Futurist advises B.C. decision-makers, residents to look to coastal ecosystems for climate, waste solutions

·4 min read
Billy Almon studies how organisms and species in the natural world can help humans design new technologies to address problems such as climate change and waste. (Billy Almon - image credit)
Billy Almon studies how organisms and species in the natural world can help humans design new technologies to address problems such as climate change and waste. (Billy Almon - image credit)

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An American who studies how new technologies could emulate nature says B.C. policy makers, industry and residents should look to the intertidal zone along the province's coast for solutions to climate change and waste problems.

Billy Almon, an expert in biomimicry — the practice of learning from and mimicking strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — was a keynote speaker at Metro Vancouver's Zero Waste conference this week.

He hopes to inspire politicians, industry leaders and residents to look at the natural world around their own region with fresh eyes for how humans can adapt to our changing earth.

"It's turning to nature," he said. "For 3.8 billion years that life has been on this planet, all of the organisms on this planet that have adapted or solved the problem successfully are still here. We see them outside our window, they're in our backyards."

Almon, 35, has spent his life being curious and thinking about inventions that could help make the world a better place. Through a degree in architecture he moved on to study the natural world and how the function of plants and animals could be better understood and replicated for human-designed technologies.

"Instead of trying to come up with all these new things, why don't we copy organisms on this planet?" he said.

Almon, who also is a co-host of an Animal Planet show called Little Giants about tiny creatures that can do amazing things, told attendees of the Zero Waste conference this week that B.C.'s intertidal zone, where the ocean meets the land, is a place where innovators should look for inspiration and resiliency.

Chad Pawson/CBC News
Chad Pawson/CBC News

Intertidal zones are places of tremendous daily change, he said, where tides come in and out and species there have adapted to those conditions, such as kelp, which attaches to rocky areas and allows itself to be buffeted by tides and currents.

"There's a lot of parallels that can be drawn I think between the last 18 months that we've experienced life on this planet during this pandemic and living in the intertidal zone," he said. "There's a lot of change and upheaval and lot of dynamic turbulence in so many different ways."

Almon, who has spent time in Tofino, B.C., studying ecosystems there, says he's particularly impressed with mussels and their ability to filter water.

He envisions a future technology using soft robotics that would mimic a mussel to filter tiny plastic particles out of the ocean.

"So if we had things that operate like mussels we could have an autonomous system literally pumping in waste and pumping out cleaner water," he said.

"And the smaller that these plastic pieces get, the more of an imperative we have to find ways to filter out all these toxic particulates."

Along with talking about the potential for future technologies based on nature, Almon also encouraged people to find ways to become more aware of the natural world around them.

"One of the greatest things that people can do to help the environment is be more curious about it," he said.

He said a curiosity about plants, insects and animals will lead to a greater understanding of their interconnectedness and importance to healthy and functioning ecosystems.

Chad Pawson/CBC News
Chad Pawson/CBC News

Craig Hodge, a City of Coquitlam councillor, who is also a director for Metro Vancouver and the vice-chair of its zero waste committee says inspirational and forward-thinking speakers like Almon help decision-makers like him.

Hodge, 64, spends most of his summers at the beach and never considered how species in the dynamic ecosystem had evolved to thrive there.

"We as humans also have to find ways that we can adapt to daily changes in our lives and how we work in our changing environment," he said. "Right now we have major issues in climate change and … managing waste."

Metro Vancouver has set ambitious goals such as diverting 80 per cent of its waste but people who live in the region toss one billion single-use items a year. The regional government says that works out to 440 items per person per year.

Hodge says that while the technological innovation Almon speaks about may be years away, he hopes decision-makers will take bold action now and residents spur them on.

"I think people are much more aware now [of] climate change and the impact around us and I think they're demanding all levels of government to start to take action so I think we're now looking as decision-makers ... how we can do our part," he said.

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