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Innovation Insights
by Stephen Shapiro

moth creating silk

Why Your Best Innovation Ideas Might Come From Nature

Don’t just look to other companies for inspiration, look in your backyard…

Here in the United States, it’s Memorial Day Weekend. A time when we are outdoors enjoying nature. Maybe this is a great time to find some new innovations.

Expertise is often the enemy of breakthrough thinking. The more you know about your company, industry, customers, and competitors, the harder it is to think differently about it.

So where can you turn to develop new ideas? Looking to other industries is a good start, but sometimes the greatest breakthroughs are derived by studying the world of biology.

As an example, let’s take a look at a concept for a self-generating tire. Two challenges associated with traditional tires are:

  1. They wear down over time, creating a waste problem.
  2. They can’t adapt to different driving conditions, such as dry roads, rain, or snow.

Goodyear built a concept that could address these challenges. How did they do it? They borrowed two concepts from biology:

  1. Self-generation techniques similar to the way the body regenerates skin or the way shark’s teeth are constantly regrown.
  2. Creating strength through microfibers the way a moth caterpillar creates silk.

The solution they developed is to use cartridges that can be replaced in the center of the tire that push the material to the tread. The tread regenerates. Better yet, if you use a different cartridge, you can get a different grip for rain or snow.

Here’s a short video that explains the concept:

What can we learn from this fascinating example?

Look elsewhere to find solutions. And in some cases, when developing new products, we can learn a lot from biology and the world at large.

For example, researchers developed an adhesive by studying the gecko lizard’s “gravity-defying feet.” This waterproof bandage is biodegradable, sticks well when wet, and is safe to use inside the body to augment sutures or staples.

Or consider engineers that developed a technology that automatically seals minor cracks in gas pipelines. They did this by studying the way the body coagulates and seals small cuts.

And think about a self-cleaning surface that was developed by studying the water-repelling (hydrophobic) hairs of arthropods such as spiders.

There are an unlimited number of applications of biomimicry in innovation. What’s the process for using this approach? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the attributes of the problem? (I need something sticky)
  • Where in nature is this type of problem addressed? (The feet of geckos)
  • How could you adapt that solution to your problem? (Create a bandage that mimics a gecko’s feet)

Of course, be sure to focus on causation, not correlation. For example, studying the way birds fly led to numerous failed attempts at creating flight by flapping wings. The real “cause” of bird flight came through an understanding of the principles of lift.

Sometimes it’s fun to do this in reverse. Instead of trying to solve a specific problem, find a unique attribute of something in nature and ask, “What other problems could this solve?” Spend time outside and be mesmerized by the innovation right under your nose.

How can the concept of photosynthesis be used to convert sunlight into chemical energy that can be stored? How can we create more effective teams by studying the way ants self-organize? (Notice that this last one is not about a product but rather a process.)

Have fun. Explore. Be inspired.

Sometimes the best solutions have been around since the beginning of time and we just need to adapt them to our specific needs.

This article originally appeared on the Inc. website