October 11, 2011


Technologies to Save the Earth -- Learning from Nature (Part 1)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.109 (September 2011)
"JFS's 'Get Inspired by Nature' Project" (No. 1)
Interview with Prof. Emile H. Ishida, Tohoku University

JFS/Technologies to Save the Earth -- Learning from Nature (Part 1)
Copyright Prof. Emile H. Ishida

This opening article of JFS's "Get Inspired by Nature" Project series features an interview by Junko Edahiro with Professor Emile H. Ishida of Tohoku University's Graduate School of Environmental Studies and Eco-material Design & Process Engineering.

As a leading expert on the research and spread of technologies inspired by nature, Ishida briefly introduces a broad overview of research on these technologies and their development, as well as future prospects and his views on history and perceptions of nature.


Junko Edahiro (JE): When did research on technologies inspired by nature begin?

Professor Emile H. Ishida (EI): The first research of this kind was on circuits in the 1930s inspired by the neural impulse propagation in squid nerves, called the Schmitt Trigger, which later evolved into application in modern electronic devices. And then, the concept of getting inspiration from nature was developed in the 1950s. This is probably older than you expected, isn't it?

JE: Where did the idea of getting inspiration from nature come from?

EI: This idea was rather common until biology and engineering were segregated as science subjects, because technological development before was all based on available sources on the earth. Look at the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci; most of his sketches are good samples of biomimetics. So, the idea itself, getting inspiration from nature, is not at all novel.

Note: Biomimetics is the study of the structure and function of biological systems as models for the design and engineering of materials and machines.

However, a shift happened toward technologies based on resources extracted from the ground, signaling a massive change in direction to those powered by fossil fuels. Since then, the need for getting ideas by exploring deeper into the complex systems of nature started to fade. Later, biology and engineering became separate academic fields, and were not studied together anymore.

JE: Could you please elaborate more on what you call technologies based on resources extracted from the ground?

EI: We can say that technologies developed since the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom were the starting point for most of our current technologies. I think the success of the revolution is owed to making a clear break from nature. The idea behind it is that humans can utilize nature as a slave, a concept proposed by Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. In short, the idea that "we humans are able to control nature" is the basis of our current technologies.

But technological development based on this idea resulted in causing the serious problem of accelerated deterioration of the global environment. If the present situation continues, I'm afraid that we will trigger our civilization's collapse by 2030. At the same time, sensing the signs of crisis, we instinctively have started seeking technologies not based on resources extracted from the ground.

On the other hand, only Japan was able to achieve an industrial revolution, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), without breaking away from nature. In that sense, I believe Japan has a duty to demonstrate this to the world.

Compared to what happened in the UK, the industrial revolution in Japan was based on diligence, and instead called the "industrious revolution." Based on their new principle of seeing themselves as removed from nature, the UK achieved the industrial revolution through capital intensification. In contrast, Japan took an isolationist approach. Since the enactment of the primary policy in 1633, it took a long time -- until around 1800 -- to totally close off the country from the outside. Until then, Japan relied on trade with foreign countries. The country was finally able to feed its over 30 million people solely with domestic products around 1800, after spending nearly 170 years of desperate struggle. I'm sure it must have been due to tremendous efforts by the people and country.

Under such a national situation, labor-intensive agriculture was taken up to feed people across Japan, instead of capital-intensive operations. For example, farm work using cattle and horses was replaced with human labor to decrease the number of farm animals needed. This was the way they managed to cover the food demands of 30 million people. Amazingly, the harvest in Japan per unit of land around 1800 was greater than that of the average in Asia in the 1970s.

The Japanese tradition of taking care of things and using them for a long time started at this time. It was not a natural attitude that all Japanese had, but it evolved under such circumstances. Their mindset changed rapidly in this time of constraint, and they began to handle things more carefully and used them for a long time. Having lived with a certain view of nature, Japanese created the style of using daily goods for a long time, with care -- without feeling any sense of being restrained -- and enjoying daily life with the things they genuinely produced.

Many foreigners visited Japan during the end of the Edo era and the early Meiji era, and they were impressed by the people's lifestyle, saying, "Japanese use artworks in their daily life however poor they may be." People take good care of what they have, and those who make things produce them with the minutest attention to detail, hoping they would be used for a long time. This was where beauty was created and signaled the launch of "Yo-no-bi" -- meaning Japanese insight into beauty -- as Muneyoshi Yanagi (Japanese philosopher and founder of the "mingei," or "folk craft" movement in Japan in the late 1920s and 1930s) called it. I believe this is the starting point of Japanese technology.

JE: This is a profound analysis.

JFS/Technologies to Save the Earth -- Learning from Nature (Part 1)
Copyright Prof. Emile H. Ishida

EI: The attitude of using daily goods for a long time with care is what is required for the present environment surrounding the earth. So, I use the word "nature technology" instead of biomimetics. Nature technology is a new system which regards lifestyle and technology as one. I believe we have to take two steps to create this system. We first need to establish a spiritually affluent lifestyle without adding more stress to the earth, and then employ the necessary technology from nature to maintain this lifestyle. It is meaningless if we just try to mimic the technology of nature without changing our lifestyle.

JE: Was Japan's industrious revolution, as opposed to the industrial revolution in the UK, conducted intentionally?

EI: The mechanism of this industrious revolution is explained by the isolation policy. This closed-door policy was a constraint. Revolution doesn't occur a constraint is applied. I often hear people say, "Let's restore the nation by springing back from the earthquake disaster," but springs first need to be contracted before making a further extension. This contraction is the constraint, so we first need to be constrained before starting the restoration. I wish our Prime Minister would declare a national policy of living with 30 percent less energy and think about what to do to realize this. If he did this, we could really start our restoration movement.

JE: In this absolute constraint caused by the closure of the country, people in Japan during the Edo era changed their lifestyle to live under constrained conditions. Similar action has to be taken now worldwide, don't you think?

EI: Yes. But this concept is difficult to be understood in a world of monotheistic religion, under which people believe that nature lies at their feet. When I first made a speech at the Royal Academy in England six years ago, in 2005, my speech was not well understood by the audience. But the next time I was invited again, in 2010, I received a standing ovation for my speech. Their situation might have changed. I have also changed the structure of my speech, from saying that "we need this technology to have this lifestyle," to saying that "we can create this technology to change our lifestyle." By creating nature technology with a lifestyle at its base, we can change the world. Nature technology includes many technologies that can be shared by people who are not from the wealthiest class. Using these technologies, I believe we can create something applicable even for people from the "base of the pyramid" (BOP), or lower income group, though I don't like using that term.

JE: What are the challenges in promoting nature technology?

EI: It is the large gap between biology and engineering.

JE: It is essential to gather together those who are able to see things both from a biological perspective as well as an engineering aspect, or make a team of such people, to advance nature technology schemes, isn't it?

EI: That's right. For biologists, for example, the structural features of cicada wings such as their anti-reflection effect is not a thing to be further interested in after they discover it. Those who happen to have good sense can look at things from both perspectives. Such a person is able to serve as an interpreter to bridge the biological and engineering fields. Let's take an example of the blades of a wind turbine inspired by the structure of dragonfly wings. There is no interpreter between the two fields who can find both a biologist studying dragonflies and an engineer trying to develop a wind turbine that can generate electricity even with a faint breeze for a new lifestyle designed using a backcasting approach. No one suggests, "Professor, how about making a wind turbine using the structure of a dragonfly wing?" In short, engineers say, "We want to develop something like this," or biologists say, "We found an interesting thing like this." Even if they are talking about the same thing, they can't communicate with each other because there is a perceptional gap between the two fields.

On the other hand, at museums or other places in the United States and Europe, it is natural for many people to ask when they find something interesting, "Is it possible for engineering to develop such a thing?" When asked, engineers would have a chance to learn about mechanisms in nature from biologists, by responding, "Make what?" This can be a good opportunity to open up a new field of study no one else has ever done. Nature is a treasure trove of wisdom.

JE: But for that to happen, an interpreter like you, Professor Ishida, is really needed.

EI: Surely. That's why I want to build a database of nature technologies usable for anyone who doesn't know about biology. Actually, I have been working hard to accumulate the data, but it takes about a month for me to understand just one example found in the forces of nature and to interpret or re-design such an example as a seed of a nature technology. I still have more than 2,000 cases to be added to the database, so it will take forever to complete.

Meanwhile, I organized the Nature Technology Consortium, consisting of 70 to 80 companies, hoping to create a network among companies. Nowadays, many companies are facing tough challenges in seeking what kind of technologies they should develop.

For instance, when considering safety issues, automakers began to ask themselves whether they need to produce cars equipped with a milliwave radar system, like fighter planes, to detect a possible collision. There is no doubt that safety and security used to be the most important issues, but recently, environmental constraints are being emphasized increasingly.

Under such a situation, many people came to me, saying, "I'd like to fundamentally reconsider safety and security," or "I want to learn from nature why a school of fish can swim without colliding with other fish." Now is the time when technology should take responsibility for supporting a certain lifestyle.

(To be continued in Part 2.)

Written by Junko Edahiro

This project is supported by Hitachi Environment Foundation

See also: JFS "Get Inspired by Nature" Project