Strategies of Ecosystem Development

Source i09: Photos of Shanghai's cityscape, with a 26 year gap. Read more about it here. Truly remarkable.

Source i09: Photos of Shanghai’s cityscape, with a 26 year gap. Read more about it here. Truly remarkable.

The amazing image above shows how much can happen in a city over 26 years. We know cities are growing at amazing rates, but these images are poor at capturing any tensions of over stretched infrastructure that struggles to keep pace. Slow development is never desirable in urban growth, but it is hard not to see dystopic visuals of urban decay as the cities struggle to pay their own environmental bills.

Conversations about ecosystem development as a strategy for solving human environmental crises are clearly not new. In a paper from 1969 recently sent to me by Bruce Hinds there is a rich account of the previous thinking and inspiration that has as of yet translated into human innovation. Some of the language and concepts in the paper are clearly out of date, as most of the resilience theory work and C.S. Hollings was not yet integrated, but at the core there are some really key concepts.

Core Trends of Ecosystem Succession

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Shaping with Cells (and more…)

So… I’m obsessed with how “things” will get built, formed, grown in the future. I have written a bunch of posts around issues of recyclability and re-use, and the big differences between nature and human fabrication. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale. The intelligence of a cell, versus the intelligence of a brick. As long as the brick is “dumb” you will never have a “smart” building. My current research has led me to look a lot at ubiquitous sensing, but it doesn’t achieve much if the raw material is unable to respond. So, I began to explore concepts around cellular manufacturing and then BOOM people begun sharing amazing links…

Cells that Fold like Origami

Scientists have grown connective tissue cells at the seam of polymer sheets the size of tiny cells. Those tissue cells react and fold, and the shape of the seams dictate the final form. The movie shows everything from a little sheet folding in half, or a cube, all the way to quite a complex polygon. The one at the end that rolls up into a tube is absolutely gorgeous. As usual the “purpose” of the research is to do with medical technology, saving lives and delivering drugs, which sounds all well and good. I’m imagining the inside of your cell phone configuring itself with the latest software upgrade so that the actual components improve over time…

Materials that Speak to One Another

Psychedelic diagram of how the pulse moves through the gel, changing the form. Click on the image to the source, there are some animations that explain things a little more...

Psychedelic diagram of how the pulse moves through the gel, changing the form. Click on the image to the source, there are some animations that explain things a little more…

I’ll admit I haven’t fully wrapped my mind around this one, and the image above doesn’t help that much. There is a Gel, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) Gel, that is able to pulse or oscillate in unison. Researchers have been able to get the pulsing to synchronize so that the material can interact. The goal is that the materials can trigger an action, such as moving closer or further apart from one another. As I understand it, the idea is for self-assembly within the material level. Anna Balazs, the lead researcher, puts it in terms of a construction kit, like lego, that can unsnap or snap itself together given the right triggers. Where the above example is physically triggered, it appears this one is triggered more by chemistry. A change in the chemistry of the material could lead to a change in the physical form. Our “bricks” would need to have integrated delivery of chemistry as information. Now that would be something fun to design…

Shape-memory Hydrogel

As soon as I posted this entry I found another example that needed to be included. So here it is… This is a hydrogel that acts as a liquid, but when it absorbs water it takes on a physical form. Researchers are hoping to use it in drug delivery, or tissue repair, and control its physicality through chemistry. Imagine something flowing through a system and then reacting on site, then shifting into a physical form that delivers a drug, or repairs damage. So far it works like a very loose sponge and filling up with water inside and out gives it the form. Interestingly, they are calling this a “metamaterial” – which is an artificial material with properties that do not appear in nature. Not sure if I fully understand that just yet…

If anyone out there has any other research, or links to research on this topic, please share!


Tom Wiscombe – Integrated Futures of the Built Environment

Above is an excellent lecture, but prepare some pop-corn, it is a long one…

It is incredibly inspiring, and intimidating when you come across someone who is exploring similar train of thought you may have been dabbling in for years. Inspiring as you get validation and stimulation from their work, and intimidating when they are executing it at a quantity and quality of output that is staggering. Tom Wiscombe, who I am embarrassed to have only recently discovered is exactly one of those amazing applied thinkers.

I also need to admit I have not spent nearly enough time processing all of the content, so apologies in advance if the following is a little fragmented – there are a lot of rabbit holes to explore.

Deconstructing the Built Environment

Image source Tom Wiscombe: The Radiant Hydronic House integrates internal thermal flow within the structure.

In class we deconstruct design territories into broad concepts in order to approach them through a variety of lenses.  As discussed previously, we challenge the concept of a wall by questioning it as a membrane or a shell, using language to unlock low-associative thoughts. Tom Wiscombe, it turns out has been doing this to great depth with some excellent insights into deconstructing labels in order to disrupt preconceived concepts. I hope you enjoy the quote below as much as I did when I first read it:

“It’s time to replace outmoded terms like “building services” and “mechanical systems“ once and for all… The notion of the “mechanical” brings us back to the industrial paradigm, rooted in a pre‐networked world. And lighting design has become little more than a fixture‐shopping experience. For now, maybe we can refer to these marginalized techno‐systems in a more refreshing way as airflow, fluid flow, and glow.”

Tom Wiscombe, Extreme Integration, Published in AD: Exuberance (ed. by Marjan Coletti), March, 2010

Airflow, fluid flow and glow, are just the tip of the technological, structural and formal concepts that Tom is extracting in order to functionally integrate technological mash-ups.

Let me share a couple of his projects that give context to what might be sounding a bit abstract right now:

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Green Chemistry and the Future of How Stuff is Made

I just returned from the Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland, which was fantastic, and explains a little lull (breather) in the blog postings. I will warn you that if I get a spare moment there will be a torrent of ideas bouncing around that have been stirred up over the last few days.

Remember the discussion about the future of materials? Biodegradability as a scenario of sustainability? On Monday morning John Warner, the godfather of green chemistry, gave a talk about his journey and the true story of  how stuff could and should be made in the future.

He also shared the secrets of the future of hair dye, but you’ll have to ask him directly for that.

For those of you who haven’t had the luxury of seeing an industrial chemist spin an incredible, compelling tale about the reality of the profession, I have included one of John’s lectures below. It is an incredibly important story, because to most of us Industrial Chemistry is a pretty frightening partnership of concepts. It is a black box of science that shapes everything we do, and yet is poorly understood by most. It turns out that it is even poorly understood by the chemists, who have traditionally had absolutely no formal education in toxicology, and therefore an extremely limited understanding of the impact of the synthetic chemicals produced.

So I invite you to explore John Warner’s story, which includes connections between music composition and chemistry (which is an incredible concept). I’ll be diving into this area for more resources and ideas, there is a lot of emerging information to be explored.

John Warner runs the Warner Babcock Institute, which will, I hope, shape everything in the future.


Biomaterials of the Future

Nanofabricated hairs that self-assemble into different structures on command. From Harvard WYSS Institute

Science fiction may be getting closer to reality in the future of materials.

The WYSS Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard is an interdisciplinary “alliance” between the internally diverse schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, as well as a broad array of Universities and Research Centres. Their focus is the development of new materials using the deep, micro scale principles of self assembling natural materials, and the vision of their research is pretty wild.

The deceptively simple mission statement of the WYSS Institute reveals incredible goals:

The Wyss Institute aims to discover the engineering principles that Nature uses to build living things, and harnesses these insights to create biologically inspired materials and devices that will revolutionize healthcare and create a more sustainable world… Understanding of how living systems build, recycle, and control is also guiding efforts focused on development of entirely new approaches for constructing buildings, converting energy, controlling manufacturing, and improving our environment.

The self assembled future

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A Grown Structure

Intriguing salt structure... not sure where the form comes from...

This is an interesting proposal, with all the compulsory sexy imagery, for a structure that is grown from salt. The proposal is for a structure that grows as sea water is sprayed onto some sort of infrastructure… kind of a fun image, no matter what kind of fantasy it may be. Here is a piece of their project description, and a link to their site.

Born from unique environmental conditions, GEOtube is a new kind of urban sculptural tower. Gravity-sprayed with adjacent Persion Gulf waters, its building skin is entirely grown rather than constructed; is in continual formation rather than fully completed; and is created locally rather than imported.

Would be nice to know a little more information about what these images are... they're certainly seductive...


Scenario C: The Grown – A Biomimicry World

Scenarios of Sustainability

Warning: the following will include an excessive use of question marks, as answers are far beyond me in the current scenario.

What if the world of the manufactured became the world of the grown? How literal should this future be?

Image by Steve Kinderman-AP - How comfortable will we be with a fully integrated urban ecology?

Do we want our indoors to be the same as the outdoors? What if hardwood floors and stark white walls were replaced by soft grass and flaking bark? How do we deal with the germ-o-phobia and fear of creepy crawlies inherent in the wild? Predators are a sign of a healthy ecosystem, would a healthy urban ecology be able to support larger predators, when we already struggle with accommodating pigeons and raccoons?

I’m very curious to know if these questions are currently being pursued by the true visionaries of sustainability, biomimicry, ecological design and any other label for innovation inspired by nature. There may well be some of us that wish to return to a life connected to nature and who want to see nature physically integrated into our daily lives. But the vast majority are likely happy with this inclusion being limited to the tame confines of a green wall, internal garden or meditational pond, and would like their desk free of dirt, and with blinds over the windows to prevent glare on their computer screens.

So, then, what IS the vision of a biomimicry future?

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