Our understanding of human history is framed by humanity’s evolving relationships with materials. The popular nomenclature of the three-age system separates European history into the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, while ancient cultures used the concepts of earth, water, air, and fire to interpret the world. Historically, materials have been born out of necessity, evolving to accommodate the changing needs and priorities of societies. However, since “the human might be the only species to have systematically designed its own extinction,”1 a radical new approach towards design and materiality is crucial. Architect William McDonough said (almost twenty years ago now), “The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live.”2

Designing with Life considers how commonly-held assumptions of biology can be reframed in order to design more ecological (rather than sustainable) futures. We usually only think about biology when it is doing something ‘wrong’ – that is, something we as humans do not like and that challenges our sense of control. For example, viral epidemics and pandemics over recent decades have played crucial roles in shaping common understandings of what viruses are and what they can do. While some viruses are infectious and deadly, others are harmless and hold great potential to design more ecological products and solutions. MIT professor Angela Belcher has been developing the technology to engineer viruses to grow non-toxic, cheap, natural batteries. However, collective misconceptions of viruses still define them as something to be feared, avoided, and sanitized. Our human-centric view of the non-human is limiting and is clearly failing to address our most urgent issues.

The Anthropocene and its consequences – all of which are our own doing – highlight the urgent need for new, radically different, ecological tools and materials. I believe that the answer lies in the most ancient knowledge of the planet: life itself. Before homo sapiens, life was constantly evolving and “inventing solutions in response to challenges”3 in order to survive, backed by millions of years of trial and error. If we can redefine what biology, microorganisms, fungi, decay, and nature mean to us, hopefully we can learn to live more symbiotically with our planet and our fellow inhabitants.

1. Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), 15.

2. William McDonough quoted, Jo Twist, “Eco-designs on future cities,” BBC News, July 14, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4682011.stm.

3. Susan Hockfield, The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), 21.