The menacing signs of climate change stare us in the eyes, glistening pale eyes that reflect the images of dead oceans and sizzling forests. We avert our gaze, mesmerized by the comfort of our prosthetic existence. Ignorance gives us the ability to disregard the major design flaws that spill from our factories. Plastic’s inability to reintegrate with the environment after being discarded, a broken loop of trash mountains and dead animals. Today, there are not many incentives to persuade companies to produce their products more sustainably. In fact, the topic of climate change has not been fully accepted by everyone, as it continues to appear at the center of political debates. The necessity to rethink the design flaws of the materials that we use so regularly prompted the rise of biodesign, a fusion of both biology and design fueled by the hope of a world without waste. Bio-designers imagine design “as one phase in a system, or a single step in a long process of production, construction, and disposal” (Myers and Antonelli 2018, 67). By looking to understand how the environment recycles matter, we can work to close the broken loop of unsustainable materials. Each component of a design must be able to be derived from nature and eventually return to nature in a safe way. Their understanding of how design must work in tandem with the environment makes bio-designers necessary in solving complicated issues such as climate change. The analysis of the materials and practices used for large-scale production emphasizes the imperativeness to reimagine the way we design, shifting our methodology to biodesign because of its focus on sustainability and balance.
The Rise of Biodesign:
The combination of current technological advancements and the stress of climate issues became the perfect incubator for the field of biodesign. The development of technology has caused exponential change in the way we function as a society, but unfortunately destruction has come with it. Technology has allowed us to build faster ways to rip out forests, easier ways to produce nonrenewable products, and cheaper ways to burn more fossil fuels. However, at the end of the day technology is just a tool, whose destructive abilities are empowered by our own doing. It is our responsibility to use technology in a way that does not deplete our resources, this requires us to change the way we think about design. Many of the most harmful pieces of technology have come from people simply trying to solve certain challenges, not from an inherently malevolent perspective. This highlights how our perspective on design needs to change to be able to see more environmental consequences. Biodesign redefines our relationship with technology in a positive way. Without advancements in technology the concept of biodesign would just be an empty idea. For instance, through a process assisted by the enzyme protease, the polysaccharide chitin can be extracted from the shells of crustaceans (Hongkulsup, Khutoryanskiy, V. and Niranjan 2016). Innovations like 3D printers allow this to be taken a step further, giving designers the ability to build elaborate structures using filament made from the extracted chitin (Oxman 2018). 3D printers have evolved to the point where they can render objects with unbelievable accuracy and precision, allowing for the construction of organic shapes that normal materials would not allow (Wang, Sun, Yao, Liu, Ji, and Zhu 2018). Similarly, “bioprinting has emerged as the premier technique for the rapid assembly of tissue engineered constructs, with scientific aspirations ranging from organ‐on‐a‐chip devices to engineered tissue for regenerative medicine” (Carreira, Begum and Perriman 2020). As technology provides new ways to use materials, the creation of new materials will be inspired in turn. Inversely, as new materials are introduced, designers and scientists will realize new ways to apply them to different facets of life. Taking a note from nature, it is important to find a balance. While cliché, the consequences of focusing too much on technological growth and money instead of sustainability lies all around us in the form of plastics.
The process of biodesign is a simultaneous split-screen between life in a lab and a studio. Biologists and current technology play key roles in developing and experimenting with new materials, materials so straightforward yet an impressive display of science at the same time. Biodesign uses the answers that are right in front of our eyes, molding and sculpting them into endless possibilities. Going forward, a t-shirt could be made out of genetically engineered spider silk or from a culture of bacteria. A vase could be constructed out of wax by a hive of bees or made out of corn husks (Solanki 2019, 94 and 126). While much of what we have designed has been single purpose, we can now begin to design materials that can self heal, change color, or produce heat (Antonelli 2018). Among these materials are mycelium, bacteria, cellulose, algae, as well as naturally occuring polymers, all being explored for their structural and renewable properties. These materials go a step beyond the concept of upcycling, illustrating how designs can be grown instead of built. However, technology is needed in order for these materials to be used for building purposes. Biodesigners like Neri Oxman, a revolutionary thinker and professor at the MIT media lab, dedicates a lot of her time to experimentation in labs. Her team works with renewable and organic compounds to find alternatives to plastic. In her experimentation of a glass, she devised a revolutionary way to 3D print it, building captivating lighting structures (Oxman 2017). The most mysterious yet exquisite mixture of art and science has evolved from her simple objective to stay away from plastics. She is able to harness the power of nature, using science to extract natural compounds like photopolymers, peptin, and chitin. The structures she is able to attain range from printed masks that examine life and death to massive woven structures that provide the fabric industry an alternative to killing silkworms. She has achieved an unparalleled sense of beauty in her work that would be impossible to attain with traditional materials. Her designs exemplify how sustainable materials are not only fit to substitute synthetic materials, but they are also an improvement. Another key material holding industry altering potential is Mycelium - the root-like fibers of fungi (Sascha 2011, 54). When put into a mold, mycelium is able to fill the space and hold the shape. It has been used to grow bricks for building material that require significantly less time and energy than those made from concrete. In fact, mycelium bricks are sixty times lighter than traditional bricks, making them perfect for use in non-load bearing structures or as insulators (Hoeven 2020). So far, mycelium has taken the shape of lighting, chairs, and even a large structure at the MoMa in Manhattan, going to show the many applications of biomaterials. The Algae Lab, established by Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros, continues the conversation on the chameleon-like ability of biomaterials. They have been able to 3D print vases and containers using algae. These works highlight the immense knowledge we can gain by observing how nature designs. Our current materials are limiting, both for our survival and our creativity. If we are to overcome the challenges ahead, adaptivity is our best asset, a quality synonymous with the medium of biodesign. Biodesign is not just a solution for larger climate issues, it is the next step in the evolution of design.
There are many reasons why the products of biodesign are better for than those made from petroleum and other nonrenewable resources. Growing materials eliminates the need for large composite systems of production, where many pieces are zipped from assembly-line to assembly-line across the globe. The inefficiency of current systems of production results in a massive amount of preventable waste. Material scientists and biodesigners continue to explore the applications of microbes for healthcare, architecture, etc., gaining a better understanding of their highly developed methods for energy production and growth. One use of a bacterium called coelicolor has been as a way to dye fabric. Natsai Chieza, a designer and researcher, shows that through the process of microbial fermentation and depending on the PH of the environment, shades of pink and blue effuse from the coelicolor (Chieza 2020). In a process that requires a mere 200ml of water, in comparison to the over three gallons of water per pound of fabric used in regular dyeing methods, the bacterium is applied to fabric. The fashion industry uses over 79 billion cubic meters of water per year, over 85 percent of which goes towards dying fabric (The Conscious Challenge 2019). This is an extremely inefficient process that results in a huge amount of waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Water used for the dye process is unusable afterwards, as it contains dangerous chemicals. “In India and Bangladesh, dye wastewater is discharged, often untreated, into nearby rivers eventually spreading into the sea. Reports communicate a dramatic rise of diseases in these regions due to the use of highly toxic chrome” (The Conscious Challenge 2019). Using natural dyes from bacteria or plants eliminates the water pollution caused by synthetic chemicals used in the process. The fashion industry, masked in the illusion of glamour, is responsible for a lot of damage to the environment and human health. The fashion industry is not the only industry hugging onto nonrenewable materials for their low costs. The landfill is crowded with waste produced by the construction and demolition industries. In 2018, “600 million tons of C&D debris were generated in the United States...which is more than twice the amount of generated municipal solid waste” (US EPA 2020). This shows a lack of recycling and reusability. Building with sustainable materials will allow landfill waste to be decreased. However, just incorporating new materials will not be enough to curb the damage being done to the environment. It is also necessary to build in a different way that places importance on taking end of life into account.
Mindset and Values:
As the clock continues to count down the amount of time left before climate change becomes irreversible, the world remains in a daze, unwilling to change. Unfortunately, “...most human beings either resist, pursue, seek to control, or amplify change. We take pride in our ability to interfere with and even manipulate the flow” (Antonelli 2018, 12). Instead of learning to nurture a symbiotic relationship with the world around us, we focused on suppressing it for our benefit. This has ultimately led to a lot of issues including climate change, global pandemics and deforestation. Our current ways of doing things have proven to be harmful for ourselves and for the planet. Nature has been recycling matter for millions of years on both a small and large scale. Organisms and plants grow complex structures out of multifunctional and adaptive materials that can reintegrate with the environment. Biodesign argues that a focus on the recycling of matter is a principal way to form a better relationship with the environment. This is why it is capable of helping us divert many of the consequences resulting from our flawed designs. The human mindset positions us in a sense above nature. We dress ourselves in fancy clothes and build nice houses to distance ourselves from other organisms, when in fact we should be learning from them. By looking at the way nature designs we can improve our own skills.
The Problem of Plastics:
There is still the issue of what to do with the nonrenewable materials currently pouring into landfills. Many of such products will take thousands of years to decompose and current recycling facilities remain limited in their abilities. In an article for NPR, Laura Sullivan noted that “plastic production is expected to triple by 2050”. A scary realization, made worse by the fact that most recycling facilities do not have the financial ability to recycle every type of plastic (Sullivan 2020). It is a misconception, paid for by large oil companies, that plastics can be recycled. The costs to sort the seemingly infinite range of plastic types between what is and is not recyclable is extremely high (Sullivan 2020). Accordingly, there is a surplus of plastic and part of the responsibility of being a designer is making use of the materials at hand. A few companies have had this revelation including Parley for the Oceans, an organization working to recycle plastics found in ocean ecosystems. The company takes the plastic they collect, processes it and turns it into desirable goods. Their efforts preserve the usefulness of plastics, which would have otherwise been lost sitting in a landfill. In a recent collaboration with Adidas, Parley proved that there is financial incentive and demand for sustainability as well (Aziz 2018). While plastics make up a large portion of our landfills, they should not be our only focus. The artist Jorge Penadés utilizes the benefits of recycling by using leather scraps, a material considered a waste product, to produce light fixtures and furniture. Each piece displays detailed patterns that depend on the colors and shapes of the scraps he is able to procure. The resulting variations in the material are an advantage that makes his work stand out. Penadés’s ability to see past the stigmas associated with the use of waste materials makes him an inventive and resourceful designer (Seetal 2019). Redefining what we perceive as waste is an important step in order to cut down input into landfills; it is also a creative opportunity. The concept of recycling must be applied to as many aspects of life as possible. When an organism dies, nature recycles all of its matter. Our man made materials should be able to do the same.
Pressure and stress have an interesting way of yielding the most creativity. As the dire nature of the climate crisis has been realized, many new advancements have been made. Biodesign, like any big idea at its beginning stages, has far to go before it becomes a standard of design. Many advancements in the field remain as prototypes, not readily available to the public. However, many sustainable materials have been in use for thousands of years. The Roman empire used concrete that did not release greenhouse gasses. Made from simple ingredients, lime and volcanic rock, these concrete blocks are still standing strong today. It is simple to incorporate more sustainable materials, but for some reason we have not. There is also a misconception that “green design and construction are more expensive, often prohibitively so. But more and more studies are showing that green buildings can cost the same as or even less than conventional ones, provided some fundamental green design concepts are applied” (Bergman 2012, 24). In the long-term, biodesign solves cost issues through its creative and ingenious perspective on materiality. Investing in a sustainable design will likely save money on heating, lighting, and energy. In fact, “the use of sustainable materials can help with the purification of the air, while better surroundings improve productivity” (Geraedts 2020). Productivity has a direct correlation with income, further proving the power of biodesign. Nevertheless, it is going to take a lot for the world to embrace change. If biodesign is anything, it proves how two groups of people routinely considered opposites, scientists and designers, can come together. If these larger environmental issues are going to be solved, we will need to weave our different perspectives together.
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