For the past two months I have been researching the realm of Bio Design and exploring how humans might imagine a near (5-10 years) future when living systems can be seamlessly integrated into design practice—an integration that would fundamentally enhance the integrity of the design system not just its aesthetics. This research was based heavily on the premise that in the Age of the Anthropocene—at the precipice of devastation from climate change—our civilization simply cannot afford to continue the current trajectory. Something must change. I believe that change should be, in part, to establish a symbiotic relationship with nature and the environment. Specifically, my interest has centered around the built environment (buildings and cities), perhaps because, in spite of the technological revolution over the last generation, our built environments have remained virtually unchanged for the past 100 years. Our buildings, both new and old, are relics of a bygone era; they linger in our cities, constant reminders of an epoch in human history born from steel and oil. Thus, I sought to understand if it was possible for our built environments to be dynamic, living systems. Could we live in symbiosis with the natural environment? What if we could grow our cities instead of build them?
Moving towards true biological systems integration into our architecture to literally grow our cities will become a reality, and many top scientists and designers are working towards implementation of these projects—at least in the longer term. Yet, in the near term, I think what is most important is a public consciousness shift. As part of my research into Bio Design, I have met with luminaries who span the spectrum of the field from architects to synthetic biologists, I have attended the Biofabrication conference that showcases the latest advancements in Bio Design and Bio Technology, and I have read and viewed countless source materials. While there is a part of me that remains optimistic about the future of Bio Design, the unfortunate reality is that the work being done in this field today remains largely aesthetic and speculative. To create real impact, considerable technological growth is required, and, perhaps even more importantly, to create penetration into the consumer and commercial markets, there needs to be larger economic incentives or subsidies from local and federal governments. Is there another direction, perhaps a smaller step we could take towards integrating biological systems into our society in a more publically palpable way? Can we step away from the aisle-dividing climate change topic towards a public health argument to create government support for Bio Designs integrated into our cities?
The Human Microbiome
The emerging field of the human microbiome is beginning to radically shift our understanding of both ourselves and our relationship to the environment. For example, we now know that in the average human, microbial cells out-number human cells 10:1, which means that 90% of the cells in our bodies are not human. In fact, it is believed that there are more bacteria in the human body than there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. A paper published in August, 2015, argues that:
Animals and plants are no longer heralded as autonomous entities but rather as biomolecular networks composed of the host plus its associated microbes, i.e., "holobionts." As such, their collective genomes forge a "hologenome.”
Microbiologists are increasingly finding links between our health and the microbes that live in our bodies. Obesity, depression, and brain functionality, such as memory, are a few of the health risks being linked to an unhealthy microbiome. And while there are many contributing factors to a healthy microbiome, some research suggests that many of these health concerns are modern phenomenon caused by humans living in cities (i.e., away from nature).
[D]isease issues [in the West] of the 20th and 21st century… have to do with nutrition and autoimmune processes…We don’t have a definitive cause yet, but as we look at the new science being done, we see a lot of connections to the microbiome and [microbial imbalance].
Could there be a connection between human health, the microbiome, and the built environment? Could the fact that in modern life humans are so removed from nature be a cause of much of our modern disease? And if so, can we begin to design with the microbiome in mind to optimize human health and create a symbiotic relationship with our bodies and our built environments?
This past summer I worked as a Research Fellow at Terreform One, a New York City architecture, urban and ecological design firm. My work there focused on the Urban Farm Pod—“a ‘living’ cabin for individuals and urban nuclear families to grow and provide for their daily vegetable needs” (see Figure 1). Part of my research was to design, test, and implement a system for food production. Using the Red Hook Housing Project, a “food desert,” as a test-bed, we sought to understand the economic, legal/political, and technological implications of using the pods as food sources for the community.