“The Experience Gave Us Hope

How the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge started an Egyptian designer on a path to help her country.

Nariman Lotfi (third from right) poses with the members of Team Egy-Osmo.

When Nariman Lotfi, a design student at Egypt’s German University in Cairo, learned about biomimicry for the first time, something clicked.

She was doing some research on bionics for her master’s degree, and read about a new field that connected design and sustainability in a way that made sense to her on a fundamental level. “I hadn’t come across the term, ‘biomimicry’ before,” she said, “and when I did, it highlighted a lot of thoughts I had, but couldn’t quite find anywhere else.”

Lotfi didn’t know it at the time, but this discovery was the start of a journey that would take her from the classroom, to the stagnant canals in the region, and over 5,000 miles east to Boston to accept a first-place award from biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus.

Shortly after first learning about nature-inspired design, Lotfi came across the 2012 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge and quickly formed a team. That year, the challenge theme was focused on water, a subject that intrigued Lotfi and her teammates right from the start. Her team of predominantly women–including Yara Yassin, Reham Mogawer, Mona Diab, Ahmed Hassan, and Doa’a Mohamed Refaat–was attracted to the potential benefits biomimicry had in addressing water-related problems in Egypt.

Lotfi and her team–who named themselves Egy-Osmo (a combination of Egypt and osmosis)–didn’t have to search far to address the challenge topic. Although their adviser suggested focusing on a smaller-scale problem, the team wanted to think bigger. “We felt that we were a small group of optimistic people, and we wanted to solve something for Egypt and for our country,” said Lotfi, “We were really passionate about solving a problem that would benefit our country as a whole.”

Team Egy-Osmo was inspired by the dromedary camel’s digestive system to design a canal system that keeps microbial growth down by circulating water using energy captured from a waterfall. Image courtesy of Team Egy-Osmo.

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Watch Team Egy-Osmo’s Design Challenge submission video to see their motivations, inspiration, and design process.

They looked locally, in the city of Fayoum, an agricultural city, where weekly farmers markets dot the streets. Man-made canals, known as “Teraa,” run through Fayoum and are used to irrigate the crops. However, the canals also have a long-standing reputation amongst Egyptians as being problematic. Though the Teraa are mainly used for irrigation, due to insufficient water systems, residents additionally use them for domestic cleaning purposes and sewage waste disposal. Not only does this destroy many of the local crops, it is also a major health concern.

The Egy-Osmo team looked to create a sustainable solution to the irrigation problem that would improve the conditions and lives in Fayoum. Inspired by the giraffe and dromedary camel, they designed a bio-irrigation system called Dromedarily Sustainable. Similar to how the dromedary camel circulates water in its hump, the design team created a system that circulates water using energy captured from a waterfall to keep microbial growth down. They also looked to how the giraffe pumps blood through its neck for inspiration on how to push water through a tight container to increase speed and pressure. Essentially, Dromedarily Sustainable is a shared system–water is looped around continuously until a farmer needs it. When water is needed, the farmer can open a gate along the perimeter of the route to allow it to veer off into the farm.

Egy-Osmo submitted their design to the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge and waited. A few weeks later, they found out that they had made it to the second round and were invited to Boston to pitch their idea in front of judges.

Lotfi and her team were surprised to be finalists. “We were very proud–this was winning for us,” said Lotfi. They were stunned when Janine Benyus announced their team as the first-place winners of the Challenge. “We were even more surprised and humbled at the same time,” Lotfi said. “We had learned so much from a group of people [members of the Biomimicry Institute] that were so willing to teach us everything they knew.” While it’s proven difficult to surmount financial and government roadblocks to implement this design, Egy-Osmo is hopeful that they can push their idea forward to the right people, who can help incorporate the design on a broader scale. More than anything, the experience solidified Lotfi’s goals for her life and career. “The experience gave us hope that small ideas can become realities and that a small group of young people can dream to help their country and change the world,” she said.

The experience gave us hope that small ideas can become realities and that a small group of young people can dream to help their country and change the world.

Nariman Lotfi

In a country where political turmoil seems to take front and center stage and women are often treated like second-class citizens, Lotfi, like many in the younger generation, is working to positively impact her country. To Lotfi, people in Egypt are facing a point where they’re realizing that they need to think about other ways to solve problems. “As a country, we’re moving towards the more sustainable, more natural,” she said. “People now have this feeling that everyone wants to do something and help in one way or another.” Lotfi doubts that she can go back to creating designs the way she used to. “The idea of strategies and cycles in nature – this is what we need to be thinking about and applying in design,” she said. “The design process is still not sustainable enough. It’s not taking into consideration how it affects other systems in other places in our environment. This is what nature does. Nature is aware of developing, adapting and evolving, but without destroying. This is what I want to apply in a design process.” Using the way nature adapts to changing environments, Lotfi wants to apply biomimicry to issues that face her country. She is currently teaching design at the German University in Cairo and spending time with her new baby. Her future ambition is to start her own organization that creates biomimetic solutions to ultimately make a difference in her region. With her experience from the competition, Lotfi can use her new skills as a biomimetic designer to solve systems-related design problems and teach her students how to do so, as well. “A lot of my students are beginning to get the same click,” she said. “A lot of them have been researching and want to create design that is sustainable and inspired by nature but don’t know why. So then I tell them to research biomimicry, then you’ll know why.”

Read more about Egy-Osmo’s winning design, Dromedarily Sustainable, on AskNature.

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