Beyond Biomimicry: A New Urgency

William Myers
January 1st 2019

Designers face an unprecedented urgency to alter their methods and reprioritize their goals to address the accelerating degradation of the environment. This new pressure—intellectual, ethical, and regulatory—demands recognition of the fragility of nature and our responsibility to preserve it for future generations. Under such shifting and intensifying constraints, designers are beginning to go beyond emulation to harness processes observed in the living world, where systems achieve perfect economies of energy and materials.

Within this pursuit, working to achieve enhanced ecological performance through integration with natural systems, designers are turning to biologists for their expertise and guidance. This contrasts markedly with the design approach that characterized the 20th century: the mechanization of functions in order to overpower, isolate, and control forces of nature, usually by utilizing advances in chemistry and physics. The examples explored here illustrate how this new approach—designing with biology—lends itself to collaborations with life scientists and foreshadows what kind of consilience, or cooperation across fields, we can expect in the future.

Design’s embrace of nature is the most promising way forward.

The integration of life into design is not a magic bullet to solve these pressing issues. Nor will it be free from harmful missteps, deliberate misuses, or controversy. Dystopian visions of the future awash in biodesign gone awry are credible possibilities, and they are included in this book. Beyond growing structures with trees or integrating objects with algae bioreactors, biodesign includes the use of synthetic biology and thereby invites the danger of disrupting natural ecosystems.

These technologies will be wielded by people—the same biased and frail creatures who designed the world into a desperate mess in the first place. But the potential benefits, and the need to reform current practices toward an approach more in tune with biological systems, far outweigh these risks. Ultimately, design’s embrace of nature—even coupled with the inevitable hubris that we can redesign and outdo it—is long overdue and the most promising way forward.

The focus of cross-disciplinary collaborations and their outcomes will, as always, depend on societal priorities and an array of market signals. Today there is a notable absence of the kind of regulation or system of incentives and disincentives that might lead to the eventual design and creation of environmentally remedial or zero-carbon objects and structures.

Researchers at Delft University of Technology have developed BioConcrete, which is embedded with limestone-making microorganisms
that allow the material to repair itself.

The use of taxes and subsidies to spark such changes, for example, is still in its infancy. While Germany and Norway have made early and effective steps with policies that prioritize ecologically effective design, most of the industrialized world lags behind, especially the United States, where even the legitimacy of the federal agency to protect the environment is vulgarly challenged in political discourse.

Yet the costs of carbon emissions and climate change mount, and they will need to be addressed if a modern way of life, as we’ve come to know it, is to endure. Examples of biodesign profiled here anticipate this change: an accounting for, and eventual minimization of, what economists call negative externalities to the environment—the degradation of the air, soil, water, and life that does not figure into the end cost of manufacturing and building today. Only under new and sensibly designed constraints, such as a carbon tax on manufacturing, or incentives, such as a subsidy for structures that promote biodiversity, would projects such as ‘Fab Tree Hab’ or ‘BioConcrete’ become scalable.

In contrast with traditional architecture that is in combat with the environment, Fab Tree Hab is a housing concept that embraces and enhances the surrounding ecosystem. Living trees are integrated into the structures.

The imitation of nature in the design of objects and structures is an old phenomenon, recalling stylistic developments such as iron-enabled Art Nouveau in the 19th century through to the more recent titanium-clad fish shapes in the computer- aided designs of architect Frank Gehry. Yet this design approach is form driven and offers only a superficial likeness to the natural world for decorative, symbolic, or metaphorical effect. Design that sets out to deliberately achieve the qualities that actually generate these forms -adaptability, efficiency, and interdependence—is infinitely more complex, demanding the observational tools and experimental methods of the life sciences.

The effort to master this complexity is well under way; it’s been more than 30 years since scientists first altered a bacterium’s DNA so that it could serve as a tiny factory producing an inexpensive and reliable source of human insulin. [2] At the beginning of the 21st century, the DNA-modifying techniques to reproduce such a feat and reconfigure the activity of a cell have become widely accessible. We have even reached the milestone of synthesizing an entirely artificial DNA molecule that has successfully replicated and formed new cells. [3]

The affordability of the basic tools of biotechnology has put them within reach of engineers and designers who may now consider basic life forms as potential fabrication and form- giving mechanisms. Indeed, that is precisely the intention of architects such as David Benjamin, who is teaching and practicing how to wield life as a design tool and insists that ‘This is the century of biology.’ [4]

In the 19th century the combination of standardization of measurements, the Bessemer steel-making process, and the steam engine converged to enable the Industrial Revolution, answering the call of democratic, capitalistic nation-states seeking market growth. Facilitating this development was the increasing quality and plummeting price of steel, which rapidly fell from $170 per ton in 1867 to $14 per ton before the end of the century. [5]

Similarly, and following what has become known as Moore’s Law, the computing power of microchips has roughly doubled every two years since the 1990s. This phenomenon, amplified by the rise of the Internet and the worldwide adoption of standards like HTML, has supported a Digital Revolution. [6] Computer technology exponentially spread and intensified the practices and effects of the Industrial Revolution, and they addressed the demands of a rapidly globalizing economy.

A modular system of algae-filled tubes
absorbs solar energy for electricity generation and shades interior spaces in Process Zero,
a proposed retrofit for a General Services Administration building in Los Angeles.

These demands include pressure to compete in foreign markets, to coordinate increasingly complex supply chains, and to achieve continual economic expansion through productivity gains. In fulfilling these needs, digital technology lubricates the gears of civilization as we know it, supporting economic growth and relatively low unemployment and stable governments across most of the developed world.

In the first decade of the 21st century and beyond, the forces that prompted industrialization and digitization persist, but a new, more urgent, and arguably longer-term need has arisen that calls for a new revolution—the requirement for ecologically sound practices in design that guide scarce resource management, particularly in manufacturing and building. Abundant evidence makes plain that the pace of world economic development in its current form, relying on the rapid consumption of natural resources (including fossil fuels), cannot be maintained. [7] The scale and scope of human activity and projected changes in climate, economic demand, urbanization, and access to resources over the next several decades will necessitate new standards of energy efficiency, waste elimination, and biodiversity protection.

Models that meet such rigorous demands have been found only in nature, the emulation of which is now moving beyond stylistic choice to survival necessity. Driven by research in the life sciences, the mechanisms of natural systems—from swamps to unicellular yeasts—are quickly being decoded, analyzed, and understood. The architectural program of many of these systems is DNA, the sequencing and synthesis of which are quickly becoming financially viable, following what has become known as the Carlson Curve: the costs of sequencing and synthesizing base pairs of DNA have fallen dramatically over the last 10 years, just as steel and computing power became inexpensive commodities in previous centuries. [8]

Biodesign is an opportunity that designers will not miss and that is already attracting tinkerers of all stripes.

The possibilities arising from this new accessibility of the basic ingredient of living systems will surely multiply, particularly given the pace of capital investment and the proliferation of entrepreneurial ventures poised to exploit its potential. Although these technologies are still new and require much more research before they can easily be applied to complex organisms, the pace of investment and growth is significant: more than 2 percent of United States GDP is now attributable to products that rely on genetic modification. [9] As the expertise to manipulate and wield the machinery of life spreads, it will impact numerous fields and lead to several collaborations; biodesign, as I have defined it, is an opportunity that designers will not miss and that is already attracting tinkerers of all stripes.

As it often does, art illuminated the path forward. Bioart of the last decade, including works by Eduardo Kac, such as the living, glowing ‘GFP Bunny’ in 2000 and the numerous projects that have emerged from SymbioticA, foreshadowed the now burgeoning do-it-yourself biology (DIY bio) movement. Facilitated by the availability of inexpensive equipment and emboldened by like-minded enthusiasts through instant communication over the web, amateur biologists are now creating transgenic organisms and even inventing novel equipment on their own. These new creators, some of them with design experience, also follow in the footsteps of tech entrepreneurs working out of garages in California in the 1970s and 1980s, and they bring an ethos of independence that is unlinked from the agendas or conventions of universities and corporations.

This story is republished from William Myers' book Biodesign (2018).


  1. Salvador Dalí, The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dalí (New York: HarperCollins, 1981) p. 230.
  2. Using recombinant DNA to alter Escherichia coli bacteria to create human insulin, the first synthetic insulin was produced and distributed by Genetech in 1978.
  3. J. Craig Venter et al., ‘Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome’ Science, July 2, 2010: 329 (5987), 52–56.
  4. David Benjamin, ‘Bio fever’ Domus, published online on March 30, 2011 (http://www.
  5. Andrew Carnegie, The Empire of Business (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902) (see especially ‘Steel Manufacture in the United States in the Nineteenth Century’ pp. 229–242).
  6. As measured by the number of transistors fitting onto an integrated circuit.
  7. Corinne Le Quere, Michael R. Raupach, Josep G. Canadell, and Gregg Marland ‘Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide’ Nature Geoscience, November 17, 2009: 2(12) 831–836.
  8. Rob Carlson, Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) pp. 63–79.
  9. This measure includes pharmaceuticals, industrial applications and genetically modified crops; ibid pp. 150–178.

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