Leonardo Da Vinci said those words more than half a millennia ago. He was referring to what we know now as biomimicry or biomimetics. Even without microscopes, radioastronomy or the human genome Da Vinci knew there was no more perfectly nuanced system than the world around him.
"Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain."
Leonardo Da Vinci, Polymath
In recent years his words have become gospel again thanks to the growing biomimicry movement, and after two centuries of wasteful, destructive economic development, large numbers of scientists, engineers, inventors and even venture capitalists and lawyers are sitting up and taking notice.
Despite what the term suggests, mimicking nature doesn't mean abandoning technology and becoming luddites. It's about recognising the elegance and efficiency with which nature does things and using it at as inspiration to rethink the way we design, make and use things with more sophistication, not primitivism.
In many cases, the way nature does things is simply better. When Swiss engineer George de Mestral took a closer look at the burrs stuck to his dog's belly after a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941, he realised the distinctive hook and loop system which secured the burrs to the dog's hair together would make a great synthetic fastener. And Velcro was born.
Today, biomimicry is widespread across more industries than you might think. Computer security specialists take cues from immunology to learn how biological viruses propagate to help combat their digital counterparts. If your phone call goes via a British Telecom network in Europe it's routed according to an algorithm based on the way ants find food.
THE GREEN SOLUTION
In many ways the lynchpin of biomimicry is where other animals live among nature, we tend to live off nature. We pump polluting gas into the air, litter the earth with plastic and radioactive waste that takes centuries to degrade and wipes out forests.
Whether there's some fundamental difference between us and the rest of life on Earth or it's just a matter of degree, our recent history is quite different from the ecosystemic re-absorption and re-purposing of resources that created us.
Achieving the environmental gains built-in natural processes offer seems like a huge task after our history of high waste, factory style production, but it can start with the simple question 'how would nature do this?'
You might have heard stories about small windmills on the rooves of skyscrapers and walls that photosyhthesise sunlight at the cutting edge of product design, but some far more established names are doing their homework. Clients of the most successful biomimicry consultants and advisors in the US include General Electric, Boeing, General Mills and Kraft.
The reason is there are millions of design ideas (one for every species) yet to be investigated, and more and more companies are government agencies are adopting greener and sustainable practices to find efficiencies and save costs.
The production of most material and goods for human use is shockingly inefficient. Consider the household light globe, where most of the energy to power it has been lost in transmission across the power grid to our house, and most of the energy in the bulb dissipates as heat rather than the small fraction we need for light.
Next time you turn on a light at home (which probably uses about 120 volts of electricity) consider the Amazon electric eel can produce three times as much power using chemicals also found in the human body.
Large-scale production by humans is also characterised by bulk volume then cut down to suit us – like electricity. By contrast, nature builds to shape.
Imagine if we were to back a truck up to a building which sprayed a liquid formation on the floor that self-assembled into carpet fibres the way seashells form? The paradigm of manufacturing carpet and then cutting it down to fit in a room would be turned on its head.
YOUR NEXT ENGINEERING PROBLEM – SOLVED
No matter how big or small, whether it's a whole factory to be retooled or just a prototype, look at your intended end result.
Often it's not the product you want, it's what the product does (for example, we don't necessarily want a hammer, we want a hole in the wall).
Rather than hammer a nail into a wall, there's undoubtedly a system in the natural world which creates holes in surfaces naturally – look no further than sea sponges or even human skin.
There's now a mature industry of consultants and designers backed by science that can look at the aims of your project and help you design it better.
Someone's almost certainly done it before you, but the good news is there's no existing IP, patent or licensing to sift through – it'll be a gift from nature.