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Biology Is Key To Unlocking The Future Of Design

MIT Media Lab professor Neri Oxman's design philosophy looks beyond assembly lines to a future fabricated through synthetic biology.

Biology Is Key To Unlocking The Future Of Design

Photo: Bret Hartman/courtesy of TED

"The world of design has been subjugated by the rigors of manufacturing and mass production," says Neri Oxman, an architect, designer, and director of the Mediated Matter research group within the MIT Media Lab. "Assembly lines have dictated a world of parts and have been framing the imagination of designers and architects who have been trained—like all of us—to think about their designs as assemblies of discrete parts with distinct functions."

Steven Keating via MIT Mediated Matter

That's a problem, Oxman argued at the 2016 AIA conference last week. Because while we may have a deep understanding of how the world works, our current fabrication technology isn't sophisticated enough to put that knowledge to good use. "The engineering tools we use today—like finite element analysis or computational fluid dynamics—are tools that operate at a much higher resolution than the tools we use to actually build the materials and products in the environment," she says.

The major key to unlocking better design, according to Oxman, is biomorphism, or looking to how the natural world operates and infusing that knowledge into how we design and build. This is what synthetic biology is about: mixing biology and computer engineering. "We look to the biological world to extract phenomenon," she says.

Oxman argues that some of the best natural design is a gradient of a single material, for example bones and how their density changes throughout the body or skin and its multiple functions as a barrier and a way to disperse heat to keep our bodies cool. Rather than having compositions of many parts, Oxman wants to design single material systems with different attributes, like skin. To put her work in context, she says, today "synthetic biology is the computer science of the '80s."

Jonathan Williams/Paula Aguiler/courtesy of Mediated Matter

Some of her research with how a single material could be manipulated through design include hacking silkworms to build architectural scale structures or 3-D printing a dress using a single material and using no sewing or stitching to create the silhouette, and a wearable that produces food. In the context of architecture, her eventual goal is to be able to create a single material that could be used to build a column that morphs into a beam that morphs into a window—no assembly required.

"The future of design is a future where anything material in the environment—whether it’s wearables, cars, buildings—can be designed with this variation of properties and relationship with the environment that can take part in the natural ecology," Oxman says. "Hopefully it points towards a shift that goes beyond the age of assembly into the age of a new kind of organism."

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