That’s how Mauro Gallo summed up his feelings about his inaugural lecture, given on 20 April 2018 at Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Wageningen, with a live stream to the other universities where he works.
“There were so many guests; a really mixed group, from many different disciplines, from the three universities of applied sciences where I’m lector of Biomimicry, from different countries, as well as students, family and friends. Even my PhD supervisor had flown in from Naples in Italy. On the other hand, that was a real concern; how could I match my story to the differing needs and levels of this audience? I think I succeeded though; the best feedback I got was the following, ‘I understood everything, right from the start’, and perhaps for me, more personal and stronger, from my PhD supervisor in Naples who’s passionately devoted to the field of fluid dynamics, ’It’s very beautiful what you are saying, such a holistic approach!’”.
So what is it that’s so beautiful?“ Well I did my PhD in aerospace engineering, specialising in fluid dynamics and heat transfer, and in Italy – it’s theory, theory, theory…all the way - you only really apply it later on. So when I moved to the Netherlands and started working at TU Delft 7 years ago, this was the beginning of great changes for me. The Dutch higher education system seems to be so much more flexible; there’s room for doers, there’s room for thinkers, and all at different levels and subjects. So I’m an experimentalist and a doer with a theoretical background, and working in this new context is becoming an exciting experience. When I was approached to work at InHolland as lector, that seemed to confirm this. The beauty is that it’s all about changing things, moving things forward, bringing different disciplines together from different universities of applied sciences, and tackling the subject of Biomimicry from different viewpoints.”
An example?“A simple example: take a leaf. A biologist sees something green, looks at its structure, components, and photosynthesis. A mechanical engineer looks at the same leaf and, together with a biologist, discovers that such a “simple” biological system can be a source of inspiration for the realization of innovative and more sustainable energy conversion systems. Bring the two together, and get them to understand each other’s views and science, then you’re moving the world forward – closing the gap that we humans have created between ourselves and nature. This is of course true for the way we look at and use all of our resources – we simply don’t see the harm we’re doing to our own world.”
So that’s the reason behind the three universities approach to biomimicry?“Yes, each university has a different field of interest. Broadly speaking, InHolland is more product driven, Van Hall Larenstein has a process-driven focus, and Aeres takes a more social sciences approach. But I’ll be working for and at all three universities in my new role, bringing the learning from one to the other – as mentioned by my old PhD supervisor – a sustainable, holistic approach.”
So, is there a course, a curriculum for all three schools, can students apply, what will they learn?“Wait a second, I’ve just been installed as lector Biomimicry at Aeres, Inholland and Van Hall Larenstein. We’re still in the first year! For each university, we have to develop a programme relevant to its specific needs, we need to get people on board who can not only teach Biomimicry from their own specialism, but who can work together with others. And then there’s all the admin stuff – we need to find facilities, rooms, students and so much more. We also need to establish relationships with industry and other stakeholders, and find funding. However, I’m completely convinced we’ll succeed; the three universities are completely behind me, and also, on our journey towards an increasingly circular economy, there’s a real need for this multidisciplinary approach in our rapidly changing world. Nature is our true mentor.”
And any concrete plans?
“Well, in the first year, we’ll focus on areas where there’s mutual ground, for example bio-inspired robots in agriculture, and living filtration systems. At Aeres, our focus is more on the social scientific aspects of, for example, how nature can inspire the development of strategies that enhance the resilience and responsiveness of companies and organisations. We need to develop the language and theory of Bionics/biomimicry, and then we’ll move it into the curriculum within 3 years, perhaps initially by offering it as an Honours course. However – these are just some initial thoughts and basically – that’s my fulltime job now: to bring the differing disciplines together to share their expertise and collaborate on this completely new field: learning from nature for sustainable solutions.”