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Biodesign. Designing according to nature to save the planet

It has been long, since people started talking about sustainability, intended as changing our habits, how we eat, how we travel, or which products we buy. However, that of modifying our daily life’s choices represents a strategy of safeguarding the planet which revealed itself too weak to deal with this problem. Could changing the way we design and build, in order to obtain an integrated sustainability, really be a solution?


The integration of biology in the production of organic products can be born by simply observing nature, the perfect builder. In order to create the first Flying Machine, Leonardo Da Vinci spent years studying birds, analyzing their anatomy to invent a wing surface that was similar to the wings possessed by birds.
Designing by taking inspiration from nature is becoming designing according to nature. Organic design, although being a constant for centuries, with biodesign reached its final stage of evolution: from simply imitating nature’s forms, to the assimilation of its creation process. But what’s the real difference between how we and Nature design? Nature is forward-looking, she designs for the future. That which is created by nature is destined to survive thousands of years, in perfect harmony with all that surrounds it. The human being, on the contrary, had a strong impact on the natural balance in a relatively fast way and with a continuous technological evolution (from the first bricks to plastic), imposing forcefully new materials totally unrelated to the previous ecosystem. So, can we handle this by using design?

Incorporating biological systems in the creation of objects in order to make them totally in symbiosis with our ecosystem, is the answer that biodesign offers us to save the planet. Should we define it, we would describe biodesign “an intersection between biology and design” that integrates organic materials and processes in the production of our objects, or even in the construction of our buildings. Designers started by thinking little, by working with just atoms and particles on a genetic level, and by taking inspiration from the efficiency and the precision of other structures too. Abandoning the concept of assembly for the concept of growth, designing by directing the natural processes, just like it happens in nature, is the new frontier.

In the last few years, biodesign contributed to production with several innovative and totally eco-sustainable proposals. For example, the mycelium, that is a mushroom’s vegetative part formed by a group of filamentous interconnected cells, became an interesting possible plastic substitute, thanks to its ability to grow on several substratum and to modify its characteristics of resistance, elasticity, homogeneity and water-repellency according to its organic substratum. The American agency called Ecovative, was one of the first agency in the world to use this material’s versatility, by initially utilizing it just as an alternative to foam peanut, but then starting to use it even to create completely organic chairs and tables. But biodesign is also bioengineering, like the Bone Chair‘s case, built from aluminum by exploiting a tridimensional optimizing software that replicates biologic growth. As the skeleton grows, the areas exposed to a strong amount of stress develop consequently the major amount of mass they can afford to grant more resistance; so, by eliminating the unnecessary at the end of this process, an optimized supporting structure that works with the minimum quantity of materials is obtained. The organic cement of the BioMason agency, instead, is based on a nutrient that activates some bacteria that were mixed with sand. This process gives life to a chemical reaction that, in about five days, transforms this mix in real cement. The purpose of this process is to reduce the great amount of carbon dioxide produced during the creation phase of the cement. The installation art called Living Things, created by the designer Ethan Frier in collaboration with the architect Jacob Douenias, proposes photosynthetic furniture in order to use the natural photosynthesis to obtain major functions.
To realize this kind of furniture they chose something called “spirulina”, a species that belongs to cyanobacteria and a great dietary supplement, for its being full of proteins. These types of furniture behave themselves like living creatures, by recycling light, heat and carbon dioxide in a biomass, rich from a nutritional point of view and which can be used as a source of sustenance, fertilizer and biofuel. The objective here is to recycle those things that we don’t need to obtain food. With this procedure, a table could be transformed into a source of light and in a “pantry” at the same time. In addition to this, one of the most abundant organic resources of our planet is chitin, a polymer produced by organisms such as ass shrimps, crabs, scorpions and butterflies. By altering chitin’s chemical concentrations a vast range of properties, despite the fact that elasticity and resistance remain its two main properties.
At the research laboratory MIT Media Lab of Boston, decided to use a specific tool to print structures on a large scale, capable of directly modify chitin during its production.
The concrete result is represented by structures almost 4 meters long, formed by a unique 100% recyclable material. Once allowed to dry and to be in contact with air, they take their natural form and characteristic resistance. The air bubbles produced as a side effect of the process are used to contain photosynthetic microorganisms that have appeared on Earth for the first time almost 3,5 billion years ago. Once the did all of this, the final step consists in incorporating genetically engineered bacterias, which have the task of catching atmospheric carbon in order to transform it in sugar, to obtain structures that can be used as beams, nets and, if they have a bigger dimension, even as windows. Therefore, by working with such an ancient material, we could have the possibility to transform structured composed of shrimp shells into a real architectural structure.
These structures, being biodegradable, once they’re no longer necessary, could be thrown into the sea, and they could be a nutrition source for fishes, and they could even be planted to make a tree grow.

But can biodesign be considered dangerous? Synthetic biology is slowly becoming part of our everyday life, but what if someone, whose intentions are not ethical or artistic, would exploit it for his own purposes? It could become a powerful weapon of mass destruction, being able for example to modify or create pathogens. This is why not only biologists, designers and engineers are involved with biodesign, but also philosophers, lawyers, financial experts and even the FBI. Biodesign could be dangerous also because it could break our ecosystem’s balance; for example, if a bio-engineered species should prevail in a specific agricultural sector, our food resources could become more vulnerable to new pathogens. Synthetic biology offers man the possibility to change at his own will our natural world; it holds an incredible power. We should ask ourselves who’s the one, which has really the right to design life. These ethical dilemmas are the reason why this new science is so hesitant. What if these new radical solutions had side effects, that could impact even more on our environment? We still don’t know. However, as long as our social system will remain strongly bound to mass consumption, biodesign will never be the final solution. This new direction, that changes how we design, should be connected to the will to change our consumer society. Using organic solutions to feel less guilty about the pollution of our environment, would be a more effective solution if combined with a reduction in our consumption; we should realize that the main problem lies in what we desire.

Nevertheless, design is becoming our only chance of survival: to build by restoring the balance between humanity and nature, trying to heal the wounds that we have been inflicting our planet for centuries. Make an alliance with nature is design’s new frontier; by observing the natural processes of growth and construction, we can be sure that we could create structures, which are in harmony with our ecosystem and capable to survive the passing of time, for their being strictly interconnected with that which surrounds them. All the things we design won’t be a static entity anymore, but something that keeps transforming, just like an organism. By combining our being more sensitive about what we buy, and more careful about what we really need, to a production strategy based on biology and the organic, we could do something about the environmental collapse in which we are living. Quoting the architect and artist Neri Oxman: «The future of design lies between the world of Henry Ford and that of Charles Darwin, between car and living organism».

Translated into English by Matteo Annecchiarico.

– Arianna Panarella, Broken Nature, le anticipazioni di Paola Antonelli per la XXII Triennale di Milano, Il Giornale dell’Architettura,, last modified 27/11/2017, date of consultation 12/01/2020.
– Sara Chiappori, Milano, il rapporto uomo-natura al centro della XXII Triennale. Sala: “Sarà l’edizione della svolta”, La Repubblica,, last modified 13/11/2017, date of consultation 07/12/2019.
– Brooke Roberts-Islam, The Rise Of Biodesign – Growing Our Way To A More Sustainable Future, Forbes,, last modified 25/08/2019, date of consultation 06/01/2020.
– Meg Miller, A Guide to the $13.4 Billion Biodesign Industry, Fast Company,, last modified 03/02/2017, date of consultation 20/12/2019.
– Valentina Croci, Quando il design è sopravvivenza umana, Domus Innovation Issue,, last modified 07/03/2018, date of consultation 03/12/2019.

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Elena Tonelli Author
Born in 1999 in La Spezia, she graduated from the Scientific High School and currently attends the course of studies in Industrial Product Design at the Polytechnic of Milan. Her greatest passions are art and design, but she is also interested in cinema and music.
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