Sunday, April 18, 2010

social insects inspire human design

RoyalSociety | Humans have long looked to nature for practical inspiration; after observing paper wasps, Réaumur (1719) suggested that people, too, could make paper from wood fibre, without cotton or linen rags. However, the formal use of biology as a design tool, known as biomimicry or biomimetics (Benyus 1997; Vincent et al. 2006), is a recent and rapidly accelerating enterprise in academia (Hesselberg 2007) and industry (Bonser 2006). Biomimicry approaches the biological world as a catalogue of successful designs, honed by natural selection, that can be imitated or translated to solve human problems. The conference ‘Social Biomimicry: Insect Societies and Human Design’, hosted by Arizona State University, USA, 18–20 February 2010, explored how social insects can serve as models for biomimetic design, and asked what general lessons can be learned about biomimicry.

Social insects (ants, bees, wasps, termites, etc.) are uniquely qualified to inform human design. They have evolved tightly integrated societies with up to millions of members, and have solved many problems inherent to social organization (Wilson 1971). Individual social insect workers exhibit relatively simple behaviours, but collectively, colonies can perform complex functions such as routing traffic, allocating labour and resources and building nests that provide physical and social services. Unlike most human operations, social insects accomplish such feats without a supervisor or centralized control; instead, colony-level patterns self-organize, or emerge, from local interactions that elicit positive and negative feedback responses (Camazine et al. 2001). These interactions are often mediated by stigmergy, a form of indirect communication through modification of the environment. Self-organization and stigmergy motivate the field of swarm intelligence, which designs algorithms for the solution of optimization and distributed control problems (Bonabeau et al. 1999).

The realization of social-insect-inspired design, and biomimicry more broadly, requires communication and collaboration across disciplinary and professional boundaries. ‘Social Biomimicry’ provided a forum for exchange between biologists, designers, engineers, computer scientists, architects and businesspeople.