244 results for “Biomimicry”

Interview: Pirjo Kääriäinen on collaboration and the new ecological biomateriality

Freya Hutchings
December 12th 2019

Meet Pirjo Kääriäinen, professor of design driven fibre innovation at Aalto University, Finland. Kääriäinen founded CHEMARTS—a collaborative program at the university that brings students from different disciplines together to experiment with new material processes—to explore alternative applications for bio-based materials.

Having a extensive knowledge of the Finnish textile industry, it’s fair to say Kääriäinen is an expert in the field. She possesses a valuable bank of insights, a clear perspective on how the industry must change, and an inexhaustible passion …

Next Generation: Unleashing nature’s untapped potential with Amelie Unger

Freya Hutchings
November 17th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Continuing our Next Generation series is Amelie Unger, a recent design graduate who draws design solutions from nature's untapped potential. Unger is a recent MA Interior Architecture graduate from the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Her fascinating perspective calls for a new approach …

In conversation with Jalila Essaïdi

Freya Hutchings
October 18th 2019

What do in-vitro human skin, spider silk and cow manure have in common? They are all unlikely materials that can cloth, protect and inspire humans, as realized by award-winning designer Jalila Essaïdi.

Her transdisciplinary work, in which creativity meets scientific exploration, unlocks the potential of weird and wonderful biomaterials to address relevant social and environmental issues.

Essaïdi succeeds in transforming our view of the natural world, by going beyond an aesthetic admiration of nature and challenging us to reconsider the …

Next Generation: Get to know Valerie Daude

Ruben Baart
October 17th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Kicking off this series is Valerie Daude, a recent MA graduate in Social Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE). She is interested in how gut bacteria play critical roles in maintaining our human health in many aspects, and aims to understand how …

Experience bio design at Dutch Design Week 2019

NextNature.net
October 2nd 2019

Bio design crosses the border between the ‘made’ and the ‘born’. Enabling living organisms as essential design elements, it brings us products that adapt, grow, sense and repair themselves. For those new to the subject (and those in the know) who would like to gain (more) experience on what bio design encompasses; this is for you.

The Microbial Vending Machine by Emma van der Leest Bio Design Talks

We've been asked to curate a program for DDW to bring you …

This cool artificial reef was just deployed in Sydney Harbor

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
July 16th 2019

Earth’s oceans have seen better days. They’re inundated with plastic waste, both whole single-use plastics and tons of plastic microparticles that find their way back into our food and drinking water. Their water temperatures are rising due to climate change, causing coral bleaching and other harmful phenomena. Overfishing has depleted multiple marine species.

Organizations and individuals around the world have leaped to action to try to reverse some of the damage human activity has caused the oceans. The Ocean Cleanup …

How to biofabricate leather; lessons from the lab

Laura Muth
June 21st 2019

Leather is one of the oldest and most versatile materials in the world. It’s a supple, tough, relatively strong and durable material and it’s relatively impermeable, yet breathable. Having existed in some form or another since the dawn of mankind, leather is used for a wide range of products—varying from furniture, clothes and accessories, to car upholstery.

The history of leather is long and has brought us many different processing methods, yet the implementation of a circular approach within production …

Discussing bio-based material experiences with Elvin Karana

Meike Schipper
June 13th 2019

The world of design is in need of new materials that align with the urgency for sustainability. Issues such as climate change, plastic waste and harmful materials require us to explore new paths and develop new methods. In light of the exhibition Nature: Collaboration in Design at Cube Design Museum and Cooper Hewitt Design Triennale, we invited Elvin Karana to share her perspective on the development of new design methods.

Elvin Karana is Professor of Bio-based Art and Design at …

The new Next Nature book is here!

NextNature.net
May 28th 2019

? For pictures of the book launch, head to this page.

We live in a world in which we control the biology of a tomato at such precision, you could think of it as a product of technology, instead of a product of nature. Think about it, from genetics to breeding; a simple tomato isn’t remotely as simple as you might think. Technological advances allow our daily ingredients to be grown bigger, faster and better than ever before.

Conversely, in …

How biotechnology could shape the future of product design

Ruben Baart
May 26th 2019

Humans have been manipulating living things for thousands of years. Examples of early biotechnologies include domesticating plants and animals and then selectively breeding them for specific characteristics.

Biotechnologies vary in application and complexity. It involves making useful products from whole organisms or parts of organisms, such as molecules, cells, tissues and organs. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, biotechnology has expanded to include new and diverse sciences such as genomics, recombinant gene techniques, applied immunology, nanotechnology, and cell …

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Meet Pirjo Kääriäinen, professor of design driven fibre innovation at Aalto University, Finland. Kääriäinen founded CHEMARTS—a collaborative program at the university that brings students from different disciplines together to experiment with new material processes—to explore alternative applications for bio-based materials.

Having a extensive knowledge of the Finnish textile industry, it’s fair to say Kääriäinen is an expert in the field. She possesses a valuable bank of insights, a clear perspective on how the industry must change, and an inexhaustible passion for the benefits of collaborative work. Her realistic approach to sustainability is what informs the CHEMARTS program, along with an attitude of openness and respect for change.

What CHEMARTS does

The CHEMARTS program has produced a plethora of interesting outcomes. Participants have offered alternative applications for bio-based materials that make tangible the possibility of producing longer lasting, more sustainable applications for valuable forest resources.

Some examples: students have developed biodegradable tableware, natural sunscreen, wearable garments, home furnishings, wood-based bricks and organic jewelry.

What new possibilities are out there? We caught up with Pirjo Kääriäinen to learn more.

Biodegradable tableware. Designer: Aurora Tani

Hi Pirjo, tell us about CHEMARTS

Chemarts started in 2011, and has been an interdisciplinary collaboration from the beginning. When Aalto University was merged there was a desire to see how different disciplines could really work together.

In setting up the program, we realized that these different disciplines —engineering and design— had a shared interest in materiality, with a particular focus on using wood for new textile fibres.

We received some funding from the university and managed to set up a team; members who not only came from different disciplines but also from different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

In following, participants from chemical engineering and design set up their courses, came up with the name CHEMARTS, and thought about how to collaborate. It was a really useful, student driven exercise, and we have been developing it ever since.

How do you succeed in creating a common language between these disciplines?

Everyone who has worked on our interdisciplinary projects has said that communication is crucial for how successful the project will be. A shared language has to be created, and it is created and enabled by doing things, by working together, by being hands-on and making together.

There are two crucial elements needed for a fertile collaboration to succeed: The first is willingness; when you have a willingness to do something, you want to understand, and you make an effort to understand. If you don’t have willingness, nothing will happen.

"A shared language has to be created, and it is created and enabled by doing things, by working together, by being hands-on and making together"

The second element you need is respect. If you have respect for the other person’s knowledge, their experience, and them as a person, a true collaboration is enabled.

For example, I don’t want to become a chemist, and I couldn’t because I don’t have the knowledge. I feel I have to leave that area to my colleagues, who are the true experts in that field. However, I believe we can play a little bit in the other’s realms. By combining and respecting each other's deep expertise, we can work together and have true collaborations.

Do designers working in the natural sciences have a different responsibility to those who don’t?

Whether you are working with the natural sciences, or some other field, I think responsibility is becoming more important for designers in general. Of course, designers can’t always have an impact on things inside companies such as sustainability, but they should at least try. Particularly as sustainability is becoming such a dominant issue. I think as designers we need to take a bit more responsibility than we are now.

"I think as designers we need to take a bit more responsibility than we are now."

I do agree that designers working with the natural sciences have a unique responsibility. Working with living things such as bacteria, fungi or microbes is a different story—these are alive.

How we treat and use them is always up for discussion. Ethical discussions need to happen, and designers must be aware and take part in these discussions.

To what extent does the Nordic context inform the work of CHEMARTS?

A lot. Firstly, we have plenty of forest-based materials here. And we know them quite well, as we have been using them industries such as papermaking for over two-hundred years.

We have plenty of wood in Finland, and currently we use it in ways that don’t always make sense. Valuable side streams from the industry are not always utilized efficiently, and some methods of harvesting are not the best for the environment. We have the raw materials but we need to find new ways of using them.

"We have the raw materials but we need to find new ways of using them."

Also keep in mind that the Finnish concept of forest is completely different to, say, the Dutch concept. Nordic forests are totally different. We have a very special legislation in Finland, it’s called ‘every man’s rights’, and it’s a right the means everybody's free to go to the forest and explore, to pick berries and mushrooms.

You should not harm nature but you can go and forage. It’s a beautiful old tradition that we have here, that we hope we can keep. This context comes into our projects too, and although we often use processed wood-based materials they are still very linked to the forest. It’s a wonderful, renewable resource.

How do you navigate the conflict of continuing to extract natural materials, yet at the same time trying to be more sustainable?

With climate change, there is a lot of discussion going on about our forests being valuable carbon sinks, meaning they take in carbon and keep it within them as they grow. This means that we need to work on preserving our forests as carbon sinks, and using what we do take in different ways; using wood for long-life applications, for example creating wooden buildings that continue to store carbon for decades.

The worst possibility is that we use our materials for a short time and then throw them away. We must think about how we can balance environmental and economic needs. Finland can’t afford not to use wood at all, this is not a country rich with different resources. Instead, we can use it in better ways.

How will these bio-based material experiments help us relate to nature in different ways?

I think in general people don’t know what’s in materials these days. If you would ask people on the street, ‘what materials are you wearing?’, most of them will don’t know that they are two-thirds oil, or that they have plastic on their skin.

One value of these projects is that they connect people back to materials in general. We will continue to use materials in our everyday lives and we need to be aware of them and how they exist in our world. If you are not aware of something, you cannot have an impact on that. For example, if you want to select something more sustainable, you can’t unless you know about it.

"People used to sew, repair, make food from scratch - and this makes you think differently."

We feel strongly that when you play with natural materials, when you work with them in intimate and tangible ways, you start to think about the material more deeply, and that’s a kind of trigger or motivation that allows you to think more deeply about nature in general.

And even human nature. One of our students has been exploring how to help children to express feelings through playing with materials. Our minds are deeply linked to our body, and we are looking into how these materials may make us more aware of many things — ourselves, nature, sustainability.

More and more we are not working with our hands. People used to sew, repair, make food from scratch - and this makes you think differently. To do this is to also develop your thinking and your mindset.

Do you feel that CHEMARTS disrupts narratives of humans mastering nature for their own needs? 

I think they have to disrupt this narrative. We can’t go on using nature in the way that we do. There is much more discussion happening about the agency of materials in the era of the Anthropocene.

"We are part of nature ourselves, yet we seem to have forgotten that somehow."

We are part of nature ourselves, yet we seem to have forgotten that somehow. However we nature effects whole environmental systems. By learning about the impact, and how we use systems, we can change the way we use them. We have to change how we are using materials on a large scale, and for a very short time. The whole system is unbearable. 

How to change this?

We can change things by establishing some kind of balance. For example, experiments with natural dyes have become popular recently, but many of the plants we use for them are very rare. What would happen if the whole industry started using them? It would be a catastrophe and would bring new problems. So we need to have a more holistic way of thinking, to ask where do these techniques it come from, is it good for nature? Can we grow it ourselves, for example with bacteria? We should be very careful about what we label as sustainable.

Do you see a move in this direction already?

I see it here in Scandinavia, I may see it in central Europe. But to be honest, if we take a global perspective, not yet. We are living in a bubble, and it’s easy. We live in rich countries and we can afford to be sustainable.

I was recently speaking with someone from Lebanon, and for him the concept of sustainability was not familiar at all. So we have a lot to do in terms of spreading this thinking and knowledge. And of course we need people like Greta Thunberg, we need these kinds of activists to spread awareness.

We can take inspiration from nature, where nothing is too much and nothing is too little. Whatever nature produces, some other element is balancing it and using it. Our ecosystems work in a certain ways so that there is no waste, and that’s a very interesting thing to consider.

"Our ecosystems work in a certain ways so that there is no waste, and that’s a very interesting thing to consider."

For more information about student projects and research by CHEMARTS, follow the links and see for yourself! CHEMARTS will be releasing a Cookbook in 2020, learn more about it here.

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Continuing our Next Generation series is Amelie Unger, a recent design graduate who draws design solutions from nature's untapped potential. Unger is a recent MA Interior Architecture graduate from the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Her fascinating perspective calls for a new approach to building in landscapes affected by desertification: living architecture that transforms with the climate.

Unger's No Solid Ground  is a speculative research project that responds to an urgent need for sustainable, habitable structures in desolate and constantly shifting desert regions. Unger moves beyond anthropocentric architectural methods that attempt to override or contain nature. Instead, she incorporates the adaptive capabilities of animals and plants to create architecture that responds to nature without trying to resist it.

Her research is visualized as a series of cell-like pods that would provide for the needs of humans whilst supporting the surrounding ecosystem. Unger’s ecologically inspired concepts represent a promising shift in approach to climate change: self-adaptive, non-static structures that bring technology and nature together in mutually beneficial ways.

We caught up with Amelie to find out more about No Solid Ground.

What Inspired this project and why did you choose to focus on the problem of desertification?

The project was inspired by a trip to the German North Sea island, Sylt. This island is one of many great examples of how nature has been adjusting and reshaping the environment over time. Through erosion, Sylt went from being part of the mainland to becoming an independent island.

Lately, the human impact on Earth is transforming landscapes through desertification and rising sea water so drastically that we will have to rethink the way we are building. The current architecture is based on the belief that buildings will stay in the same place for 50-70 years, but it will not function on a ground which is slowly turning into a desert or sea.

I believe that we can solve this problem if we use nature’s design and start to understand and embrace a flexible kind of architecture which is able to shift with its surroundings.

Since there is already great development when it comes to building with rising sea levels, I decided to focus on flexible living structures in arid regions to start a conversation about how we can continue offering livable space in times of desertification.

What adaptive possibilities does your project draw on?

We are not the only ones that have to adapt to changing environments. Plants and animals had millions of years of experience in this field. Compared to this, the human experience in adaption is just a spec of dust.

Drawing from this thought, I designed all of the pods with different functions in mind which came from animals and plants’ abilities to adapt to their surroundings. I used the skills of algae plants to purify the air and turn CO2 molecules into reusable biomass. The colorful sea slug, Chromodoris roboi, became the inspiration to create a hide-away which scares away predators while the ability of the so-called ‘glass frog’ - which can change its appearance from transparent to solid - inspired the exterior membrane of my project. All of these designs draw from nature to create weird looking living organisms, able to stay alive in the hostile environment of the desert.

"I see these spaces as an opportunity to start a conversation about how we can provide safe living spaces in arid regions in the future. "

How do you imagine these spaces being used, and what problems would they solve?

By building flexible housing structures in the desert, we could break the cycle of climate refugees: right now, most people living in bigger cities close to the coast. These are already endangered by rising sea levels. In arid regions, desertification will force people out of their homes and on the move to find a new place in these already in these already overcrowded and endangered cities by the sea.

I see these spaces as an opportunity to start a conversation about how we can provide safe living spaces in arid regions in the future. I also imagine them as actual living spaces that would allow people to remain in these regions instead of displacing whole populations.

The design of the pods could also be adapted to house public buildings and indoor crop farms, creating whole villages

Do you see your work as a form of biomimicry?

I definitely see my work as a form of biomimicry. I look at nature as the first designer on this earth, and I believe that we need to adjust to it instead of nature adjusting to us. Nature’s ability to move sand dunes is so complex that we still can’t completely grasp the way it works. How are we supposed to to build something that would stand against this sheer force we don’t understand? I am suggesting that we need to adapt if we want to continue living in these areas. The exterior of my project is supposed to become one with nature by moving within the architecture of the sand dune while the interior mimics the behavior of organisms which have successfully adapted to their hostile environment.

"I look at nature as the first designer on this earth, and I believe that we need to adjust to it instead of nature adjusting to us. "

How do you think biomimicry can transform our relationship with the environment?

Maybe biomimicry is our chance to finally make peace with nature, we would not fight against it anymore, but instead work with it. I can imagine that there lies a lot of untapped potential within this approach to building and designing.

Do you see your work as a Utopian project or a science fiction-fueled geoengineering nightmare?

I hope that people see my project as a Utopian project, but I think right now it is more of a a fiction-fueled geoengineering nightmare to them. The design is supposed to not resemble the way we are building today to create a clear departure from contemporary architecture, but it is designed to offer all of the necessities we know from our current homes. So I imagine it as a quite comfortable Utopian living scenario.

"Today’s designers play a huge role in finding creative solutions to complex problems. "

Why is it important to create speculative designs and visualizations that address wider issues?

I think it is good to let your imagination run free before putting boundaries on what you can and can not do as a designer. How to make a project work should not hinder you from making the project. Today’s designers play a huge role in finding creative solutions to complex problems. Speculative design and visualization are great ways to approach wider issues from a more playful and free point of view.

"Maybe biomimicry is our chance to finally make peace with nature, we would not fight against it anymore, but instead work with it. "

How did you present your project? How did audiences engage with it? 

To make this project tangible for the audience during the exhibition, I built a table with all of the information printed on it. Instead of just reading and looking at the images, people were able to engage with the table by moving magnifying domes over the tabletop. They looked at my project the same way I used to look at all of the organisms which inspired my design. For me, this was a great way to start conversations with people from a range of backgrounds. The most memorable visitor was a biologist who understood all of the inspiration, but said he had never thought of nature’s designs as being useful for humans too.

Is speculative design a field you hope to continue in? What’s next for you?

I definitely hope to continue in this field. I see my living cell as my entry into the field, and will continue working on the topic of building in times of climate change since it is very important to me. Currently, I am working on different essays regarding this topic, and I will continue to follow this direction. 

And one for the road: what other projects or designers inspire you right now?

The works of photographer Tom Hegen inspire me a lot right now, especially his ‘Greenhouse’ series, which shine a light on the practice of growing crops with the use of LED light in the Netherlands. Also the works of my friends Gill Baldwin and Carlijn Olde Beverborg are very inspiring to me; they question how we are living in times where machines take a constant place in our homes and everyday lives.

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What do in-vitro human skin, spider silk and cow manure have in common? They are all unlikely materials that can cloth, protect and inspire humans, as realized by award-winning designer Jalila Essaïdi.

Her transdisciplinary work, in which creativity meets scientific exploration, unlocks the potential of weird and wonderful biomaterials to address relevant social and environmental issues.

Essaïdi succeeds in transforming our view of the natural world, by going beyond an aesthetic admiration of nature and challenging us to reconsider the amazing capabilities of less marketable, overlooked and often undesired bioproducts. 

As a resistor of labels, her work is interdisciplinary, and seeks to see design ‘problems’ as opportunities for change. She is specialized in the fields of bio-based materials and biological art (bio-art).

With the Dutch Design Week 2019 just around the corner, we caught up with Essaïdi to discuss her vision on design, how biomimicry informs her work, and her appointment as an ambassador for the leading design event in Northern Europe. But first, let's get you acquainted with her work.

Bullet-proof skin

For one of her infamous projects, Bulletproof Skin’ or ‘2.6g 329m/s, Essaïdi combined in-vitro human skin with spider silk from genetically modified goats. Seems incomprehensible, right? Wrong!

Essaïdi delivered proof of concept in the form of a bioengineered human skin capable of stopping a low-speed bullet. The project received the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award in 2010, which offers funding and support to designers and artists who collaborate with life sciences to produce groundbreaking, interdisciplinary works.

To give you an idea of how it works:

human skin plastic surgery
Human skin, leftover from plastic surgery.
human skin leftover
Human skin with its layer of fat still attached, leftover from plastic surgery.
Isolated dermis
Isolated dermis, used to extract fibroblasts from.
in vitro human skin
Full thickness in vitro human skin
preparing shooting rage
Preparing the shooting rage at the Netherlands Forensic Institute.
bullet in skin
A bullet wrapped in a piece of in vitro skin attached to a block ballistic gell.

Cow-manure couture

For her project Mestic, Essaïdi transformed cow manure into cellulose-derivatives. With this venture came the possibility of forming a local, manure-based economy. By using excess manure for the production of plastics and textiles, this project revolutionized the way we look at waste.

"In nature nothing is considered waste. Yet manure, in its essence, is easily considered the most vile substance we know. Mestic shows that even this most disgusting matter is inherently beautiful."

cow-source-cellulose
The source of cellulose
Cellulose derived from manure
Messo fibres, usuable for the paperindustry
Process in the lab
Mestic® as thin as cigarette rolling paper
Viscose made from mestic®

Behind the materials

While the above designs are characterized by the use of unconventional materials, Essaïdi’s works always go deeper to address wider issues.

Bulletproof Skin, for example, is about the relativity and dual nature of security. The work forms a response to the culture of fear that has emerged from news feeds and social media channels that manipulate our feelings of safety.

Additionally, Mestic strikes at the heart of our aversion to waste by demonstrating how even the ‘disgusting’ can be inherently beautiful. Essaïdi shared her approach, stating that "the materials are results, they enable me to tell the story." And, when it comes to materials she would like to work with in the future, she sees no boundaries: "none of them are off-limits."

"The materials are results, they enable me to tell the story."

Besides her artistic practice, Essaïdi is CEO of Inspidere B. V., a biotech company to envision, develop, design and implement sustainable new materials and products, and accelerate their path to market.

She also founded the BioArt Laboratories. Here, she welcomes scientists and designers from all over the world to collaborate on projects that push the boundaries of art, design, technology and science. The BioArt Laboratories offer participants "the right tools and critical questions to help steer their work and overcome obstacles", and in turn, those who take part "bring various perspectives on nature and technology." Projects have varied from exploring desert animal adaptations as a solution for drought, to converting food waste into textiles as a way of challenging consumption habits.

Given that her work champions ‘innovation inspired by nature’, Essaïdi elaborated on how sees the relationship between humans, nature and technology in design: "There are many elements of nature that we can learn from, or ideas that we can ‘steal’ or adapt into technology in a sustainable, non-invasive way."

Indeed, her approach is characterized by respect and admiration for nature, and she further believes that through studying natural processes we can find solutions for contemporary issues. She highlights that "by looking at nature’s adaptations to environmental changes, humans can learn how to use technology to adapt to societal changes as well."

"By looking at nature’s adaptations to environmental changes, humans can learn how to use technology to adapt to societal changes as well."

 Here we see how biomimicry plays a role in Essaïdi’s philosophy as an artist. By exploring the composition, processes and capabilities of natural materials, she demonstrates the exciting possibilities that emerge when we decenter the human and allow nature to become our mentor. Work of this kind can allow us to think of nature as a resource to be collaborated with rather than controlled.

What will Essaïdi bring as DDW ambassador? 

Moving on to Essaïdi’s appointment as DDW ambassador, we were curious to learn what she wanted to bring to her role this year. Her answer is clear and concise: "I have always been interested in design projects that offer more than just economic value. As an ambassador, I want to raise awareness of different values that design can offer, such as ecological gains and sustainable applications."

Essaïdi further agreed that her appointment may represent a shift in what is expected from design and its future possibilities: "I think my goals fit a larger trend towards global awareness of the importance and urgency of sustainable design."

"I want to raise awareness of different values that design can offer, such as ecological gains and sustainable applications."

Indeed, this year’s DDW theme, If Not Now, Then When?, seems to support this sense of urgency, and has been described in the press as a ‘call to arms’. Asking Essaïdi whether design had reached its potential as a tool for change, she crucially pointed out that "humans have been constructing the world to meet their needs by design for eons."

"It is not so much the question if design has reached its potential as a tool for change, but if we are willing to explore and understand evolving and complex problems and turn them into sustainable solutions. The tools are there, we just need more problem loving creative change-makers."

"The tools are there, we just need more problem loving creative change-makers."

So, where can we find these problem loving creative change-makers? Essaïdi highlights the importance of experimental spaces like the BioArt Laboratories in working to meet this urgent need. She sees the initiative as an essential, collaborative "movement of creative change-makers — willing to reconfigure our current practices towards a circular economy."

We are excited to have Jalila Essaïdi on board as a speaker during the DDW Talks: Bio Design. Note: This event is part of the professionals program (register for early bird €75 via this link). But members of Next Nature Network attend this event for free! Drop us a line to claim your ticket.

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Kicking off this series is Valerie Daude, a recent MA graduate in Social Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE). She is interested in how gut bacteria play critical roles in maintaining our human health in many aspects, and aims to understand how biological organisms interact with their human host.

This research has led her to design the Microbial Self project, a series of interactive facial prosthetics that measure and visualize the diversity of microbial species inside our guts, hence give insides on our bodily and mental health condition.

According to the designer, "the masks act as body extensions that enable a dialogue between us and the microorganisms inside of us. Displaying your 'inside' in the middle of your face, hiding your identity and sharing it with your microorganisms."

Welcome to the Next Generation: Get to know Valerie Daude.

Where does your fascination for microbial design come from?

As a woman of 1,92m, standard organizations like ISO or DIN consider my size non-standard. As a result, the world that has been built does not fit my body size and makes me experience the negative aspects of industry standards every day.

This motivated me to research ergonomic theory, the process of normalization and standardization of the human body, and especially historic concepts of the normal or average.

I found that the first physical unit of measurement was the human body itself. The resulting anthropic units went beyond focusing on the body, and were used to define the dimensions of the world.

How did this insight inform your work?

While trying to define alternative units to measure the human body, I learned that our physical and mental health is highly influenced by trillions of microorganisms that live within, on and around us. 

The differences between bodies on a microscopic level have a much bigger impact on humans’ overall wellbeing, more than differences in size and dimension. This insight made me change my focus from defining a body through its anthropometric measurements to interpreting the body in a much smaller and much more diverse unit — I started to investigate the microorganisms inside the body. 

Tell us a bit more about these microorganisms

Only 43% of each human body's total cell amount is human. The remaining 57% are microorganisms, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Their population and genetic material are referred to as the human microbiome.

Bacteria far outnumber other microbes, and most species are found in the gut. Their diversity is essential for many aspects of our physical and mental well being. Between 400 and up to 1000 different bacteria species live in a healthy gut. The more different species you have, the better it is for your body.

They help us to digest certain food, synthesize vitamins, balance our immune system, and through the gut-brain axis, they influence our cognitive functions, mood, and even our behavior.

Each human body has its own unique set of microbes that constantly change over a lifetime. Diet, exercise, hygiene, medication and many other influences from our environment determine the composition of our microbes.

We constantly influence our microbial bodies without being aware of the impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

And your project aims to visualize this?

Yes, I am working on methods to measure, visualize and display the diversity of our gut bacteria. Therefore I developed the concept of Microbial Masks, which have an integrated breath test that analyzes the diversity of gut bacteria through chemicals in your breath.

With every breath, the mask translates the results into a readable color code that is displayed on the mask.

Who are the masks for?

First and foremost, it's an ongoing design research project. At this stage, the project aims to explore through speculation how relationships between humans, as well as between humans and microbes, will be affected through advances in microbiome research.

To date, the relationship between humans and microorganisms has largely been biased. Microorganisms, especially bacteria, are primarily associated with diseases, contamination, and death.

Changes in present-day society such as diets with increased sugar, salt, and saturated fat, insufficient exercise, overuse of antibiotics, disinfectants, and pesticides cause a microbial imbalance in our environments and our bodies.

This contributes to an increase in obesity, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, depression, and mental health concerns. We need a paradigm shift, from thinking about microbes as enemies that have to be eliminated and destroyed, to thinking about achieving a healthy microbiotic environment within and around us. 

Where could you see the masks first introduced?

In a later stage of the project, the breath test technology could be implemented into wearable healthcare devices.

Nowadays, patients have little power in most healthcare systems and are depending on the decisions of healthcare professionals. Through self-tracking devices, individuals can get involved in the management of their microbial balance within the gut, and by extension, their overall health.

Would you wear this yourself?

I would wear and present the Microbial Masks on public events, symposiums, or exhibitions and invite others to test them. The main purpose of them is to open up conversations about the future application of microbiome research, data security, and to challenge the relationship between humans and microorganisms.

This phase of the project is not about introducing the design or technology to the market. Rather, the purpose is to gather people around these speculative objects as a way of maintaining interdisciplinary debate and creating new perspectives on scientific research.

The Microbial Masks are physical, haptic and form interactive conversation pieces that challenge the senses and imagination, triggering the exchange of insights between different professions, from artists to scientists, to learn from each other’s perspectives.

On a scale from 1-10, how speculative is the project?

I see this project as a near-future scenario in which healthcare becomes much more personal, political and expressive. In general, I would rate it a 7.

There are some parts, like the breath test, which is still a concept. But there are already diagnostic tools, like the hydrogen breath test, that can measure bacterial growth in your digestive tract through chemicals in your breath.

Also, the application of this technology in a mask can not be ruled out. In China, it is already very common to wear masks in public for health reasons. Although it is much more likely that many would prefer to keep the information gathered by the Microbial Mask private. 

Apart from that, the potential of microbiome research in healthcare is real. More and more at-home gut bacteria testing kits appear on the market. They all claim to help improve health.

Although the tests are questionable, in terms of their reliability, the market is growing rapidly. I took this extremely impersonal and quite slow procedure and transformed it into a more sensual and faster method: a breath test.

The microbiome holds the ability to influence our body, identity, health. Masks aside, one may argue that designing your microbiome is a form of biohacking, would you agree? Why?

Yes, definitely. Biohacking doesn't have to be related to micro-dosing, LSD or implanting chips. It's also about the controlled enhancement of your physical and cognitive performance, through the use of technology and biology.

There is constant interaction between microorganisms and hosts, autonomous processes of unconscious exchange that can enhance or decrease the host's performance. Humans are influencing their gut microbiome through everything they eat, inhale, absorb, digest and synthesize. Presumed that this influence may be conscious, guided, and goal-oriented, it can be interpreted as biohacking. Thereby the goal is to enhance the host’s overall health, cognitive function, and performance achieved through a balanced and diverse gut microbiome.

Why should we share this data?

Our body produces measurable data at every moment, and we could use this data to improve care and find new treatments for disease. Due to emerging molecular technologies, scientific knowledge and advances in human microbiome research are booming. This will inevitably bring striking changes in  understanding ourselves, normalcy, health, and illness, and consequently transform medical care, plus personal and public health.

The enormous amount of data we could generate by monitoring all those autonomous microorganism processes in our gut, with every single breath, holds exciting potential for researchers and doctors - on the condition that the collected data remains anonymous and is protected to prevent its misuse. This data could improve healthcare and find new treatments for disease.

Understanding how microorganisms interact with their human hosts could explain different aspects of many complex diseases. We can gain better insight into metabolic diseases, diabetes and Alzheimers, immunological and autoimmune diseases, or even behavioral changes, like depression and anxiety, or autism and ADHD in children.

What’s the dream scenario for this design? What’s the nightmare?

The nightmare would be if microbial data would be used to exclude, discriminate, or disadvantage people. It could be extremely problematic if insurance companies or employers want to have access to this kind of data. Furthermore, choice of friends and partners may be influenced, since body contact significantly influences the microbial communities on a human's skin.

The dream scenario is to use microbiome research to improve healthcare and to create a collective understanding of the importance of microbes for ourselves and our environment.

I designed the three Microbial Masks based on bodily systems which are highly influenced by our microbes. The digestive system, the respiratory system, and the immune system. In the future, wearables in healthcare may be defined as an extension of the body, technology that merges with your body like an external organ. I am not a big fan of the sleek industrial design of standard wearables in healthcare today. The aesthetic translations of my research are also visual proposals for a more expressive and sensual design of future wearable healthcare products.

We live in a microbial world, without being aware of it. We might need to conceptualize the human body as an ecosystem and the human being as a superorganism, rather than a single individual.

Catch Microbial Self as part of the Dutch Design Week at the DAE Graduation Show 2019. From 19 — 27 October at Melkfabriek, Eindhoven.

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Bio design crosses the border between the ‘made’ and the ‘born’. Enabling living organisms as essential design elements, it brings us products that adapt, grow, sense and repair themselves. For those new to the subject (and those in the know) who would like to gain (more) experience on what bio design encompasses; this is for you.

The Microbial Vending Machine by Emma van der Leest

Bio Design Talks

We've been asked to curate a program for DDW to bring you up to speed with the rapidly evolving field of bio design. On 23 October, our editor-in-chief Ruben Baart talks crossing the border between the 'made' and the 'born' with a number of leading thinkers and makers.

The program features an introductory keynote by William Myers, author of Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity; visual keynotes by bio designers Teresa van Dongen and Emma van der Leest; keen insights by Prof. Pirjo Kääriänen, founder of CHEMARTS, a collaboration of Aalto CHEM and Aalto ARTS, at the Aalto University; and an inspirational talk by DDW Ambassador Jalila Essaïdi, founder of the BioArt Laboratories.

We conclude the program with a panel debate alongside Jalila Essaïdi, Koert van Mensvoort and Willem Velthoven, followed by drinks and bites.

What? DDW Talks: Bio Design
When? 23 October 2019 from 1.30pm to 5pm
Where? FIFTH | NRE, Gasfabriek 5, Eindhoven

Tickets This event is part of the professionals program (register for early bird €75 via this link). But members of Next Nature Network attend this event for free! Drop us a line to claim your ticket.

Not a member yet? Join here... and get the Next Nature book for free!

Research by Eeva Suorlahti, CHEMARTS

Bio Design Route

Hungry for more? That's more like it! Discover the latest in bio design along our scenic route through the city of light. Enjoy:

Visit the Dutch Design Week from 19-27 October in Eindhoven. Follow us on Instagram, here we feature the most inspiring #nextnature projects at DDW19 in the coming weeks!

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Earth’s oceans have seen better days. They’re inundated with plastic waste, both whole single-use plastics and tons of plastic microparticles that find their way back into our food and drinking water. Their water temperatures are rising due to climate change, causing coral bleaching and other harmful phenomena. Overfishing has depleted multiple marine species.

Organizations and individuals around the world have leaped to action to try to reverse some of the damage human activity has caused the oceans. The Ocean Cleanup is using a two-kilometer-long screen to collect plastic waste. Origin Materials aims to make a new type of plastic that’s sustainable and renewable. The 5 Gyres Institute’s mission is to end plastic pollution, which it calls a global health crisis.

Last week another effort joined the ranks: a purpose-built artificial reef in Sydney Harbor. The result of a three-year partnership between the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the Sydney Opera House, and the government of New South Wales, the reef was made by Reef Design Lab and consists of eight one-meter-tall pods, each containing three steel and concrete hexagonal structures. Half the units also have triangular tiles extending from the hexagons’ cores.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pj6oo8_VR-A

The reef was installed along the sea wall of Sydney’s world-famous Opera House. Over a thousand miles north sits the Great Barrier Reef; larger than Italy and half the size of Texas, it’s the world’s largest coral reef system, and it’s struggling. After mass bleachings caused by unusually warm water in 2016-2017, scientists found an 89 percent reduction in new coral growth.

Bleached coral doesn’t mean dead coral. Warm temperatures cause coral to eject the algae that live in their tissue, hence the change from colored to white. It’s possible for coral to recover, but it usually takes up to ten years—and that’s if no further bleaching occurs. Reefs in the Caribbean have also been affected in recent years. As in any ecosystem, cutting out one link reverberates up the food chain and impacts other species; in this case, the diversity of the fish populations near affected reefs drops, as does the reef’s overall ability to carry out the functions necessary for it to survive and thrive.

The hope for the artificial reef in Sydney is for sea life to take up residence within its structures, thus encouraging and hopefully restoring some of the area’s biodiversity.

“It’s amazing, after only a few weeks the pods are already attracting the interest of the types of species we hope will be drawn to this new habitat such as leatherjackets, bream and octopus,” said UTS Professor of Marine Ecology David Booth, who led the project. “We will continue to monitor the reefs and adjacent sites to document change and how effective adding small fish habitat structures is in enhancing fish life on seawalls. We hope it is a model for other cities on harbors.”

Artificial reefs aren’t a new concept by any means, and in fact, many of them around the world are far larger than Sydney Harbor’s—picture a decommissioned oil rig, aircraft carrier, or ship sunk to the bottom of the ocean becoming a teeming hub of marine life.

Where does the teeming marine life originate from, though? There’s been some debate about the effectiveness of artificial reefs at actually growing fish populations, rather than simply attracting them to a new location from the surrounding area. One study by marine scientists found a modest increase of 6.5 kilograms of fish per 10 square meters of artificial reef.

Artificial reefs also aren’t doing much to solve the larger global problems of ocean contamination and rising water temperatures (and they’re not meant to). While any effort to help the environment should be applauded, it’s crucial that we focus as much (or preferably more) on preventive solutions—such as cutting carbon emissions or reducing plastic waste—as we do on reactive ones.

In the meantime, we’ll see how the marine life in Sydney Harbor fares with its newly-provided living option.

This article is republished from SingularityHub under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: Alex Goad.

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Leather is one of the oldest and most versatile materials in the world. It’s a supple, tough, relatively strong and durable material and it’s relatively impermeable, yet breathable. Having existed in some form or another since the dawn of mankind, leather is used for a wide range of products—varying from furniture, clothes and accessories, to car upholstery.

The history of leather is long and has brought us many different processing methods, yet the implementation of a circular approach within production is still a long way off. We therefore need visionaries to come up with valid alternatives in order to move towards a more sustainable approach.

Labs like Waag’s TextileLab Amsterdam and the Open WetLab give designers access to technology and living matter, in order to create alternative materials while looking at material development from a circular point of view. I am one of these designers.

How leather is made

For the production of leather, theoretically, any animal skin can be used. It’s most often made from cows, calves, sheep, goats and pigs. The production of leather comes with many problems, as it’s made from animal hide treated with chemicals. In effect, the tannery wastewater used to make the leather with, contains large amounts of chemicals and pollutants (such as chromium salts, lime mud, sulphides, acids, lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde). These not only infect the people working in the tanneries, they also accumulate the groundwater.

Over the course of the 19th century, more and more alternatives for leather were explored, of which ‘leatherette’ is currently used most. Leatherette is a synthetic material designed specifically to mimic leather, it’s typically made from natural or synthetic cloth fibers coated in PVC or polyurethane and contains no animal by-products.

This led me to wonder, whether this plastic-coated material is a valid alternative in a time where we urgently need to move towards a circular approach. Because why not develop a plastic- and cruelty free material that less affects our planet as a whole?

How leather could be made

At Waag’s TextileLab Amsterdam I dove into the history of leather and the different working methods of producing the material, but looked even closer into leather alternatives and their manufacturing processes.

During the research I worked in the labs at the intersection of design, technology and biology, growing my own materials, wondering whether we would succeed in creating alternative leathers, cancelling out the existing problems that leather creates. Instead of working in a traditional studio, I suddenly worked in a lab, combining the expertise of various disciplines in order to explore new perspectives on the design of products in relation to its materials.

Focusing on alternative leathers from kombucha- and mycelium-leather, I worked towards a small collection of 3D-embossed purses and backpacks, inspired by the insect kingdom; especially the pillbug.

Leather from fermented tea

The first material I started working with was kombucha, or, the so-called ‘scoby’ (a thick, rubbery and cloudy mass that aids the fermentation process of kombucha).

In western culture, many people will perceive kombucha as a new drink, but drinking it has already been done for centuries to purify the body and strengthen the immune system.

Note: this part may get a bit technical, so bear with me.

Kombucha starts out as a sugary tea, which is then fermented with the help of the scoby; the bacteria in the scoby break down the tea's sugars and convert them into alcohol. The kombucha culture can be bought in special tea shops, bio-stores and online.

All too often, you’ll hear about the so-called kombucha mushroom or tea mushroom. However, the kombucha mushroom is not an independent fungus, but rather a symbiosis of various yeasts, single-celled fungi, or more precisely, the Ascomycota and Acetic acid bacteria.

The yeasts multiply in kombucha exclusively vegetatively through bud or cleavage. It forms a whitish, gelatinous layer on the tea surface, whereby new layers grow on top of each other. The color may vary from light grey to pink to dark brown, depending on the tea that is used.

The research consisted of treating the kombucha with several substances such as glycerine, beeswax and alcohol, in order to make it durable and water repellent, as this is still a challenge of this material. To prevent the material from growing mold, conventional vinegar is often used.

In comparison to animal leather, the kombucha grows really fast, it doesn’t need much space and nutrition besides a hint of sugar. But most importantly, it can be grown in different shapes! Scroll down for recipes.

Leather from mushrooms

Another very promising material is Mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or a fungal-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branched filamentous hyphae.

Depending on the strain of mycelium is used, they have a lot of properties. Some are water absorbent, others flame retardant and dielectric materials. I used mycelium from Oyster-mushroom and Schizophrenia on the surface of nutrient liquid. Mycelium can be grown on agricultural waste and can be applied in many fields; from an alternative to polystyrene and plastic packaging to furniture, bricks and leather-like materials from mycelium.

However, keep in mind that mycelium grows relatively slow; for a piece of 50x70 centimeters, this takes more than two months to grow.

This is only the beginning

In my research I mainly focused on the process of growing the alternative leather myself, and less on the application until now. As you can see, there are a lot of interesting and promising alternatives for making leather. But to be fair, these are still not ready to meet the characteristics of animal skin. More research is needed, but alternative materials and their possible applications are definitely worth your while.

Do it yourself!

While I started the research in a lab, note that these materials can as well be grown from your own kitchen! I used the recipes by Suzanne Lee - BioCouture and Elise Elsacker – BioFabForum. Made it yourself? Share your findings in the comments below!


TextileLab Amsterdam is a creative research lab combining digital fabrication processes, biology, crafts techniques, textiles knowledge and material research into relevant opportunities for the textile, fashion and material fields and how these affect the way we work together towards change.

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The world of design is in need of new materials that align with the urgency for sustainability. Issues such as climate change, plastic waste and harmful materials require us to explore new paths and develop new methods. In light of the exhibition Nature: Collaboration in Design at Cube Design Museum and Cooper Hewitt Design Triennale, we invited Elvin Karana to share her perspective on the development of new design methods.

Elvin Karana is Professor of Bio-based Art and Design at the Centre of Applied Research for Art, Design and Technology (CARADT) in the Netherlands, bringing together researchers and practitioners from Avans University of Applied Sciences and Willem de Kooning Academy. She received her PhD in 2009 from Delft University of Technology, where she is currently Associate Professor at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, leading the research group Materials and Fabrication Design. In 2015, she founded the international research group Materials Experience Lab, which she leads jointly with Valentina Rognoli from Politecnico di Milano.

Elvin Karana welcomed us at the Faculty of Design Engineering in Delft, where we talked about her vision on bio design versus growing design, the power of material-driven design and the necessity to collaborate with nature.

Material-driven design

Elvin’s work focuses on material-driven design, which takes materials and material understanding as a departure point in the design process. In 2015, Elvin and her colleagues published the Material Driven Design Method. “You start with a material at hand and explore its design potentials by incorporating technical and experiential (what people think, feel and do) understanding of materials in the design process.”

Educated as both industrial designer and material researcher, Elvin combines scientific knowledge with design thinking. “The perspective of science and engineering is mainly about improving material performance, particularly in relation to durability. Art and design can bring a critical perspective to the process of material development, by asking important questions. What is the purpose of this material? Why is it needed? What does it mean for society? And what does it mean for other non-humans, and ecology, in general?”

Art and design can bring a critical perspective to the process of material development

There are no straightforward answers to these questions. “However, I truly believe that you can only answer these questions by zooming in and out of the material repeatedly during the material-driven design process,” Elvin explains. “Designers uncover different potentials of materials, which are not always envisioned or expected by science.” This material-driven approach drives the development of sustainable, bio-based materials, and can accelerate the success of already existing ones.

Material as opportunity

The approach of material-driven design is exemplified in a recent project on mycelium in collaboration with Professor Han Wosten from Utrecht University and designer Maurizio Montalti. Graduation student Davine Blauwhoff designed a wine packaging inspired by the experiential qualities of the material she discovered during user studies.

“Mycelium-based materials have been used for packaging before. But our idea was triggered by our research into materials experience, exploring how people interact with the material. We found that people had an urge to break, pluck and pick the material when they interact with it. The samples we developed had rough tactile qualities; you could see and feel the substrate material, natural fibers in that case. The irregular material surface had some holes and cracks, where we could literally feel and pick the fibers.”

Normally, you would try to prevent that happen in the final design, as it ruins the carefully designed outlook. “However, we wanted to use this performative quality as an opportunity and create a packaging that is especially made to pluck and pick in order to function. You need to interact and break with the material in order to open the package. We offer a totally novel way of interacting with the material, which comes from the qualities of the material itself.”

Elvin also enthusiastically talks about the work of her students who followed the Material Driven Design course at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft. “Students realised that on the surface of the mycelium-based material, when the skin doesn’t grow, the material becomes porous. If these holes are in contact with water, the color of the material changes from cream into a dark brown, almost like paint. Finding the way to intentionally create holes on the material surface, the students developed different patterns which appear when exposed to water. When it dries, it goes back to its original color, which takes about a day.”

The students created a material demonstrator, which shows this possibility of material, to inspire other designers. “One potential idea was to use the material as an outdoor furniture, which shows certain patterns when it rains.”

Challenges in designing with microorganisms

This new practice of design is often called bio-design, which is a generic term that captures all forms of design that involve biology. Bio design is a broad field that ranges from design fiction to digital bio fabrication. Elvin’s work is framed under ‘growing design’, in which designers collaborate with biological organisms, guiding their growth and forging the conditions in which a material or product is created. The practice of growing design is close to craft, as it is rooted in hands-on manipulation and making. It’s is a rather new design practice which brings unprecedented opportunities but also challenges for the domain of design.

Growing design brings unprecedented opportunities but also challenges for the domain of design.

“Bio-based materials come with the unpredictability of living materials, dependency on many conditions and the organism itself, a non-linear growing process, and a different temporality compared to petroleum-based materials. You act upon material, but you don't see the result immediately. This requires a certain kind of sensitivity on the temporal qualities of the material at hand.” As such, it becomes part of the design practice to spend time with the material and familiarize yourself with its qualities. “They are living organisms, they have their own agency and you can control them to a certain extent, but there is always a surprise coming.”

When working with organisms as material, is there still a distinction between the natural and the unnatural, the born and the made? “I don’t refer to such a distinction, at least not anymore. Within product design and design engineering there is a very clear distinction between material, object, human and non-human. But in my research group, these boundaries are disappearing. We recently started working with algae and bacteria, and I find it difficult to call them a material. I see it all more as an ecology; we are all part of it and contribute to the system in different ways.”

Contribute to the ecology

Talking about shared systems and ecologies, we need to broaden the perspective of human-centered design. "It's time to give other living organisms the possibility for a shared central role in the design practice. I'm taking the needs of everyone into account, and how they can actually benefit from each other. In the Materials Experience Lab, we are hoping to bring this dual perspective into the design of next generation of bio-based materials. It’s important to bridge this ecology and to implement the mutual goals of human and micro-organisms into the design process.”

Biogarmentry by Roya Aghighi is a good example. Roya Aghighi recently started as a designer in residence at Materials Experience Lab/TU Delft. “She developed a biodegradable living textile capable of photosynthesis. The life cycle of the living textile is directly dependent on how it is taken care of. You need to water this textile, like a plant, in order to keep it alive."

The project challenges our current relationship to clothing. "It acts as a catalyst for change in our everyday practice of washing clothes. The relationship between the living-textile and human is very central to our research. Would you live with a living textile and would you wear something like that? These are important questions to explore.”

Biogarmentry shows that we can design our relationship with things around us. As such, the power of design goes beyond awareness. “Eventually, you don’t need to be aware that you are aware of it, because you can feel it, see it and imagine it. Design enables you to imagine what these materials mean for the future.”

Design enables you to imagine what these materials mean for the future.

In the near future, material-driven design might be a necessity rather than a choice. “Our sources will be limited, and we will lose the luxury to pick from a range of materials at hand. The change is happening now, today. I am very optimistic about what design can do; what it can offer for sustainable development. There is a lot happening in design when it comes to innovative use of materials and finding new ways of making artefacts. The Nature exhibition in Cube Design Museum and Cooper Hewitt is showing that.”

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? For pictures of the book launch, head to this page.

We live in a world in which we control the biology of a tomato at such precision, you could think of it as a product of technology, instead of a product of nature. Think about it, from genetics to breeding; a simple tomato isn’t remotely as simple as you might think. Technological advances allow our daily ingredients to be grown bigger, faster and better than ever before.

Conversely, in our world, technology (such as the internet or the financial markets) has grown so complex and omnipresent, though, that it’s developed a natural dynamism of its own, and we need to understand it better.

How natural is nature, really?

We seem to have entered a magical garden that may either take us by surprise and astonish us, or knock us down.

At Next Nature Network, it is our goal to share a richer understanding of nature, and strengthen the connections between the biosphere and the technosphere. We believe that our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonic is naive and up for reconsideration. Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places.

Nature, in the sense of trees, plants, animals, atoms, or climate, is getting increasingly controlled and governed by man. It has turned into some sort of cultural category. At the same time, products of culture, which we used to be in control of, tend to outgrow us more and more. These ‘natural powers’ shift to another field.

We must therefore aim to make sense of this world and invent a fitting vocabulary by which we can grasp the meaning of things, in order to ensure a liveable existence for the people who come after us by charting a path for the future that’s desirable for both humanity and for the planet as a whole.

We apply the term 'next nature' for this culturally emerged nature.

Forward to nature!

In Next Nature: How Technology Becomes Nature Koert van Mensvoort takes you on an epic exploration through the wonderful world of culturally emerged nature. It shows how the problematic disbalance between nature and technology not only obscures our current view on society, but simultanously hinders the future. The book offers a detailed read on the Next Nature philosophy, alongside timely examples and scientific insights.

Gradually, you'll find an entirely new worldview unfolding that is not only more realistic, but also infinitely creative, optimistic and humane. From wild software to genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers: Nature changes along with us!

Join us for the Dutch book launch on Tuesday 4 June at De Rode Hoed in Amsterdam. Pre-order your Dutch copy here. Note: We are currently working hard on the English translation of the book. Subscribe to our newsletter and we'll keep you in the know!

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Humans have been manipulating living things for thousands of years. Examples of early biotechnologies include domesticating plants and animals and then selectively breeding them for specific characteristics.

Biotechnologies vary in application and complexity. It involves making useful products from whole organisms or parts of organisms, such as molecules, cells, tissues and organs. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, biotechnology has expanded to include new and diverse sciences such as genomics, recombinant gene techniques, applied immunology, nanotechnology, and cell therapies.

As our knowledge and capability in biotechnology increases, so do the potential benefits. However, while the intention behind new biotechnologies is to benefit society, determining what impact a particular biotechnology may have is still complex, and with that, the practice of design is changing along.

Today, we see large tech companies (such as Alphabet / Google, Amazon, Tesla) making huge investments in biotech; what if these companies will develop commercial products using biotechnology?

We caught up with NNN member Nicole Spit for a thrilling vision of a future with biotechnology. As designer and founder of Studio Dáárheen, Nicole is researching trends and technological advancements that will shape the future of product design.

Next week, on 4 June, she will present her ideas during an Expert Talk at Cube Design Museum, and you are invited.

Biotechnology is a relatively new phenomenon within the design discourse. Where does your fascination with biotech come from?

During my trend research work as a product designer at a design agency around 2003, I came across a website where you could order pieces of DNA code as modules that could be combined. This fascinated me endlessly. It was a mix of personal interests. Biology had always been one of my favorite courses at school and my dad was a chemist, so the subject was already close to my heart. At the design agency, however, technology was mainly associated with mechanics and traditional ways of production. Very pragmatic, which did not trigger my imagination as much as biotechnology does.

Designing from and with living material has been instigating interesting philosophical questions. Biomimicry, which means we are inspired by nature’s intelligence in design, is incredible. And even better; (re)designing living material. But do we have enough knowledge as humans to do good? Are we considering the impact of our actions? I was occupied by it.  

The media attention for biotechnology increased over the years, and developments sped up. I noticed my excited reaction to each new invention within biotechnology and started to predict the next steps. During trend research in 2015, I chose biotechnology as the most important and promising technological development of the future. Aside from new technological possibilities, trend research is exploring the drives and values of people and how they change over time. Even though healthcare technology offered incredible possibilities for biotech, I was more interested in the opportunities for (product) designers. What could they do with it?

BioTronical: a living camera by Nicole Spit

I wanted to visualize these ideas in objects, because in my opinion theory is less appealing than 3D objects. Those speculative 3D objects are meant to be conversation starters. That is why they are somewhat over the top and caricatural, yet still they are based on scientific articles about the current possibilities of biotechnology. I am a visual thinker, and using an object is a way to communicate ideas very quickly. It creates a vibration in your brain.

Why is it important to create awareness of biotechnology right now?

In the case of awareness, it’s mostly about synthetic biology; the editing of DNA of living organisms. Regular biotechnology is important because we are increasingly aware of pollution and damage that we do to our earth. We have to think about how to wisely deal with nature and living materials, and how we can apply biotechnology.

With synthetic biotech and especially the relatively new development of CRISPR cas9, which enables us to modify DNA, the developments are continuing with such a speed that we can barely grasp the consequences of it. Political decision-making is behind on track. Science is rumbling forward, and that is good, but we need to have the moral discussion about potential ethical objections and ecological dangers. People need to be aware of potential consequences, because eventually politics will determine its progression. People are able to establish their own opinion and, to a certain point, influence politics.

We need to have the moral discussion about potential ethical objections and ecological dangers.

Additionally, scientists in the field of biotechnology seem to be unaware of the influence of synthetic biotechnology. That’s why it seems good to me that other disciplines are interfering and starting the discussion. As designer, I want to show to those scientists the potential applications of biotechnology for artists and designers. Yet I also believe that everyone should add their voice and perspectives to this debate, including sociologists, philosophers, policymakers and medics, including the hairdresser around the corner. Essentially everyone, because it will have global effect on our environment.

What is your take on ethical objections against biotechnology?

I understand the ethical objects and there are many. Still, I think we should carefully proceed to advance biotechnology. As our knowledge increases, we will encounter potential dangers and issues, which is also where solutions can be found. We have to engage in a discussion about what we find desirable and what not. That is why we all have the responsibility to think about it and form our own opinion.

Then, we can step by step allow a little more by carefully opening up the policy. New advancements have to be extensively tested and measured in labs. Scenarios have to be developed and models have to be tested. What if this goes wrong? What if this element reacts to another element? How are people going to use it? And which people?

We will not be able to predict everything, because it is an unpaved path. It is fascinating to me that, when we turn off certain genes and have found solutions to undesired pieces of code, other pieces that were unaccounted for will turn on again. It’s a case of trial and error, but we have to do it in a way that is as safe as possible, and within the walls of the lab.

Simultaneously, the societal debate has to be set in motion. What do we think about designer babies? Are we allowed to erase certain diseases through modification? Who will have access to the knowledge and tools? Is open source desired or dangerous?

I believe that there are incredible possibilities with biotechnology and that lots of doors will open towards new knowledge, which will affect other fields of knowledge too. I mainly see new possibilities.

How can we make sure biotechnology is a humane technology, and not forget about the human factor?

This can be done by including people from all kinds of fields, and establish multidisciplinary teams of microbiologists, designers, sociologists, ethicists and medici. By making sure that money is not be the prime interest; a risk that could be reduced by open source knowledge. By valuing the opinions and objections of uninitiated people. By really discussing, which means to prepare arguments, attentively listen to the perspectives of others and adjust your own arguments accordingly. This is something that we seem to have unlearned in our society. By philosophizing. By establishing a global ethical code, which for example includes that for each biotechnological assignment, the producers are obliged to explain how it helps people and to whom it may be harmful. By keeping profits within a specific margin. By obliging the application of a biomarker, by which the creator of a product will always be known. By the establishment of an independent institute of supervisors.

The difficulty that remains is that policy and protocols are defined by culture and region, which makes it hard to establish global consensus.

What is currently the most important effect of biotech on the planet?

With synthetic biology, you can create changes at DNA level that may affect the cell or the organism. It can be hereditary. A modified cell or organism could multiply, and the modification could recur after generations. If you see DNA as a long string of function codes, you may remove the undesirable pieces of code and replace them by desired pieces. The undesired or desired pieces could return for generations and merge with other DNA.

And even more, we have to deal with the expression of code. It may be present invisibly, or it may be clearly present in phenotypical characteristics. We may be able to decide which characteristics we would like to see, at all organisms. But what are the immeasurable side effects? What is the global influence? It may change or destroy whole ecosystems. The big question is, what is desired or undesired? And for whom?

So what would be the desired effect of biotech on the planet?

It is hard to define what should be the influence of biotech on the planet. Restore the damaged ecosystems? Make animals and humans resistant to the negative influences that we ourselves, even though unconsciously, created? Make ourselves resistant to radiation? Banish cancer? Extent the lifespan of people? Everything in nature is connected and mutually influential. It is an incredible, but hugely complex system. Organisms already have a great power of accommodation. Will humans taste defeat if we do not interfere?

I believe biotech helps us to gain knowledge around our composition on cell level. If we are, for example, able to understand why certain genes are activated when we switch off others, we will be able to get to the bottom of this mechanism that will teach us a lot about ourselves. With biotechnology, we will be able to move out of Plato’s cave.

With biotechnology, we will be able to move out of Plato’s cave.

In your talk, you will dive into our current society in which new (bio)technological developments require a change in attitude of both consumers and producers. How are we going to make this transition successful?

We live in an era of transition and rising awareness. Because of, for example, the greenhouse effect and the plastic soup in the ocean, we are increasingly aware of the damaging effect of humankind on our own ecosystem. We deliberately question ourselves whether the uncontrollable growth of our consumption society should shrink and be converted into a society of quality. There is a huge desire for meaningfulness and authenticity.

Products that are produced with biotechnology, will have to be demonstrable safe and ethically justifiable; produced with respect for our environment, sustainable and actually contribute to the use and comfort of the consumer. Additionally, products have to be carefully designed. The consumers will need to have a closer bond with the product, because the short-term consumer society is obsolete. Unless the product can be recycled. In that case, it might help that a product needs regular maintenance, care or repair. Think about living products, that require care and simultaneously fulfil our desire for new rituals. This is a new variation of Rietveld’s statement “consuming is a verb”. There needs to be a debate on purchasing and usage. The role of the producer is not simply to deliver the physical product anymore, but also to inform and to repair. This can lead to new business models.

BioWatch, a piece of Nicole's project NeoBio

In your talk, you will also elaborate on 'the big 5' (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon) that are making giant investments in biotech. Are commercial biotech products a dream or nightmare?

At first sight, this is a nightmare. I assume that during the production process, there will be no attention to ethical values, because profit and power are the incentives. And because the technology is continuously developing, there will be ways to make huge profits from it. Additionally, they will neglect the importance of safety, because it costs money and time. They will lobby for it by supporting political campaigns or play into ego and power. We can already see it in a lot of areas; the big 5 don’t know how to handle their responsibility. Think about data leaks (Cambridge Analytica), interference with elections, the distribution of fake news, absurd patents and the cover up of safety risks.

Their biotechnological products that arrive on the market, may be unexpectedly unsafe. For example in the case of BioTronicols, which is a term that I made up to designate products in which electronics and living cells are integrated and communicating. If two BioTronicols are combined, will they be able to exchange DNA, contaminate each other or pass on genetic material? Will they be able to contain hidden, inactive pieces of DNA? It is similar to the original analogy of a virus, which turned into a computer virus and now transitions back into a hybrid virus. What happens if your BioTronicol will deteriorate? Or when it forms a consciousness? What if it arrives at the market without a biomarker, and no one will know who created it? Or, what if the biomarker in itself has a different function?

It is possible that genetically manipulated butterflies with logos on their wings will be applied as instrument for marketing. Do we want to be confronted with a company logo on a living organism, flying around in our garden like a subtle marketing tool?

Do we want to be confronted with a company logo on a butterfly, flying around in our garden like a marketing tool?

After the application of biotech has become more mainstream, eventually people will use it mindfully and more altruistically. It will be a process of trial and error. Eventually, I expect great products that can help us on a lot of levels.

What is the lesson that you want people to take along?

That we have to continue scientific biotechnological research, because I believe there is a huge source of knowledge waiting for us to discover. It is important that a variety of disciplines bring their knowledge to the table. All of us have to engage in the ethical discussion on the usage of biotechnology. We have to guard our safety and be aware of the potential huge influence on our environment. Finally, product designers may think differently about it than biotechnologists do and will thus use it differently. Let’s inspire each other.

The Expert Talk ‘NeoBio, a perspective on the influence of biotech on product design’ is part of the IMPACT!-Programme and the Nature exhibition at Cube.

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Meet Pirjo Kääriäinen, professor of design driven fibre innovation at Aalto University, Finland. Kääriäinen founded CHEMARTS—a collaborative program at the university that brings students from different disciplines together to experiment with new material processes—to explore alternative applications for bio-based materials.

Having a extensive knowledge of the Finnish textile industry, it’s fair to say Kääriäinen is an expert in the field. She possesses a valuable bank of insights, a clear perspective on how the industry must change, and an inexhaustible passion for the benefits of collaborative work. Her realistic approach to sustainability is what informs the CHEMARTS program, along with an attitude of openness and respect for change.

What CHEMARTS does

The CHEMARTS program has produced a plethora of interesting outcomes. Participants have offered alternative applications for bio-based materials that make tangible the possibility of producing longer lasting, more sustainable applications for valuable forest resources.

Some examples: students have developed biodegradable tableware, natural sunscreen, wearable garments, home furnishings, wood-based bricks and organic jewelry.

What new possibilities are out there? We caught up with Pirjo Kääriäinen to learn more.

Biodegradable tableware. Designer: Aurora Tani

Hi Pirjo, tell us about CHEMARTS

Chemarts started in 2011, and has been an interdisciplinary collaboration from the beginning. When Aalto University was merged there was a desire to see how different disciplines could really work together.

In setting up the program, we realized that these different disciplines —engineering and design— had a shared interest in materiality, with a particular focus on using wood for new textile fibres.

We received some funding from the university and managed to set up a team; members who not only came from different disciplines but also from different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

In following, participants from chemical engineering and design set up their courses, came up with the name CHEMARTS, and thought about how to collaborate. It was a really useful, student driven exercise, and we have been developing it ever since.

How do you succeed in creating a common language between these disciplines?

Everyone who has worked on our interdisciplinary projects has said that communication is crucial for how successful the project will be. A shared language has to be created, and it is created and enabled by doing things, by working together, by being hands-on and making together.

There are two crucial elements needed for a fertile collaboration to succeed: The first is willingness; when you have a willingness to do something, you want to understand, and you make an effort to understand. If you don’t have willingness, nothing will happen.

"A shared language has to be created, and it is created and enabled by doing things, by working together, by being hands-on and making together"

The second element you need is respect. If you have respect for the other person’s knowledge, their experience, and them as a person, a true collaboration is enabled.

For example, I don’t want to become a chemist, and I couldn’t because I don’t have the knowledge. I feel I have to leave that area to my colleagues, who are the true experts in that field. However, I believe we can play a little bit in the other’s realms. By combining and respecting each other's deep expertise, we can work together and have true collaborations.

Do designers working in the natural sciences have a different responsibility to those who don’t?

Whether you are working with the natural sciences, or some other field, I think responsibility is becoming more important for designers in general. Of course, designers can’t always have an impact on things inside companies such as sustainability, but they should at least try. Particularly as sustainability is becoming such a dominant issue. I think as designers we need to take a bit more responsibility than we are now.

"I think as designers we need to take a bit more responsibility than we are now."

I do agree that designers working with the natural sciences have a unique responsibility. Working with living things such as bacteria, fungi or microbes is a different story—these are alive.

How we treat and use them is always up for discussion. Ethical discussions need to happen, and designers must be aware and take part in these discussions.

To what extent does the Nordic context inform the work of CHEMARTS?

A lot. Firstly, we have plenty of forest-based materials here. And we know them quite well, as we have been using them industries such as papermaking for over two-hundred years.

We have plenty of wood in Finland, and currently we use it in ways that don’t always make sense. Valuable side streams from the industry are not always utilized efficiently, and some methods of harvesting are not the best for the environment. We have the raw materials but we need to find new ways of using them.

"We have the raw materials but we need to find new ways of using them."

Also keep in mind that the Finnish concept of forest is completely different to, say, the Dutch concept. Nordic forests are totally different. We have a very special legislation in Finland, it’s called ‘every man’s rights’, and it’s a right the means everybody's free to go to the forest and explore, to pick berries and mushrooms.

You should not harm nature but you can go and forage. It’s a beautiful old tradition that we have here, that we hope we can keep. This context comes into our projects too, and although we often use processed wood-based materials they are still very linked to the forest. It’s a wonderful, renewable resource.

How do you navigate the conflict of continuing to extract natural materials, yet at the same time trying to be more sustainable?

With climate change, there is a lot of discussion going on about our forests being valuable carbon sinks, meaning they take in carbon and keep it within them as they grow. This means that we need to work on preserving our forests as carbon sinks, and using what we do take in different ways; using wood for long-life applications, for example creating wooden buildings that continue to store carbon for decades.

The worst possibility is that we use our materials for a short time and then throw them away. We must think about how we can balance environmental and economic needs. Finland can’t afford not to use wood at all, this is not a country rich with different resources. Instead, we can use it in better ways.

How will these bio-based material experiments help us relate to nature in different ways?

I think in general people don’t know what’s in materials these days. If you would ask people on the street, ‘what materials are you wearing?’, most of them will don’t know that they are two-thirds oil, or that they have plastic on their skin.

One value of these projects is that they connect people back to materials in general. We will continue to use materials in our everyday lives and we need to be aware of them and how they exist in our world. If you are not aware of something, you cannot have an impact on that. For example, if you want to select something more sustainable, you can’t unless you know about it.

"People used to sew, repair, make food from scratch - and this makes you think differently."

We feel strongly that when you play with natural materials, when you work with them in intimate and tangible ways, you start to think about the material more deeply, and that’s a kind of trigger or motivation that allows you to think more deeply about nature in general.

And even human nature. One of our students has been exploring how to help children to express feelings through playing with materials. Our minds are deeply linked to our body, and we are looking into how these materials may make us more aware of many things — ourselves, nature, sustainability.

More and more we are not working with our hands. People used to sew, repair, make food from scratch - and this makes you think differently. To do this is to also develop your thinking and your mindset.

Do you feel that CHEMARTS disrupts narratives of humans mastering nature for their own needs? 

I think they have to disrupt this narrative. We can’t go on using nature in the way that we do. There is much more discussion happening about the agency of materials in the era of the Anthropocene.

"We are part of nature ourselves, yet we seem to have forgotten that somehow."

We are part of nature ourselves, yet we seem to have forgotten that somehow. However we nature effects whole environmental systems. By learning about the impact, and how we use systems, we can change the way we use them. We have to change how we are using materials on a large scale, and for a very short time. The whole system is unbearable. 

How to change this?

We can change things by establishing some kind of balance. For example, experiments with natural dyes have become popular recently, but many of the plants we use for them are very rare. What would happen if the whole industry started using them? It would be a catastrophe and would bring new problems. So we need to have a more holistic way of thinking, to ask where do these techniques it come from, is it good for nature? Can we grow it ourselves, for example with bacteria? We should be very careful about what we label as sustainable.

Do you see a move in this direction already?

I see it here in Scandinavia, I may see it in central Europe. But to be honest, if we take a global perspective, not yet. We are living in a bubble, and it’s easy. We live in rich countries and we can afford to be sustainable.

I was recently speaking with someone from Lebanon, and for him the concept of sustainability was not familiar at all. So we have a lot to do in terms of spreading this thinking and knowledge. And of course we need people like Greta Thunberg, we need these kinds of activists to spread awareness.

We can take inspiration from nature, where nothing is too much and nothing is too little. Whatever nature produces, some other element is balancing it and using it. Our ecosystems work in a certain ways so that there is no waste, and that’s a very interesting thing to consider.

"Our ecosystems work in a certain ways so that there is no waste, and that’s a very interesting thing to consider."

For more information about student projects and research by CHEMARTS, follow the links and see for yourself! CHEMARTS will be releasing a Cookbook in 2020, learn more about it here.

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