is supported by the Hitachi Environmental Foundation.