Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

What can be made by mimicking biological “assemblies”?

Posted 09 Apr 2016 / 0

A student in my Ecology for Architects course sent me the link to this TED Talk by Neri Oxman about some of her projects at the intersection of design and biology. I think that my student meant for me to watch it, and perhaps might have been interested in my thoughts, but the talk struck such a chord that here I am writing this post.

I have to admit a few biases that I carried into watching this video. The first is that I am pretty skeptical of the concept of biomimicry in general. Yes, I get that there are certain designs already made by nature that solve problems that we have, and there are places where by copying nature’s solution to a similar problem we can save the trial-and-error time that we might waste coming up with our own solution. But knowing as much as I do about how evolution works as a “design process” and how biological development works as a “manufacturing process”, I am very skeptical of the idea that we can use nature as design inspiration. If nature designs and manufacturers its products in very different ways than we do, there is some limit to how much we can gain by trying to mimick nature.

My second bias is that few things get under my skin more than over-hyped design projects. I strongly believe in design as a solution to human problems — heck, cultural evolution is a huge interest of mine, so I had better appreciate the importance of design — but I am very distrustful of what I think needs to be called spectacular design. What is spectacular design? Well, it is design that is about creating more of a spectacle than an actual solution. Spectacular design creates something that is entertaining, intriguing — a kind of brain candy — that makes us forget that design is supposed to perform a function. There’s so much spectacular design out there that I cannot even begin to catalog it, but I think that the basic question Is this product more intriguing than functional? makes it pretty easy to identify spectacular design.

Oxman’s talk is a mix of ideas and creations that simultaneously excite me with their potential functionality and bug the heck out of me with their spectacular manifestations.

Let’s start with the positive.

Although I am skeptical of how far we can go in designing products via biomimicry, mimicking the basic properties of nature does make sense to me. To me what nature demonstrates is the kind of forms and systems that function and persist. We might not create these kinds of forms and systems by the same mechanisms as biological organisms, but we can endeavor to mimick the same properties. No property is more important to mimick in nature than material cycling. If asked to explain concisely why our current civilization is unsustainable, I would say the products we depend on are not designed to create material cycles. This is to say that I am a devotee of the Cradle-to-Cradle design idea. It appears that in some ways Oxman is as well.

An avid user of 3D printing technologies, Oxman is playing with the idea that products need not be composed of hundreds of discrete assemblies: we can be inspired by nature, which creates organisms out of continuously-varying cell types and tissue configurations. I agree that it would be a huge improvement over conventional design to have fewer parts, so long as those continuous parts don’t fail (you can tell me all you like that there are too many parts in the products we buy, but when you can fix an entire product by replacing the one tiny part that failed, you have stumbled upon the big benefit of designing around modular assemblies). This continuous-material design approach might lead to more flexible designs like Oxman’s Anthozoa, but by designing by varying the configuration of a single material her designs also have a much greater potential to be recycled at the end of their use lives.

Oxman also plays around with chitin, a biological polymer used by many organisms to create strong-but-supple skeletons and cell walls. She’s shown that chitin can be recruited for 3D printing, producing structures with some of the same properties as the insect exoskeletons that we observe in nature. This is exciting because chitin is inherently biodegradable: any substance this biologically ubiquitous for so much evolutionary time is going to be the food of some sort of microorganisms. I guess the big question for me is where the chitin that might replace our current crop of plastic products might come from: can we efficiently harvest enough chitin to use it as a basic material?

So I am not entirely unsold on the projects that Oxman describes in this talk, but for the most part I am underwhelmed by them. Ironically of course it is where these products become most spectacular that I get most turned off by them.

What really frustrated me was Mushtari, the outer garment that’s basically a continuous tube that can be filled with the liquid of your choice. As these quotes from an article in Dezeen magazine on Oxman’s garments suggest, they are still at a very conceptual stage:

The idea is that they could house photosynthetic organisms, which would generate energy from light and somehow pass this onto the garment’s wearer.

Oxman’s team has managed to flow liquid containing cyanobacteria – bacteria that obtain energy through photosynthesis – through a small section of the tubes. The team has not yet demonstrated that the bacteria can photosynthesise while inside the structure, but is continuing to test the compatibility of the printed materials with the microorganisms.

If there’s any question that some of this stuff exists more in the realm of science fiction than science, it is worth checking out this quote from the (admittedly very technophilic) GizMag:

Similarly, wearables such as Mushtari may also represent a method to incorporate and contain living organisms in close proximity to the skin in a symbiotic relationship that may be ideal for the rigors of long space voyages and the surfaces of hostile planets. A living, self-sustaining cocoon that recycles waste and provides energy from an external source would be far preferable to a spacesuit that simply provides support based on the amount of consumables you can conceivably carry.

Need more vacuous futurist stuff? Try this one from the 3DPrintingIndustry site on for size:

Inspired by the human gastrointestinal tract, Mushtari (which means “huge” or “giant” in Arabic) is designed to host synthetic microorganisms – a co-culture of photosynthetic cyanobacteria and E. coli bacteria – that can fluoresce bright colors in darkness and produce sugar or biofuels when exposed to the sun. The underlying concept is that such functions will, in the near future, augment the wearer by scanning our skins, repairing damaged tissue, and sustaining our bodies in ways that are inconceivable today.

And yet there’s no real limit to the hyperbole that this sort of design can inspire:

These wearable structures contain living organisms and are designed for life on other planets

I cannot entirely blame Oxman for the places that the media outlets above have taken her design, but she deserves a lot of the blame. Let’s be clear about what she has designed: she has made a 3D printed tube of varying thickness and opacity that has been wrapped into the shape of something a person can wear. Sure, I hear you, that’s mega-cool. But what does it do? Well, right now you can pump phosphorescent liquids into it and wear it to a really cool fashion show. It doesn’t yet host a symbiotic culture of algae and bacteria and if it did it would not be clear what the purpose of hosting such a microbial community would be.

It’s a common mistake of designers to do some research into biology and imagine that the next advance in using that biology can come from a new design. But the fact of the matter is that having the right container for a microbial community is far from being the biggest obstacle to engineering personal microbiomes. The real challenge starts with actually understanding the microbiomes we have, and this is a scientific project in its infancy. The next challenge would also be biological in nature, and that would be to understand how to engineer specific functions by creating microbial communities. This too is a scientific project in its infancy. Does creating a 3D-printed tube of varying thickness and opacity that can be worn contribute anything to either of these scientific projects? No.

I get that this sort of project is like a lot of basic science: it is aspirational, done not because it will immediately lead to the solution to some problem but because it shows that some barrier towards an eventual technology can be at least partially broken down. If the products that Oxman made were presented with sufficient humility — yeah, this might be an interesting design once the microbiologists tell us how to harness some useful function of microbial communities — I could perhaps appreciate them. But they are so over-hyped!

Why get so worked up about design like this? After all, isn’t a lot of the design world about entertaining and intriguing people?

Sure, but when I see projects like those presented by Oxman — and how they are presented — all I can think is “oh man, what opportunity costs”. What might we be pursuing if all these resources (including what is clearly a lot of genius on the part of Oxman and her collaborators) were devoted to more pressing ecological problems? It’s telling that Oxman’s products are contextualized as potential tools for space travel: there’s a blatant escapism in these designs, a conceit that through design we will escape from the constraints of living in an ecological system. I can’t think of any more dangerous idea to the survival of our current civilization than we can engineer tools to allow us to survive on other planets. This will all work itself out, of course: as we design ourselves out of the ecological earth state that has allowed large-scale civilization to exist, we’ll also put an end to design as we know it. But it does not have to be that way: this kind of design genius could be used to change the way we design in a manner that addresses our real problem, which is ultimately that we are pursuing the fool’s errand of trying to design ourselves out of nature. If there’s anything that nature should inspire, it is a reverance that we can’t step out of it.

Thanks to Thai Yashar for bringing this TED Talk to my attention!

A Minor Post, Adaptation, Architecture, Closed Loop Systems, Fashion, Film, Television, & Video, MSCI-271, Ecology for Architects, Science in Art & Design, Sustainability

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