Our current geological age, marked by the moment “when our species started affecting the Earth’s Systems to the same degree as did geological factors like plate tectonics and the rise of mountain ranges.”1
Anthropocene comes from the Greek anthropos (meaning ‘human’) and -cene (meaning ‘new’, ‘recent’). It is important to note, however, that this refers to humans as one category and does not recognize the increased damage caused by some humans’ actions (the wealthiest) that will be felt most by others (the least wealthy).
“Biodesign harnesses living materials, whether they are cultured tissue or plants, and embodies the dream of organic design: watching objects grow and, after the first impulse, letting nature, the best among all engineers and architects, run its course ... Biodesign refers specifically to the incorporation of living organisms or ecosystems as essential components, enhancing the function of the finished work ... and synthesizing new hybrid typologies.”2
The Biological Age
An emerging movement, practice, and methodology concerned with the use of “biologically based tools”3 and synthetic biology across multiple fields (design, architecture, engineering, medicine, etc.)
Practices aimed at “maximizing the quality of the built environment, while minimizing or eliminating negative impact to the natural environment,”4 and based on a circular economy, rather than linear or recycling economy.
Ecological is used as a more accurate, empathetic, and hopeful solution to the term sustainable. Over the last two decades, sustainable has become an inadequate term in addressing our global community’s most difficult questions. It has been misunderstood and misused, applied to designs and practices that are undeserving of the classification. On the other hand, ecological design aims to take the impact of a process/product on the planet and ecosystems into consideration when assessing its success and desirability.
The Human Microbiome
The microorganisms that colonize the human body and are essential to our development, immune function, and nutrition. It is estimated that there are over 100 trillion microbes in and on us5 (we are never alone, and we would struggle to survive without them).
Some argue that we should see ourselves as holobiont, a term that reflects the intimate, co-dependent relationships between humans and our microbes.6
TEK: Traditional Ecological Knowledge
“A design movement to rebuild an understanding of indigenous philosophy and vernacular architecture that generates sustainable, climate-resilient infrastructures.”
“Often pre-dating the Industrial Revolution, Lo-TEK indigenous innovation can be mistaken as lo-tech, however in contrast, it is sophisticated and designed to work with complex ecosystems ... [and] amplify mutually beneficial interactions between multiple species.”7
The (European) idea of nature emerged in the late 13th century, meaning “restorative powers of the body; powers of growth.”8 However, there is no such concept of nature in non-Western languages. During the Renaissance, it was a Western imperialism that invented the idea of nature - “all living (and the very life-energy of the biosphere) organisms” - in order to separate ‘it’ from the human. This separation allowed nature to be “out there ... something to be dominated and exploited.”9
A multidisciplinary field bringing together science, engineering, and design in order to understand, manipulate, and create living organisms and processes to better address problems in medicine, agriculture, production, architecture and urban planning, conservation, etc.
“Rather than treat living nature as just another material for engineering, synthetic biology may benefit from engaging with its unique properties, which, though complex and unpredictable, might suggest new approaches and perspectives to using life as a raw material.”10
1. Britt Wray, Rise of the Necrofauna: the Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2017).
2. William Myers, Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 7.
3. Susan Hockfield, The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019): ix.
4. Jason F. McLennan, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design: The Future of Architecture (Kansas City: Ecotone Publishing, 2004), 4.
5. Peter J. Turnbaugh et al., “The Human Microbiome Project,” Nature 449 (2007): 805.
6. Maarten van de Guchte, Hervé M. Blottière, and Joël Doré, “Humans as holobionts: implications for prevention and therapy,” Microbiome 6, no. 81 (2018): 5.
7. Julia Watson, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Cologne: Taschen, 2019).
8. “Nature,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed April 11, 2020, www.etymonline.com/word/nature.
9. Catherine E. Walsh and Walter Mignolo, On Decoloniality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018): 163.
10. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg et al. Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), xv.