Why the key to a sustainable planet is combining biology and design
Updated: Feb 26
Originally published on Eco-Age.
Image: Piero D Angelo – Biodesign Here Now exhibitor
Fashion tech innovator, writer and public speaker Brooke Roberts-Islam investigates how a movement of biologists and designers are working to replicate nature’s design systems to create sustainable biodesigns and biomaterials for the future health of people and planet.
Every day, we learn more about how our homes, transport and fashion and beauty products are becoming more sustainable. However, many of these sustainable solutions are chipping away at the global climate change problem, providing retro-fitted partial fixes. With the urgency proven by recent collective measures at the G7 summit, the outcry at the burning Amazon and ongoing ocean plastic cleanup efforts, it’s clear that whilst every positive action to reduce impact is a step in the right direction, ultimately, we need end-to-end sustainable systems to achieve the sweeping change that will secure our planet’s future. Put simply, we need to design and create and consume in a fully sustainable way.
Image: Aurelie Fontan – Biodesign Here Now Exhibitor
To this end, there is a passionate movement of biologists and designers studying and replicating the ‘design systems’ that exist in nature in an effort to apply these to how we design the cities, homes and clothes we inhabit, and more. What are these ‘design systems’? Have we copied them in the past, and if not, why not?
In nature, there are biological processes that create and sustain life (and materials) in a naturally efficient and organic manner. They maintain an equilibrium that only draws the energy required and creates byproducts that support other life. This is in contrast to the synthetic creation of materials, which are imbalanced in the sense that they harm rather than support other life and require disproportionate levels of energy for relatively small outputs.
An example of this biological versus synthetic material process can be found by comparing silk to synthetic ‘silk’. The silkworm creates a cocoon of continuous silk filament around its body length (around 3 inches), giving rise to a thread that is 1,300 metres long – in just three days. To do this, it expels a sticky silk protein while moving its head in a figure eight pattern to weave the cocoon. All it needs to do this is the correct climatic conditions and its energy source – mulberry leaves. It is an extraordinary organism that creates a raw material that has uses spanning beauty creams (silk protein protects the skin), medical dressings and of course, luxurious fabrics. The raw material has several grades of product outputs and all byproducts have value, with broken and low grade cocoons providing a superior protein food source to livestock, for example.
Image: Blast Studios – Biodesign Here Now exhibitor
No wonder biotech companies like Bolt Threads are copying the biological blueprint of silk by using the DNA of silk proteins (bioengineered into other organisms) to manufacture silk in larger quantities in a lab, so that this high value, relatively low impact material can become more available and affordable. The resulting fabric maintains all the natural properties of silk and ideally it would eventually reduce our overdependence on cotton and synthetic substitutes. Currently, silk makes up only 0.18% of textiles used globally. The most common fabrics used in clothing are cotton and synthetics (polyester is one example).
Prior to this biodesign effort by Bolt Threads, the industry approach to replicating silk was to create synthetic fibres and weave them in a manner that attempts to mimic the look and feel of silk. These synthetics had the added benefits of being machine washable, much less fragile, and much cheaper than silk. However, as we now know, they are also often treated as disposable – particularly in fast fashion – and this has contributed to the microplastic pollution problem, strengthening the case for more solutions like Bolt Threads bio-engineered spider silk.
Image: Open Cell, Shepherd’s Bush
In the UK, there is an emerging community of biologists and designers working in tandem on solutions in the same realm as Bolt Threads. Pivotal to this community are graduates from degrees such as MA Material Futures and the new MA Biodesign degree, launching at Central Saint Martins later this month. In addition, co-working lab spaces such as Open Cell in West London are making biodesign and materials research accessible to the most ambitious and creative minds at the beginning of their careers, on small budgets.
In addition, the Biodesign Challenge launched in 2016 fosters collaboration among art, design, and biology students, helping to cultivate the first generation of bio-designers and build meaningful public dialogue about biotech and its uses. Its executive director, Daniel Grushkin, said that: “future designers must fully understand the debates surrounding biotech so when they are asked to design with it, they do so thoughtfully and ethically.”
In September, London sees the annual design festival present the most cutting-edge product and material design to industry and consumers alike. The Biodesign Here Now exhibition at Open Cell marks the second year that biodesign has been featured prominently at the festival, with a pivotal place at the V&A as part of the Global Design Forum on September 16th, along with a launch event and free public exhibition at Open Cell on the 19th to 21st September. The aim is to share biodesign and biomaterials with the general public and allow access to the lab spaces that are catalysing this new generation of sustainable design systems.
The work being presented includes non-toxic bacterial dyeing by Post Carbon Lab, Lovely Trash by Blast Studios , an algae-based sustainable material by Carolyn Raff and Rosie Broadhead’s probiotic bacteria embedded into clothing, with the aim of encouraging cell renewal and improving the skin’s immune system. The work of these hybrid designer/engineer/scientists is proof that sustainable design systems that harness nature’s blueprints are crucial not only for the future health of the environment, but for humans, too.