Natural Innovation

A couple of weeks before Christmas I noticed something odd in the garden of my house in Brisbane. While I often see ants around the home, there were now large clusters of ants moving upstairs and taking their eggs with them. The folklore is that when this happens it means that we are in for a really wet spell of weather and I am on the record with Tim as making a prediction based on this. I can’t tell you how the ants know when to move but they seem to be a very accurate long-range forecaster of weather. If you haven’t seen the news, this photo shows what has been happening here in the city and the situation in the towns up river has been catastrophic with loss of life.

Brisbane River in Flood

As I said, I haven’t heard of a good explanation for the ant weather forecast but the Australian aborigines collected a great deal of knowledge about animal behaviour and weather patterns. Apart from the ants, they had other signs that were learned over 40,000 years living on the land.

It got me thinking about how many clever tricks exist in the natural world and how many would be useful to us if we could adapt or mass produce them. This is actually a very active area of science called ‘biomimicry’ which usually combines expertise from fields of biology and engineering. A long time ago I was a biochemist and there are many examples of the pharmaceuticals that we use coming from plants and fungus. There are many more really cool examples though.

Velcro is an everyday item (I’m not sure if my son will ever learn to tie shoelaces!) but the idea was inspired in 1941 when a Swiss engineer looked under a microscope to find out why ‘burr’ seeds stuck so well to the fur of his dog.


– Have you noticed how jet engines have a point in the middle to improve airflow?

Ramjet Engine

I’ve been told that the idea for controllinng engine turbulence at high speed came from an ingenious solution from the Peregrine Falcon, which can dive at speeds of around 300 kph. If you look carefully at its nose you will see little baffles that streamline the air intake at high speeds.

Peregrine Falcon

Nature is a valuable source of ideas. On the blog we talk about good innovation management as a process of generating a variety of ideas and selecting the best ones through trials. This is precisely what happens in nature so it’s not surprinsing that there is a wealth of valuable ideas here. Some of them are being engineered and applied for economically valuable purposes. Here are some that I am aware of. You probably know about more.

Permanent Colour
I’ve always been impressed by the iridescent blue and green on the beetles that appear in my backyard before Christmas time and it turns out that these colours are not a pigment in the usual sense of absorbing light from one part of the visible spectrum and reflecting other parts. This is actually ‘nanotecnology’ where structures in the beetle’s shell create colour in the way that a CD will also show colours when held up to the light.

Christmas Beetle

The trouble with paint pigment is that it eventually fades but the beetle’s colour is permanent until the nanostructures are damaged. Engineers are working on way to commercially replicate this permanent colour. Given the size of the paint industry, this could really be a disruptive innovation.

Next Generation Solar Panels
Solar energy is a great idea but a major problem is that the current design of photovoltaic panels means that they will always be expensive due to the price of silicon. The next generation of solar panels will replicate the chemistry that goes on in the leaves of plants. Dyesol is an Australian company that is developing liquid solar panels. Unlike the solid state panels, the main component is a relatively cheap dye called Ruthenium. Another advantage of trying to replicate photosynthesis is that it works in lower light conditions and the transparency of the panels means that every window can potentially be a solar panel, albeit with a slightly pink colour.

Dyesol Panel

Nature is a brilliant inventor but inventions are not innovations. Ideas are everywhere… in our heads, our organizations and all around us. There is a surplus of good ideas and if the focus of our efforts is to generate more ideas then we are wasting our time. Value is generated when we select the best ideas and connect them to the right people and processes to create new goods and services.

Since I wrote this post a few hours ago the flood situation has deteriorated. Many thousands of people are being affected. There is an appeal to help these people. If you are able, please donate at

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “Natural Innovation

  1. Hi John,

    I recently read a very interesting interview with Kevin Kelly on the evolution of technology, wherein he draws parallels with biological evolution en route to statistically more complex and specialized instances of both organism and technology. The interview closes with some very thought-provoking imagery which I believe you will find ties in with the theme here of innovation.

    Hope you enjoy it (and hope things start to dry out for you guys down there)!

  2. Hi Brian

    thanks for this. I’m really enjoying your comments on the blog. Sorry about the delayed reply, the flood ended up coming to my backyard fence at 2am in the morning and then receded. A very nice 40th birthday present fo rme but many others were not so fortunate.

Comments are closed.