Editor’s Note: Neri Oxman is a designer, architect, artist and founder of the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab. See Oxman’s full 30-minute profile this Sunday 2 P.M. E.T. only on CNN.
By Neri Oxman, Special to CNN
In the future we will print 3D bone tissue, grow living breathing chairs and construct buildings by hatching swarms of tiny robots. The future is closer than we think; in fact, versions of it are already present in our midst.
At the core of these visions lies the desire to potentiate our bodies and the things around us with an intelligence that will deepen the relationship between the objects we use and which we inhabit, and our environment: a Material Ecology.
A new model of the world has emerged over the past few decades: the World-as- Organism. This new model inspires a desire to instill intelligence into objects, buildings and cities. It is a model that stands in contrast to the paradigm of the Industrial Revolution, or the World-as-Machine.
While I believe that the new model will eventually become the new paradigm, it coexists for the time being with the old model: our minds are already at home with this new view of the world, but we still employ the building practices and design traditions that we inherited from the industrial era.
For instance, today’s buildings are made up of modular parts and components that are mass-produced and interchangeable. A furniture piece can easily be replaced by a ready-to-assemble kit of parts while a damaged tooth-root or bone can be replaced by the design of a titanium implant.
This model actually works in the same way that a machine does, where transposable parts make a whole. Awesome design machines have been created in this spirit such as composite cars, planes and steel buildings (Le Corbusier’s homage to modern industry by shaping Villa Savoye’s driveway using the exact turning radius of a 1927 Citroen comes to mind.)
But are these complex machines a true reflection of how Nature works? I do not think so. The new sensibility that views the world as an organism challenges us in completely new ways to propose innovative ways of making things. The World-as-Organism implies a continuous living system where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and parts can grow into other parts. To paraphrase Goethe: “All is Leaf.”
In this spirit, I attempt to characterize this shift by sketching a design credo in five tenets.
1. Growth over Assembly
In contrast to industrial production and the logic of assembly lines, Nature grows things. Think of your own bones and their smooth transition from solid to spongy tissue, from bone into tendons, ligaments and muscles.
Or consider the tree. It is made of a root system that transforms into a trunk that in turn unfolds into branches and leaves, flowers and fruit all by way of differentiating its cells and prescribing different functions to each entity: roots and trunk are structural support, leaves convert light into sugar, fruits give birth. We are learning from trees how to grow buildings.
We are considering the next generation of printers no longer just 3D, but 4D – in other words, in the future we will be able to print objects that will respond to their users, adapt to their environment and even grow over time after they have been printed.
2. Integration over Segregation
The typical facade of a building, like the typical body armor, is made up of discrete parts fulfilling distinct functions. Stiff materials provide a protective shell, soft materials provide comfort and insulation, and – in buildings – transparent materials provide connection to the environment. In contrast, human skin utilizes more or less constant material constituents for both barrier functions (small pores, thick skin on our backs) and filtering functions (large pores, thin skin on our face).
Barrier and filtering functions are integrated into a single material system that can at any point respond and adapt to its environment. Why should a building’s skin be different? We are now considering ways of printing breathable building skins whose pores also contract and expand in relation to the environment.
3. Heterogeneity over Homogeneity
Industrial products are typically made up of a single material property or an assembly of several materials. Cars are made of sheet metal, airplanes of composites, and buildings of concrete and steel. In contrast, homogeneity is something you will never find in the natural world. Take the bone again. It is made up of calcium that varies its distribution according to the load exerted upon it. Inspired by the bone, we are exploring ways to control the spatial distribution of building materials, like concrete, to find intelligent form.
4. Difference over Repetition
Industrial products generated out of the machines that make them consist of repeatable parts with identical properties. In Nature, however, repetition exists only through variation and difference, and every cellular unit is unique: it is due to the bone’s variation of cellular organization that we can conceive of its repeatable elements. Comprehending difference enables us to design repetitive systems – like bone tissue – that can vary their properties according to environmental constraints. As a consequence of this new approach we will be able to design behavior rather than form.
5. Material is the New Software
Our ability to design and fabricate intelligent materials and objects will no longer depend on patching materials with electronics, but rather on our ability to turn material itself into software. Animal hair, a primary source of insulation, provides for a good example.
It responds to low temperatures by causing the hair to stand up, forming a heat-trapping layer above the skin. This sensing function is localized, distributed, and controlled by muscular tissue. It inspires us to embed material with distributed intelligence rather than attach it to an on-off switch.
Beauty Beyond Utility
Beauty is not Number 6 in the credo outlined above. It is the spirit that infuses life into everything.
By this I mean that there is more to printing bones or folding cars than the endorsement of sustainable design. Making things more efficient, faster and cheaper in time is not entirely the point here. Indeed, in most cases the search for utmost beauty will translate into creations of utmost efficiency, revealing the order of Nature.
I propose that learning from Nature, as understood by Leonardo Da Vinci (“… because in her [Nature’s] inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous”), will yield efficiency and sustainability as by-products. It is not a matter of surrendering truth to beauty in design: more often than not we find that they are inextricably linked.
Yes, there is more to the future than printing buildings or growing chairs. Rather, the future lies in questioning what an inhabitable structure is. When we consider printing concrete with variable density as in bones, we do not mean to do this simply to reproduce the same old buildings.
These technologies will enable us to create buildings that are entirely different than the ones that we inhabit today: buildings that will respond to all our physical, animal needs, and also to our spiritual needs. In other words, the aim of printing buildings is not a matter of pouring “new wine into old wineskins” but rather of re-conceiving the entire quest for creating habitat and expressing form.
New technologies will come of age, as has always been the case throughout history. 3D- printing will give way to 4D-printing and it, in turn, will be replaced by synthetic growth, and so on. To me, what will endure beyond the technology-of-the-day is the paradigm of the World-as-Organism. There is nothing new under the sun, stated Ecclesiasts.
Ancient civilizations also perceived the world as an organism. Yet there is newness under the sun: rather than mimicking Nature, we can now actually design Nature.