Johanna Schmeer, The Outside Inside; Photo: Christian Schmeer

Bio-Design, Bio-Hacking und Design Fiction

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it …

In their search for solutions to pressing challenges, an increasing number of engineers and inventors look to nature for inspiration. To them, the biosphere is an unlimited source of inspiration and a testing ground for clever ideas. Yet while living façades or lab-grown meat might give us tantalising hints of things to come, ambitious artists, researchers, and entrepreneurs are already paving new paths in bio design with intelligent imitations of biological processes, targeted environmental interventions, and even attempts to breathe real life into technology.

Johanna Schmeer, The Outside Inside; Photo: Christian Schmeer

Welcome to the technosphere

While some of the radical results might surprise us, this is by no means a new trend. Humans have been shaping their environment since the discovery of tools and fire. Over time, stone and iron tools were replaced by machines, dynamite, and chemicals. But we have also shaped the biological realm. More than 10,000 years ago, the practice of farming and domesticating animals started to change the landscape. In the 19th century, the discovery of Mendelian inheritance rules paved the way for better breeding programmes, culminating in today’s genetic modification techniques. We have become the official gardeners and engineers of Earth, leaving less than 10 percent of our land mass untouched by human intervention. Right now, the so-called technosphere weighs more than 30 trillion tons and it doesn’t always play nice with the remaining biosphere. According to Professor Mark Williams at Leicester University, "the technosphere is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show. This might be a barrier to its further success, or halt it altogether."

Questioning is status quo

Faced with increasingly scarce resources and the looming threat of the climate crisis, there’s an obvious need for novel approaches. This is where speculative or critical design can make a valuable contribution. It can enable important discussions on the relationships between people, nature, and technology, by making possible consequences of our actions more tangible. At the Futurium, Johanna Schmeer explores possible futures using micro-environments that simulate predicted conditions of the year 2100. According to the artist, the impact of speculative design “on everyday life is often quite indirect, because it is more about asking questions, or creating shifts in perspective, rather than providing solutions. But it is increasingly also used within research processes that lead to more applied, functional designs.” This is because such questions can inspire unusual answers beyond traditional, linear problem solving processes. Within this context, artists, designers and biologists are increasingly joining forces across the globe. The result of their collaborations: biological computers, algae that feed on circuit boards, or mushroom-based vegan leather.

I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.

Steve Jobs

The art of science

Berlin-based project Mind the Fungi calls this process ‘from STEM to STEAM’ and champions the idea of bringing artists, researchers, and engineers together to create space and scope for new ideas. Mind the Fungi focuses on unusual mushroom-derived materials, Dr. Robert Richter explores the ubiquity of mathematical principles in nature. “Artists have only just started to move on from depicting nature to using natural processes and principles to make art. We call this generative art since the resulting works are created by following set rules, with very simple rules often yielding extremely complex results.” Artists like Richter are researching and using natural forms to create something entirely new.

Johanna Schmeer also explores the boundaries of art, design, and science. Her project exhibited at the Futurium is about current and potential future relationships between environments, the species that inhabit these, and technology. These relationships are explored in her installation through the examples of terraformingand geoengineering. These approaches may sound futuristic, but they are already being used and controversially discussed today, for example in the case of cloud seeding projects in China. But there are also species such as plants or fungi that have terraforming abilities and that can for example cool soil, protect if from erosion, or remove toxins. These species are used in Johanna Schmeer’s installation to open up questions –“When is “nature” no longer “natural”? At what point does biology become technology?”

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Johanna Schmeer, The Outside Inside

Johanna Schmeer, The Outside Inside; Photo: Christian Schmeer

„Nature is intelligent and lazy“

Although all three artworks brim with creativity, imagination, and lateral thinking, nature is still light years ahead when it comes to finding unusual solutions. After all, evolution has already “spent 3.8 billion years on research and development,” according to Jamie Dwyer of Biomimicry 3.8. “When you factor in the extinct ‘evolutionary dead ends,’ nature’s success rate is only 0.1 percent.” Since millions of discarded prototypes would be unthinkable in commercial R&D, copying successful concepts from nature has become a sound strategy. Companies are already perfecting new products based on incredibly lightweight, but extremely strong spider silk, the water-repellent surface of lotus leaves, and the adhesive power of gecko feet.

Two aspects of bionics – where science, architecture, and manufacturing mirror natural systems – are especially worth copying: resource-saving materials and efficient waste prevention through clever recycling and constant reuse. According to the Princeton lecturer and engineer Sigrid Adriaenssens, nature is “intelligent and lazy”. In nature, success belongs to species that survive with the least effort and resources, while any waste becomes food for other organisms. Inspired by these principles, the architect and designer Jenny Sabin creates hyper-modern materials with a twist. Her self-illuminating ‘knitted light’ combines ancient craft with cellular structures. “In a way, knitting is the precursor of 3-D printing. Row by row, we add one stitch to the next.”

The science of nature

Natural sciences help us decode underlying principles. Robert Richter explores the sheer simplicity of many mathematical and geometric rules that govern the endless diversity of shapes, functions, and colours around us. “As a scientist, I’m obviously interested in the principles behind it all. Where physics, biology, and math meet, it becomes possible to solve extremely complex problems using very simple means. Take the patterns on zebra, giraffe, or leopard skin. They are created by basic principles of self-organisation and structure formation.” Engineers and roboticists have also jumped on the learning-from-nature train to teach robots to walk, for example. Echoing the evolutionary principle of natural selection, their computer algorithms simulate walking movements and tweak the variables with every iteration. Step by step, less efficient models are discarded until, after countless simulated rounds, the best, most stable walk remains.

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Photo: Robert Richter

The building blocks of life

Other biodesigners go even further and deliberately alter the genome of people, plants, and animals to use nature as a starting point or canvas for new ideas. Some experiment with kombucha mushrooms, pineapples, corn stalks, or bacteria to develop leather-like materials that are eco-friendlier than traditional tanned animal products. Or what about lab-grown bricks? bioMASON‘s ‘biological concrete’ could even replace street lighting since the resulting blocks glow at night. “Our process resembles the microorganisms that build coral reefs. It also generates far less CO2 than comparable construction materials,” states the company’s CEO, Ginger Krieg Dosier.

Artificial solutions

Synthetic biology (synbio) blurs the final boundaries between biology and technology, between life and architecture. Here, lifeforms become programmable raw materials for sustainable fuels, eco-friendly manufacturing, and novel pharmaceuticals. In 2010, Craig Venter created the world’s first synthetic lifeform: a copy of the Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium. As a proof of concept, the team also included a watermark and two quotes in the DNA.

Journalist James Mitchell Crow is convinced that we haven’t even scratched the surface of synbio’s incredible potential. “Imagine a future where synthetic jellyfish roam waterways looking for toxins to destroy, where eco-friendly plastics and fuels are harvested from vats of yeast, where viruses are programmed to be cancer killers, and electronic gadgets repair themselves like living organisms.” Whether in a cellular factory, a bio fuel generator, or an art project, there’s plenty of life left in this biochemical construction kit. Right now, researchers are using synbio to store entire libraries in artificial molecules.

Breathing new life into technology

Are these lab creations then actually alive? Has it become possible to create life itself? And could technology develop self-awareness? The artist and architect Philip Beesley takes a different approach to explore these philosophical questions. His Noosphere imitates biological processes to investigate the mysterious interplay of life. “Living is a very powerful word, but it does seem increasingly possible to understand how living systems work. They regenerate themselves. They're deeply coupled with their surroundings. We are getting better and better at reproducing these principles,” Beesley explains. “Science has told us, for example, that many tiny microprocessors, each one working in its own modest way, can rival the power of a supercomputer. Much like the way the neurons of our own brain are organised, this meshwork produces something very interesting. It produces societies, communities, great intelligence and even kinds of curiosity. Many small elements working together with resilience and flexibility can make something very, very substantial. If we design things to change and adapt, then those qualities can go into a tremendously resilient society.”

Natural Trailblazers

This distributed network approach offers some other, unforeseen advantages, and highlights the value of collective intelligence exhibited by bees and ants, for example. Almost ten years ago, a humble slime mould beat traffic experts in a public transport planning exercise. To research the unassuming species’ behaviour, biologists had recreated the nodes of Tokyo’s rail system using nutritious oat flakes. The brainless, single-cell slime mould connected the dots and created a natural network that resembled, and even improved on, the existing transport system. Oxford University’s Mark Fricker explains that “the slime mould has no central brain or indeed any awareness of the overall problem it is trying to solve, but manages to produce a structure with similar properties to the real rail network.” Naturally inclined to use the shortest path and create efficient connections, such ‘primitive’ lifeforms not only establish the best possible routes, but also especially flexible, resilient networks and fast rerouting options in situations that resemble rush hour traffic or disruptions. This promising approach could also be used to establish contingency plans for other critical networks (from wireless communications to the power grid) or even to answer medical questions around the growth of blood vessels in cancer patients.

A natural connection

The more we explore the mysterious realm of biodesign, the more we realise just how much we can still learn from nature. Its irreplaceable treasure chest of ideas, concepts, and genetic materials harbours countless concepts we haven’t discovered or even considered yet. To safeguard such precious resources, we need boundless enthusiasm for research, discovery, and new horizons, and we must understand who we are in this context: an inseparable part of nature that needs to treat the biosphere with openness and respect.

According to Johanna Schmeer, we also need to ask plenty of ‘What if ...?’ questions: “The questions we ask today, the perspectives we consider, and the ideas we develop through these, will be what shapes the future.”