Neri Oxman: Design at the intersection of technology and biology Oct 2015
Two twin domes, two radically opposed design cultures. One is made of thousands of steel parts, the other of a single silk thread. One is synthetic, the other organic. One is imposed on the environment, the other creates it. One is designed for nature, the other is designed by her.
Michelangelo said that when he looked at raw marble, he saw a figure struggling to be free. The chisel was Michelangelo's only tool. But living things are not chiseled. They grow. And in our smallest units of life, our cells, we carry all the information that's required for every other cell to function and to replicate.
Tools also have consequences. At least since the Industrial Revolution, the world of design has been dominated by the rigors of manufacturing and mass production. Assembly lines have dictated a world made of parts, framing the imagination of designers and architects who have been trained to think about their objects as assemblies of discrete parts with distinct functions.
But you don't find homogenous material assemblies in nature. Take human skin, for example. Our facial skins are thin with large pores. Our back skins are thicker, with small pores. One acts mainly as filter, the other mainly as barrier, and yet it's the same skin: no parts, no assemblies. It's a system that gradually varies its functionality by varying elasticity. So here this is a split screen to represent my split world view, the split personality of every designer and architect operating today between the chisel and the gene, between machine and organism, between assembly and growth, between Henry Ford and Charles Darwin. These two worldviews, my left brain and right brain, analysis and synthesis, will play out on the two screens behind me. My work, at its simplest level, is about uniting these two worldviews, moving away from assembly and closer into growth.
You're probably asking yourselves: Why now? Why was this not possible 10 or even five years ago? We live in a very special time in history, a rare time, a time when the confluence of four fields is giving designers access to tools we've never had access to before. These fields are computational design, allowing us to design complex forms with simple code; additive manufacturing, letting us produce parts by adding material rather than carving it out; materials engineering, which lets us design the behavior of materials in high resolution; and synthetic biology, enabling us to design new biological functionality by editing DNA. And at the intersection of these four fields, my team and I create. Please meet the minds and hands of my students.
We design objects and products and structures and tools across scales, from the large-scale, like this robotic arm with an 80-foot diameter reach with a vehicular base that will one day soon print entire buildings, to nanoscale graphics made entirely of genetically engineered microorganisms that glow in the dark. Here we've reimagined the mashrabiya, an archetype of ancient Arabic architecture, and created a screen where every aperture is uniquely sized to shape the form of light and heat moving through it.
In our next project, we explore the possibility of creating a cape and skirt -- this was for a Paris fashion show with Iris van Herpen -- like a second skin that are made of a single part, stiff at the contours, flexible around the waist. Together with my long-term 3D printing collaborator Stratasys, we 3D-printed this cape and skirt with no seams between the cells, and I'll show more objects like it. This helmet combines stiff and soft materials in 20-micron resolution. This is the resolution of a human hair. It's also the resolution of a CT scanner. That designers have access to such high-resolution analytic and synthetic tools, enables to design products that fit not only the shape of our bodies, but also the physiological makeup of our tissues. Next, we designed an acoustic chair, a chair that would be at once structural, comfortable and would also absorb sound. Professor Carter, my collaborator, and I turned to nature for inspiration, and by designing this irregular surface pattern, it becomes sound-absorbent. We printed its surface out of 44 different properties, varying in rigidity, opacity and color, corresponding to pressure points on the human body. Its surface, as in nature, varies its functionality not by adding another material or another assembly, but by continuously and delicately varying material property.
But is nature ideal? Are there no parts in nature? I wasn't raised in a religious Jewish home, but when I was young, my grandmother used to tell me stories from the Hebrew Bible, and one of them stuck with me and came to define much of what I care about. As she recounts: "On the third day of Creation, God commands the Earth to grow a fruit-bearing fruit tree." For this first fruit tree, there was to be no differentiation between trunk, branches, leaves and fruit. The whole tree was a fruit. Instead, the land grew trees that have bark and stems and flowers. The land created a world made of parts. I often ask myself, "What would design be like if objects were made of a single part? Would we return to a better state of creation?"
So we looked for that biblical material, that fruit-bearing fruit tree kind of material, and we found it. The second-most abundant biopolymer on the planet is called chitin, and some 100 million tons of it are produced every year by organisms such as shrimps, crabs, scorpions and butterflies. We thought if we could tune its properties, we could generate structures that are multifunctional out of a single part. So that's what we did. We called Legal Seafood --
we ordered a bunch of shrimp shells, we grinded them and we produced chitosan paste. By varying chemical concentrations, we were able to achieve a wide array of properties -- from dark, stiff and opaque, to light, soft and transparent. In order to print the structures in large scale, we built a robotically controlled extrusion system with multiple nozzles. The robot would vary material properties on the fly and create these 12-foot-long structures made of a single material, 100 percent recyclable. When the parts are ready, they're left to dry and find a form naturally upon contact with air. So why are we still designing with plastics? The air bubbles that were a byproduct of the printing process were used to contain photosynthetic microorganisms that first appeared on our planet 3.5 billion year ago, as we learned yesterday. Together with our collaborators at Harvard and MIT, we embedded bacteria that were genetically engineered to rapidly capture carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into sugar. For the first time, we were able to generate structures that would seamlessly transition from beam to mesh, and if scaled even larger, to windows. A fruit-bearing fruit tree. Working with an ancient material, one of the first lifeforms on the planet, plenty of water and a little bit of synthetic biology, we were able to transform a structure made of shrimp shells into an architecture that behaves like a tree. And here's the best part: for objects designed to biodegrade, put them in the sea, and they will nourish marine life; place them in soil, and they will help grow a tree.
The setting for our next exploration using the same design principles was the solar system. We looked for the possibility of creating life-sustaining clothing for interplanetary voyages. To do that, we needed to contain bacteria and be able to control their flow. So like the periodic table, we came up with our own table of the elements: new lifeforms that were computationally grown, additively manufactured and biologically augmented. I like to think of synthetic biology as liquid alchemy, only instead of transmuting precious metals, you're synthesizing new biological functionality inside very small channels. It's called microfluidics. We 3D-printed our own channels in order to control the flow of these liquid bacterial cultures. In our first piece of clothing, we combined two microorganisms. The first is cyanobacteria. It lives in our oceans and in freshwater ponds. And the second, E. coli, the bacterium that inhabits the human gut. One converts light into sugar, the other consumes that sugar and produces biofuels useful for the built environment. Now, these two microorganisms never interact in nature. In fact, they never met each other. They've been here, engineered for the first time, to have a relationship inside a piece of clothing. Think of it as evolution not by natural selection, but evolution by design. In order to contain these relationships, we've created a single channel that resembles the digestive tract, that will help flow these bacteria and alter their function along the way. We then started growing these channels on the human body, varying material properties according to the desired functionality. Where we wanted more photosynthesis, we would design more transparent channels. This wearable digestive system, when it's stretched end to end, spans 60 meters. This is half the length of a football field, and 10 times as long as our small intestines. And here it is for the first time unveiled at TED -- our first photosynthetic wearable, liquid channels glowing with life inside a wearable clothing.
Mary Shelley said, "We are unfashioned creatures, but only half made up." What if design could provide that other half? What if we could create structures that would augment living matter? What if we could create personal microbiomes that would scan our skins, repair damaged tissue and sustain our bodies? Think of this as a form of edited biology. This entire collection, Wanderers, that was named after planets, was not to me really about fashion per se, but it provided an opportunity to speculate about the future of our race on our planet and beyond, to combine scientific insight with lots of mystery and to move away from the age of the machine to a new age of symbiosis between our bodies, the microorganisms that we inhabit, our products and even our buildings. I call this material ecology.
To do this, we always need to return back to nature. By now, you know that a 3D printer prints material in layers. You also know that nature doesn't. It grows. It adds with sophistication. This silkworm cocoon, for example, creates a highly sophisticated architecture, a home inside which to metamorphisize. No additive manufacturing today gets even close to this level of sophistication. It does so by combining not two materials, but two proteins in different concentrations. One acts as the structure, the other is the glue, or the matrix, holding those fibers together. And this happens across scales. The silkworm first attaches itself to the environment -- it creates a tensile structure -- and it then starts spinning a compressive cocoon. Tension and compression, the two forces of life, manifested in a single material.
In order to better understand how this complex process works, we glued a tiny earth magnet to the head of a silkworm, to the spinneret. We placed it inside a box with magnetic sensors, and that allowed us to create this 3-dimensional point cloud and visualize the complex architecture of the silkworm cocoon. However, when we placed the silkworm on a flat patch, not inside a box, we realized it would spin a flat cocoon and it would still healthily metamorphisize. So we started designing different environments, different scaffolds, and we discovered that the shape, the composition, the structure of the cocoon, was directly informed by the environment.
Silkworms are often boiled to death inside their cocoons, their silk unraveled and used in the textile industry. We realized that designing these templates allowed us to give shape to raw silk without boiling a single cocoon.
They would healthily metamorphisize, and we would be able to create these things.
So we scaled this process up to architectural scale. We had a robot spin the template out of silk, and we placed it on our site. We knew silkworms migrated toward darker and colder areas, so we used a sun path diagram to reveal the distribution of light and heat on our structure. We then created holes, or apertures, that would lock in the rays of light and heat, distributing those silkworms on the structure.
We were ready to receive the caterpillars. We ordered 6,500 silkworms from an online silk farm. And after four weeks of feeding, they were ready to spin with us. We placed them carefully at the bottom rim of the scaffold, and as they spin they pupate, they mate, they lay eggs, and life begins all over again -- just like us but much, much shorter.
Bucky Fuller said that tension is the great integrity, and he was right. As they spin biological silk over robotically spun silk, they give this entire pavilion its integrity. And over two to three weeks, 6,500 silkworms spin 6,500 kilometers. In a curious symmetry, this is also the length of the Silk Road. The moths, after they hatch, produce 1.5 million eggs. This could be used for 250 additional pavilions for the future.
So here they are, the two worldviews. One spins silk out of a robotic arm, the other fills in the gaps.
If the final frontier of design is to breathe life into the products and the buildings around us, to form a two-material ecology, then designers must unite these two worldviews. Which brings us back, of course, to the beginning. Here's to a new age of design, a new age of creation, that takes us from a nature-inspired design to a design-inspired nature, and that demands of us for the first time that we mother nature.
Thank you very much. Thank you.