Material Ecology @ World Economic Forum

Material Ecology @ World Economic Forum image

January 17 2016

Material Ecology at the World Economic Forum

Towards a Material Ecology
By Neri Oxman

A new way of beholding the world is emerging: the World-as-Organism. This nascent model stands in contrast to the First Industrial Revolution and its prevailing paradigm: the World-as-Machine. It strives to impart a living quality into objects, buildings, and cities. Unlike all three previous industrial revolutions—which were indifferent to ecology—this fresh perspective is not only bound to the natural environment, it betters nature at her own game. Inevitably, the World-as-Organism will supersede the World-as-Machine.

At the close of the Digital Age, design remains constrained by the canon of manufacturing and mass production. Assembly lines still dictate a world made of parts, limiting the imagination of designers and builders who are indoctrinated to think and make in terms of discrete elements with distinct functions. Even the assumption that parts are made from single materials goes unchallenged. The legacies of Joseph Marie Jacquard and Henry Ford persist: homogeneous materials are formed into predefined shapes at the service of predetermined functions.

Yet, novel technologies emerging from the Digital Age are enabling engineering and production at Mother Nature’s quantum scale, ushering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the Biological Age. Microorganisms can now be designed to mimic ‘factories’ transforming almost any biomass into bio-products that are useful for, by example, wearable garments, construction materials, and transportation. E. coli, a bacterium that lives in the gut, can be transformed into edible sugar; grass converted into diesel; corn transfigured into plastic. In this age of biological alchemy, information architectures and manufacturing practices—operating in high spatial and temporal resolution—unite to grow rather than assemble.

Given that living matter can now be designed as the built environment, not for it, we need advance a new kind of ecology where assemblies and mono-materials are eschewed in favor of multivalent wholes: a Material Ecology. Material Ecology promotes the conceptualization of holistic products, characterized by property gradients and multi-functionality. Like the creations it enables, its processes are just as seamless: Material Ecology considers computational design, digital fabrication, synthetic biology, the environment, and the material itself as inseparable and harmonized dimensions of design.

Material Ecology’s intimate relationship between design and biology proposes a shift from consuming nature as a geological resource to editing it as a biological one. And this journey from mining to growing is accelerating. Top-down form generation (additively manufactured) combined with bottom-up growth of biological systems (biologically synthesized) opens previously impossible opportunities: photosynthetic building façades that convert carbon into biofuel; wearable micro-biomes that nourish our skin through selective filtration; 3D printed matter that repairs damaged tissue. In the Biological Age, designers and builders are empowered to dream up new, dynamic design possibilities, where products and structures will be able to grow, heal, and adapt.

But striding nature’s way is far from natural. It requires a change in the way we see Mother Nature, from a boundless nourishing entity to one that begs nourishment by design. As we master ‘unnatural’ processes at a speed and sophistication that dwarfs evolution, Material Ecology propels us into the age where we mother nature by design.

Neri Oxman is an architect and designer. She is Founder and Director of the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab, and an Associate Professor of Media Arts and Science at MIT.

Ideas in this essay have been published recently in The Economist’s “The Year in 2016.” See also Mothering Nature: The Shape of Things to Come, MINDS ON THE FUTURE, published Monday, November 02, 2015; and the Material Ecology Special Issue of CAD (Elsevier, Vol. 60, March 2015, pp. 1-2). For related projects, see Oxman’s TED Talk here: Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology.

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