Ecology by Design

28 September 2020

Designers have moved from the studio to the lab to create materials for clothing and construction that take a lighter toll on our planet.

“Any production process that gets fossil fuels and nonbiodegradable plastics and rubbers and synthetic materials out of our production stream is going to be to our advantage.”

Conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948 in A Sand County Almanac, “Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.” Merely 72 years later, millions look to tidying expert Marie Kondo to free themselves from an overabundance of material blessings, most of which end up harming our ecosphere along the entire chain of their lifespan, from production to obsolescence. How did we get here? More importantly, how do we get out of here?

These are among the fundamental questions driving footwear designer Liz Ciokajlo, researchers at biotechnology laboratory Modern Meadow, and MIT professor Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group. In their own way, these pioneers are working to partner with nature—rather than take from it or bypass it completely—in developing consumer products and architectural approaches that could help lighten and hopefully reverse our burden on Earth. Although many of their projects are just prototypes, they still function as models and methodologies that might move us away from what Carleton professor George Vrtis describes as “all kinds of highly toxified production chains that are producing our goods and services.”

Take shoes, for example. “A lot of plastics and synthetic materials are utilized in making shoes, and all of those are derived in one form or another from fossil fuels,” says Vrtis, an associate professor of environmental studies and history. “Any production process that gets fossil fuels and nonbiodegradable plastics and rubbers and synthetic materials out of our production stream is going to be to our advantage.”

A lab-grown shoe created from cellulose
A lab-grown shoe created from cellulose

In her London studio, Ciokajlo has been experimenting with harnessing footwear design to biology to do just that. In 2013 she grew a shoe. Ciokajlo collaborated on the project with Suzanne Lee, previously chief creative officer at Modern Meadow and now head of her own consulting company, Biofabricate. They used a technique developed by Lee, in which she cultivates teeming vats of bacteria to spin threads of cellulose in a fermentation process. The threads coalesce into layers, forming thick mats that look oddly like animal fat. After air drying, the mats shrink into thin sheets that are then cut, dyed, and shaped around molds to create clothing, shoes, and potentially other consumer goods. Ciokajlo formed a platform wedge out of these cellulose sheets, with a tan outer layer wrapping a cranberry inner layer and decorative detailing punctuating the edges. When it wears out or, more likely, when fashion trends shift, a cellulose shoe colored with natural dyes could be composted.

“If plastic is in rainfall, it is literally everywhere. That should be terrifying. We need to start turning away from plastic as fast and as abruptly as we can. It is ubiquitous throughout society, it’s cheap, it does a lot of good things for us, but we need a better plan.”

Four years after prototyping a cellulose shoe, Ciokajlo received a commission from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to envision a boot that could take us to the next great frontier: Mars. For her Mars boot, she turned to mycelium, the marvelously expansive network of filaments from which mushrooms fruit.

“As a biologist, I am fascinated by mycelium,” says educator and biomimicry specialist Dimitri Smirnoff ’15. He notes that we are at the beginning of understanding its versatility as an applied material and its many wonders, including what he calls its “upcycling” ability. “There’s no waste in the natural world. Waste is very humancentric,” he says. In nature, “everything is a resource, and any output is seen as input into another process. We can use things like mycelium to start to mimic material flows in the natural world and eliminate this concept of waste.”

Illustration by Brett Ryder


Illustration by Brett Ryder

For the Mars boot, Ciokajlo proposed loading mycelium spores onto spaceships and feeding them with the filtered sweat of the humans who would be on board, hurtling toward their new life on the Red Planet. Some spores would be mixed with biodegradable materials like cotton, which could be derived from the space travelers’ shredded dirty underwear (there’s no laundry in space). The completed boot would be composed of layers of pure and blended mycelium sheets fitted with stretchy panels and a 3-D–printed plastic sole customized to the wearer’s foot size.

If this all sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is. But fantasy can be useful. The point is not to glorify habitation on Mars, and Vrtis cautions against the notion that it might one day be our backup planet. “If we’re pressing so hard on this planet that we have to go find another, we’re in quite a pickle,” he says. For Ciokajlo, the Mars boot is an exercise in thinking seriously about how not to pollute an unspoiled place and to apply those lessons to our current and only home.

“To me, the path forward demands an interrogation of our values, perceptions, fundamental beliefs, convictions, hopes, and our understanding about life and the natural world.”

Based between New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York, back on Earth, the team at Modern Meadow is working to repair our tortured relationship with animals. Guided by the motto “Create don’t destroy,” they seek to replace animal-derived leather with a lab-grown equivalent. “It’s no secret that the American CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] experience is wildly productive in terms of producing creatures for slaughter and incredibly inhumane for those creatures,” says Vrtis, “and it has a really complicated environmental fallout.” Modern Meadow wants to break away from this system by proving that we do not need to source skin from animals.

Their work revolves around collagen, a protein that makes up a significant part of skin. Smirnoff describes collagen as “probably one of the materials that the layperson is most familiar with. It’s in our food, it’s in our body. It’s a polymer made out of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen. Beyond that, it’s a protein, it’s made out of amino acids, which are some of the basic building blocks of the natural world.”

Modern Meadow harvests theirs from bioengineered yeast. Much like wine and beer makers use yeast to ferment grapes and grain, Modern Meadow cultivates yeast in a fermentation process that ultimately results in collagen. But they begin by tweaking the yeast’s DNA, creating tailor-made microorganisms, which, in turn, produce tailor-made collagen. After extracting it from the yeast cells, Modern Meadow has the core building block for their leather.

From engineering the yeast cells to drying the completed leather, Modern Meadow’s entire process takes about two and a half weeks. By contrast, it takes about two and a half years to raise an animal and skin its hide. Their method also allows for complete control over the product, which can be tanned and finished more responsibly than animal leather. To date, they have brought to market their first line of lab-grown leather, branded ZOA.

Bound up with Modern Meadow’s goal of freeing animals from our leather consumption is a broader vision of moving us into a new era of manufacturing using biology and mimicking nature, ushering in what they call “the biofabrication age.” They are not alone in wanting to steer us in this direction.

Smirnoff acknowledges the promise in these efforts: “Technological advancements combined with increased environmental awareness and need are all creating conditions conducive for biofabrication to take off.” But before we get too enamored of what we humans can do with this new set of tools and methods, he brings us back to the bigger picture: “I would also encourage us to think more broadly about this and realize that the tree outside is biofabricating, the hemp in the field is biofabricating, and there might be untapped opportunities there as well.”

MIT’s Neri Oxman pays a lot of attention to how and what nature biofabricates. In 2010 she established the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab, pulling together an interdisciplinary team of scientists, designers, artists, architects, and engineers to generate architecture and materials modeled after natural organisms, made of the stuff of nature. For example, they have trained silkworms to spin a layer of silk over knitted architectural armatures, and they are testing how to make building components, like columns, better tailored for load-bearing by following nature’s additive design principles. Recently, they have been exploring alternatives to a product that simultaneously helps and plagues us most: plastics. Citing a 2019 U.S. Geological Survey study that discovered plastics in rainfall in Colorado, Vrtis says, “If plastic is in rainfall, it is literally everywhere. That should be terrifying. We need to start turning away from plastic as fast and as abruptly as we can. It is ubiquitous throughout society, it’s cheap, it does a lot of good things for us, but we need a better plan.”

Oxman and her team are hopeful that they have a better plan in a project they call Aguahoja, which currently exists as a library of materials, the methods used to make them, and a handful of early, experimental freestanding pavilions that look like pupal cases or curled insect wings. All water-based, the materials consist of different formulations of cellulose, chitin, and pectin 3-D–printed into a host of forms. By varying the ratio of the components in each mix, Oxman and her team can create different levels of strength and pliability. Most importantly, they can program into the materials different degrees of obsolescence, not as a way to lull us into a cycle of buying and discarding ever more stuff, but rather to have them serve their function only as long as we need them before they biodegrade without a trace. If the Aguahoja project becomes viable, our drinks might come in bottles made out of a formulation that includes 5 percent chitosan and 91 percent water, and, according to Oxman, decomposes in about 38 hours. In need of something longer lasting? They also have developed a formula that includes 14 percent chitosan, 60 percent cellulose, and 35 percent pectin, with 55 percent water. That version decomposes in just under three years. A plastic bottle takes about 450 years to decompose.

In a more speculative project, Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group are investigating how we might build and fabricate with melanin, which they extract from mushrooms, horsehair, black mustard seeds, and squid ink, among other sources. Their interest in melanin stems from its ubiquity across much of life on Earth, its robustness, and protective capabilities that may stretch beyond ultraviolet radiation to a potential to metabolize ionic and possibly gamma radiation. Focusing on melanin’s interaction with sunlight and UV radiation, Oxman and her team have begun to explore how it might be incorporated into building facades, asking: What if instead of traditional materials like glass and steel, buildings could be sheathed in a melanin-impregnated skin that would “tan” in sunlight and “pale” in darkness, regulating temperature more effectively and efficiently than a heating and cooling system? Imagine whole cities of these lightening and darkening skin-clad buildings. They would make for a fantastical, almost living urban landscape.

Or maybe it’s only the premise for a great science fiction novel. “I hold space for the realization that this is something that we want to strive for, and also that in the near term, there are other ways of achieving the same kind of thermoregulation capabilities that don’t require the same technological jump,” says Smirnoff. “We can plant a tree outside a building to provide shade and produce all of these other systems without having to recreate it through technology.”

To truly get through what Smirnoff characterizes as our current “ecological bottleneck,” we have to do more than root for the work of Ciokajlo, Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group, and the Modern Meadow team. Both Smirnoff and Vrtis stress that ecologically aligned scientific and technological advancements are only one part, and perhaps not the most significant one, of a range of necessary solutions—including a shift in perspective. “To me,” says Vrtis, “the path forward demands an interrogation of our values, perceptions, fundamental beliefs, convictions, hopes, and our understanding about life and the natural world.”

Without discounting the remarkable creativity and effort involved in devising new technologies, what Vrtis calls for is much more difficult. Ultimately, it will require the whole world to come together and not only agree on a new set of values that would stop taking nature for granted, but also act on those values to develop a new framework that would inevitably cause huge economic, cultural, and social upheaval. All you have to do is glance at the domestic and international bickering in the daily news or back through history at wars fought over competing ideologies to understand the challenge of such an objective. If we let them, the designers and scientists currently at work in studios and labs worldwide can help lead the way.

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