Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Biodesign: Why the future of our cities is soft and hairy

Will bacteria solve our world problems? Biodesign looks to be a key factor in reaching global sustainability. Architects Howeler + Yoon and Squared Design Lab have imagined a future where derelict building will be covered in pods that grow biofuel algae. Will bacteria solve our world problems? Biodesign looks to be a key factor in reaching global sustainability. Architects Howeler + Yoon and Squared Design Lab have imagined a future where derelict building will be covered in pods that grow biofuel algae.
HIDE CAPTION
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
Bacteria: A designer's dream?
The wonders of bacteria
The wonders of bacteria
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nature can help solve major challenges of the modern world
  • Bacteria dubbed as vital component for global sustainability
  • 'Ick' factor still needs to be overcome before people embrace biodesign

(CNN) -- You get out of bed and open the curtains.

The grey light of dawn is mingling with the glow of the trees, which have been injected with luminescent jellyfish genes.

You can barely believe that such primitive things as streetlights ever existed.

Your stylish bespoke watch -- which was grown in a lab from biodegradable calf's cartilage cells -- tells you it's time for breakfast.

Which you will eat at your de rigueur mousetrap table.

Which attracts mice into a tube in one of its legs, kills them, and feeds them into a microbial fuel cell, generating more power for the house.

The Paternoster turns plastic into food
The Paternoster turns plastic into food

The Paternoster device in the kitchen, which "upcycles" your waste plastic and uses it to grow fungus, has a rich crop of mushrooms.

You fry them up on the methane bio-digester, which heats the hob with methane produced by bacteria digesting organic matter in the waste-disposal unit.

To this you add some trout, which you net from the artfully illuminated aquarium in the living room and kill on the chopping board; and some spinach from a collection of plants that lives on the nitrate-rich fish waste in the aquarium.

READ: 10 extraordinary futuristic wilderness hideouts

Finally, for an artistic touch, you garnish it with some chives.

Which were grown using nutrients automatically extracted from your Filtering Squatting Toilet.

If all this sounds like second-rate science fiction, think again.

The power of nature

According to writer and curator William Myers, author of the book Biodesign, concerns for sustainability and increasing pressure on the world's resources is leading to increasing collaboration between design and biology.

"Biodesign means forging relationships with non-human life to improve the ecological performance of manufacturing and building," he says.

"Evolution has shaped a biosphere teeming with miraculous machines. The degree to which we can successfully integrate with them for mutual benefit is limited only by our imaginations."

As Salvador Dalí once said, the future of architecture will be "soft and hairy".

Biodesign means forging relationships with non-human life
William Myers

Biodesign is already having an impact on the way we live.

To promote the 2011 film Contagion, Curb Media, a London-based "sustainable media company", created a billboard that spelled out the title of the film using living bacterial and fungal stains, which grew and spread over time. Members of the public were alternately "fascinated" and "disgusted".

Indeed, every one of the examples above -- from the calf cartilage watch to the Filtering Squatting Toilet -- are actual concepts produced by a range of bio-design teams around the world.

The mousetrap table, for example, is part of a series of "carnivorous domestic entertainment robots" conceived by a two-man team at Goldsmiths College in London.

Their collection also includes devices that attract flies and other insects, digests them, and uses the energy produced to power clocks and household lamps.

READ: The hands-on world of digital art


A team from Eindhoven in the Netherlands, which is behind the methane-powered hob, has a whole range of ideas for household products that are capable of filtering, processing, and recycling sewage, effluent, garbage and waste water. And researchers at Delft University of Technology have already developed BioConcrete, which is embedded with limestone-making organisms that allow the material to repair itself.

Clearly, the possibilities are tantilizing.

But the discipline has attracted its fair share of skepticism, with Wired magazine referring to biodesigners as "mad scientists".

The practitioners themselves, however, strongly reject this criticism.

"Fantasy has nothing to do with it," says Alberto Estévez, one of the leading architects on the Genetic Barcelona project (the team behind the glowing trees).

Bacteria saves the world?

"We are working towards an actual reality. Society needs to understand that biotech is the best -- and perhaps the only -- way to achieve sustainability for the whole planet.

"People need to appreciate the benefits for it. Nature has such huge potential. Humans need to take advantage of it to solve the big challenges in the world today."

Myers agrees. "Biodesign is too expensive to implement at the moment. But this may change with the development of green taxes and incentives, which are still relatively new," he says.

We are firmly conditioned to be afraid of biology
William Myers

"Another significant obstacle is the 'ick' factor. We are firmly conditioned to be afraid of biology. Ideas like infusing concrete with bacteria that allow the material to heal seem scary to many people.

"But the effects are potentially so transformative that in the long term, biology will likely be the dominant design platform of the 21st century."

READ: The apocalyptic world of Mad Max architecture

So the working day is done.

You come home from work and prepare yourself a meal, using your microbial home.

For pudding you have some ice cream with honey, which you take from the handsomely egg-shaped "urban beehive" device that is mounted on the wall.

Then, before you settle down in front of the television, you release your homing pigeons into the city.

For years, they have been fed only a special yoghurt containing bacteria that have harmlessly altered their metabolism.

Now they excrete a kind of soap, which helps to clean streets and cars rather than fouling them.

(This too is a genuine concept. A Belgian designer called Tuur Van Balen is working on it, funded by the Flemish Ministry of Culture.)

The sun is going down. The trees and plants are glowing. The end of a perfectly normal day in your biodesigned future.

Flying monkeys and winged goats: Photos that make you question reality

Surprise designs behind the Iron Curtain

7 of the world's most beguiling bus stops are in a tiny Austrian village you've never heard of

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Style
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
Italian photographer Antonio La Grotta has been capturing abandoned nightclubs that are falling apart in typically glamorous Italian fashion.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
Bernhard Lang's aerial photos capture the unexpected symmetry and patterns of common public spaces.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
How the disembodied head, which seems to have a life of its own, was spirited into the gem seems to be something of a mystery.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1115 GMT (1915 HKT)
Paris Photo again drew huge crowds this year, including actresses, designers, artists and, of course, the photography world's elite.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Condé Nast has unearthed portraits of the biggest stars of the 20s and 30s, including Fred Astaire and Greta Garbo.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
The most "complicated" handmade watch in the world has been sold at auction for an historic $24.4 million.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Artists are using a new vocabulary to commemorate lives lost at war. How to you convey the collective grief of a nation in a single work of art?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0137 GMT (0937 HKT)
Nasir al-mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran
It's a side of Iran the rest of the world doesn't normally get to see -- the kaleidoscopic interiors of the country's intricately designed mosques.
November 10, 2014 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Illustrator and design educator Laurence Zeegen looks back at the rise of illustration over the last 50 years.
November 10, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
These beautiful weapons from the 19th century were a showcase for craftsmanship and a symbol of American power.
November 7, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Who says you need a printer to churn out digital images? The Human Printer is recreating them by hand, one dot at a time.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
As violence threatens to annihilate some of history's greatest monuments, we count the cost of our irreplaceable losses.
ADVERTISEMENT