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We still have so much to learn from the natural world. In fact, it seems like many technological breakthroughs seek to mimic natural systems that have been functioning for thousands, if not millions, of years. Solar panels convert sunlight into energy like photosynthesis in the leaves of plants, honeycomb designs are increasingly seen in artitecture to increase strength while minimising materials, now shark’s scales are being used to design better drones, planes, and wind turbines.
The Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities can also look to nature for inspiration according to many leading experts. At the Honeywell Technology Day in London, Martin L Frohock, ARM’s head of Facility Management (FM), associated the algorithm that desert ants use to regulate their foraging as similar to TCP protocol, which regulates the internet. Frohock said ants use their “anternet” for “positive feedback for transmission acknowledgement”. Their “data package” is food that they gather from other ants returning to the colony to store and distribute.
“The algorithm localises each ant’s experience and behaviour [and] at the same time a huge number of one-to-one encounters by touching their antennae allows them to collect the wisdom of the colony and share the information,” Frohock explained. “These networks become resilient over the years, which is part of the core business case for smart buildings,” he added.
In his presentation, Frohock also equated fungi to the IoT, explaining that mushrooms use mycelia threads to link roots to a fungal network in order to share nutrients and ensure sustainability responsiveness, health and security of the entire system. “Mushrooms don’t have chlorophyll so they steal carbon from nearby trees to help resist unwanted plants by sending toxins through the network, not dissimilar to a lot of the cloud-based security provisions”, Forhock said.
In fact, fungal networks go much further than simply stealing carbon and sending toxins. Scientists have found that fungal networks within the soil of a forest, for example, link almost all trees and plants together to effectively create one super organism. By connecting the roots of plants to this fungal network, trees and other flora can communicate, trade and wage war with one another, all facilitated by the network.
The fungi provide the plants with nutrients and receive sugars in return but this is more than just a symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi. Scientists have discovered that some older trees, fondly known as “mother trees,” will often provide shaded seedlings with sugars for energy until they grow to find sunlight themselves. They also found that dying trees might release their remaining resources into the network to support neighboring plants.
The IoT network has the potential to work in many similar ways as the fungal network. In a smart city, for example, the tallest buildings can provide excess rooftop solar energy to shorter buildings that do not receive as much solar radiation. Older buildings can supply historical data on temperature, weather, utility supply or human traffic in the district or city block in order to help newer buildings better understand and thrive in their environment. Before demolition, a building’s historical data could be supplied to the designers of the building that replaces it. These strategies help the city function better as a whole.
Scientists also discovered that when plants in the forest come under attack from insects or parasites, some have even been found to send warnings through the network, allowing other connected plants to preemptively release protective chemicals. External threats to one building in a smart city, such as a natural disaster, electricity surge or terrorist attack, could automatically trigger a preemptive defensive response from other buildings to lessen the impact of that event spreading. These could be locking doors, closing vents, evacuating or whatever the situation demands.
Like our digital networks, the “Wood Wide Web” of fungal networks in forests are also vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The Coralroot Orchid, for example, hacks the fungal network to steal resources being transferred between trees; while the Black Walnut tree releases toxins into the network to weaken or kill nearby plants in order to gain an advantage. The fungal network system is explained in this short, fascinating video by the BBC.
What works for the IoT network at a city scale will also work on the scale of a single building and even within a single office. Contemporary workplace theories are demonstrating that workers in an office function at different levels of productivity at different times according to temperature, light levels, air quality, and many other factors. Data from one group can be used to increase productivity in another group, thereby increasing overall productivity like one big workplace organism.
As artificially intelligent workplaces better understand workflow, the specific tasks and responsibilities of each employee, as well as the objectives and priorities of the company as a whole, the building could even reassign knowledge and talent to better achieve company goals. In co-working spaces, the building may connect two independent freelancers whose skills or projects may be beneficial to one another.
FM could use that same type of actionable insight but the information is just not available to them, said Frohock. “As building operators, FMs need analytics, logic and behaviour change in our business to allow them to be disruptive in offices and workplaces,” he suggests. “Part of bringing about disruption, is merging HR, IT and FM so that these entities shall never be silos again.”
Like fungal networks in forests, the networks that create the IoT can turn workplaces, buildings and even entire cities into giant super-organisms. These entities can share resources, provide early warning systems and dynamically prioritize activities in order to better achieve the goals of each community as a whole. Nature may already be one step ahead but using technology to mimic advanced natural systems, human environments could soon catch up and thrive in progressive and sustainable ways.