In Conversation with Dr Mauro Gallo: Lector of Biomimicry

7 maart 2018

“It’s a great challenge. It’s all about innovation, sustainability and working together.”

Social innovation, sustainability, clever designs. Being an open-minded experimentalist, Dr. Mauro Gallo started in September 2017 as Lector Biomimicry, learning from nature for sustainable solutions at Aeres University of Applied Sciences Wageningen. In this programme he also works as lector for Inholland University of Applied Sciences and VanHall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences Sustainability. Working together and an open mind are important themes. And an open mind is crucial when it comes to this new lectorate. Why? Biomimicry is all about crossing boundaries and connecting disciplines together.     

First. What is biomimicry?
“It is literally trying to mimic nature. In the belief that nature has already solved many of the problems we are dealing with. For example. One scientist noticed how whales have fins with tiny protrusions on them. He wondered why. It turns out that these small bits reduce turbulence and noise: a brilliant system actually. Inspired by nature, this scientist figured out how to apply this technique to wind turbines. It’s extremely effective.” 

Why did you choose this field of study?
“Initially, biomimicry was unknown territory for me, but it suits me well. I’m used to research ‘stuff’ and now my research is also connected to people. It’s completely new, but I’m enjoying it to the fullest. Look at how our bodies regulate heat for example. Transpiration is one solution. Another is that our blood vessels enlarge and shrink to regulate heat. I’m thinking it would be interesting to apply this to electronics for example. Or, think about how birds are able to land on very small branches. Our airplanes can’t do that, they require long landing strips. These examples inspire me every day.”

What’s your plan?
“It’s a three-way-approach. To begin with, biomimicry is multidisciplinary by default. Simply because its designs can be an inspiration for almost anything. This approach however, is not enough. Specialists need to really communicate with each other, sit around the table and understand each other’s needs in order to find solutions. This is an interdisciplinary approach.”

And finally?
“All these solutions need to be imbedded in society. We need to transfer knowledge. We call this transdisciplinary. In short: we need everyone at the design table. From biologists and engineers to experts in manufacturing and even economists. All aspects of product development need to be here.”

Can you give an example?
“Take engineers. They don’t often use the examples that surround them. Have you noticed how the wings of airplanes have changed over time? Engineers figured out how a slight curve in wing tips improved their aerodynamic performance. Incredible. A biologist could have told them much earlier that eagles use this exact technique as well. So, people need to communicate. And that’s precisely what I want to do within the research unit of biomimicry: I want to cross boundaries.”  

That seems ambitious
“Yes, it probably is. But I need a challenge. And isn’t it better to say I failed, than to say that I haven’t tried at all? I need challenges in my life. Otherwise, I don’t have fun. Plus, we need to start somewhere. We need to find a systematic approach of how to tackle certain issues. This is currently lacking in the academic world. Sadly, it’s difficult to build bridges between different disciplines. They all speak different languages, and they have different mind-sets and approaches. It’s frustrating. I think biomimicry can help future engineers for example, to implement a more holistic approach in their designs.”

Biomimicry is all about innovative ideas. Is there a specific problem you want to tackle?
“Yes. We are going to use biomimicry as innovation tool in the agrifood sector. Today, agriculture is mostly based on monoculture. This means that farmers use a lot of pesticides and fertilizers. It also leads to a decrease in the quality of soil and erosion takes place. Biomimicry can help to improve agriculture. How? With our bio-inspired solutions. We aim at more sustainable and biodiverse agricultural models. Our options are endless. We could design bio-inspired robots that help to harvest crops. Or, think about the filtration system of mangroves or human kidneys. These natural processes can inspire the creation of our own man-made filtration systems to improve water management and the quality of water in agriculture.”
What do you want to achieve within this research unit?
“I want to demonstrate how biomimicry can bring better solutions than traditional approaches. Why are we trying to invent everything ourselves? Nature already provides the solutions. It’s just frustrating that we don’t have access to these solutions yet. If we do, it will save us a lot of time. Plus, it increases the sustainability of our designs.”

Last but not least, what do you expect from students?
“Students have fresh brains with original ideas. They can always surprise me. For me as a lecturer, I don’t want to lose contact with the students. So, I would like to involve them in all projects.”

Biomimicry is a collaboration between Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Wageningen, VHL University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden and Inholland University of Applied Sciences in Delft. The lectorate contributes to three programmes of the three UAS. At Aeres  this is the research programme Wisdom, at Inholland, the lectorate is part of the Honours program and at VHL it is part of the Sustainable and Innovative Technologies programme.