To help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change we will need to significantly change our consumption and production patterns within a very short number of years. The pace depends on how hesitant politicians are. Business, consumers and designers are ready to explore new opportunities now. A promising area to explore is the relatively untapped frontier of bio-design.
Bio-design is many things, probably best described as the practice of using nature’s distinctive strengths to create solutions that are both sustainable and functional. By and large, bio-design is very similar to industrial design: You design a product that can be made, produced and sold. However, an industrial designer has ordinary tools and materials at hand, and most often an engineer to implement the design. However, with bio-design the product is often grown, and as a result your design partner is most likely a researcher or scientist, with access to a lab. In today’s economy, industrial designers work with engineers to use well-known tools, processes and materials. When pursuing bio-design, a designer will work with a scientist in a lab setting to test and iterate on ways of growing and controlling organic material. Lab costs today are very expensive, as historically scientists have not been incentivized to provide this level of access. In a future green economy, many products will be grown, so improving access to scientific expertise and facilities is critical. An exciting example of this is a new research facility just announced in New York City by the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. They have invited renowned bio-designer Neri Oxman to develop an innovative research and design lab as part of the project.
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Around the world there are examples of designers collaborating with nature to find solutions for everyday life. They create “classic” products while designing organic materials and production processes. It is difficult to get mainstream society to embrace this type innovation. In France, cups and plates are being designed with algae as the main component. But they cannot go to market yet, as there are very strict requirements for products that have to do with food. Only very few materials may be used, and “natural” materials such as bacteria and algae are not on the list. For food safety reasons, it makes good sense that very few synthetic materials should come in contact with what we eat. But when those rules were made, bio-design was not an option at all.
Despite the challenges a number of foresighted designers are working closely with research labs to generate products that will become everyday items in the near future. Ecovative Design can grow an industry leading package design made of hemp and mycelium. It performs great compared to similar non-organic products, and is fully compostable, breaking down in only 30 days.
Mushroom packaging by Ecovative
Another good example is designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, who developed a method of dyeing cloth in which she uses bacteria and non-chemical materials, which is usually the go-to method in the clothing industry. Not only does her method reduce the use of chemicals, the amount of water used in the bacterial process is one five hundredth that of the ordinary dyeing process. When her method is standardized and disseminated, it will make a huge difference to the climate footprint of the clothing industry. Chieza was fortunate to have the opportunity to explore and experiment with her various ideas and theses because, as a designer in London, she gained access to a laboratory where she could work side by side with scientists and engineers working on more “serious” topics. Today, she is partnering with Boston based Gingko Bioworks to create industry scale solutions.
UK based startup Polymateria, have devised a way to create a ‘self-destructing’ plastic for single-use applications. Their Biotransformation technology allows the company to produce plastic products designed to last for a set amount of time. Once the lifespan of the product is over, a chemical conversion causes a rapid loss of physical properties, allowing the plastic to break down into a wax, and degrade organically over time.
The key to make bio-design succeed now is investment and legislation. Designers need access to labs, and they need scientists with an open mindset to test commercial use of their methods. Reducing barriers to these facilities and providing support to designers working with scientists to prototype and test biomaterials for the creation of everyday consumer articles will help drive adoption by the design community and consumers. Secondly, updating legislation and policies to allow for this sort of experimentation is needed, rather than keeping rules and regulations from another time.
By not exploring bio-design today’s large-scale manufacturers could be at risk if they define their business and expertise too narrowly. Globally, bio-design could be the next big industry, but we are still at the level where the world’s 100 largest design companies do not yet have bio-design departments. Yet. This is sure to change as consumer demands for greener products increase.