Designing tomorrow’s objects

Mothering nature

The shape of things to come

Minds on the future

Imagine that you could actually grow the future. By bringing together design and technology, we can, in effect, edit biology—and create physical objects that point to the shape of things to come. That, in a sense, is what my team do in our lab.

Today we can design micro-organisms to mimic “factories” capable of transforming almost any biomass into bio-products that may be useful for, say, wearable garments, transport and even construction. Engineered gut E.coli can generate useful chemicals and antibiotics; blue-green algae can convert captured carbon into biofuels or plastics. This biological alchemy is inspiring a movement towards the design of living matter not for, but as, the built environment. I call this Material Ecology.

Such an intimate relationship between technology and biology through design reflects a new ecological perspective—from consuming nature as a geological resource to using it as a biological one. Rather than mining materials, we can create physical things using synthetic biology, computational design and 3D printing.

Designs that combine top-down form generation (additively manufactured) with bottom-up growth of biological systems (biologically synthesised) open big opportunities. They enable us to make things that are truly dynamic—that can respond, heal and adapt.

In the end, cells are simply small self-replicating machines. If we can engineer them to perform useful tasks, just by adding sugar and growth media, we can dream up new design possibilities.

In 2016 the journey from mining to growing will accelerate as design closes the gap between technology and biology. New research at the intersection of 3D printing and synthetic biology will start to yield some striking creations: photosynthetic building façades that convert carbon into biofuel, wearable microbiomes and 3D-printed contraptions for repairing damaged tissue. We will begin to mother nature by design.

* For more information on Neri Oxman's work, please see her TED talk, "Design at the intersection of technology and biology".

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