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William Myers on Bio-Design

A new exhibition at the New Institute in Rotterdam explores the potential of biology in design.  We talk to curator William Myers about his role. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 19-09-2013

The relationship between design and science can be difficult.  Scientists, in particular, like to accuse designers and artists who dabble in their world with lacking rigour, follow-through and even responsibility.  And it is true that almost all bio-design projects are speculative and often impractical.

William Myers doesn’t even disagree, but stresses the importance of working to improve this cross-over.  “As a design historian I see my contribution mainly as recognizing where bio-design can play a role and to give it a boost.  Designers need to know how to use biology better but with that said, experiments have to be the start point for everything.”

One of the biggest hurdles to bio-design hitting the mainstream is not lack of rigour or even practicality, but the absence of structures that make the transition to reality economically feasible.

“Fab Tree Hab”, for example, is an unrealized project by Mitchell Joachim that grafts growing trees together to create support structures in construction.  Of course the idea takes too long to grow for real estate developers to chase after and it consequently remains a teaching tool at ONE Lab in New York as well as an exhibition piece.

After publishing his book “BioDesign – Nature + Science + Creativity” Myers (from New York) approached the director of the New Institute in the Netherlands and now, just six moths later, the exhibition, “Biodesign – on the Cross Pollination of Nature, Science and Creativity” is due to open.

“I think there are very real possibilities that many of the projects in this exhibition will lead to change in how we see and use the world, but it will take time and more experimentation,” says Myers.  “And after that we need real structural changes in both policy and mentality - measurable ways, for example, to protect bio-diversity and subsidies that encourage that to happen.  We also need to see governments get far more serious about implementing market disincentives like carbon taxes.”

Myers uses the example of concrete and its fascinating history to illustrate the potential of bio-design.  “A taken-for-granted material like concrete was integral to the functioning of the Roman Empire,” he says.  “The recipe to make it was lost for over 1000 years after the fall of Rome. Not coincidentally it was rediscovered at the time and place of the Industrial Revolution – when there was a pressure to invent it again. We have since developed ways to reinforce concrete with iron and then steel for construction to make ever-taller buildings. Now, with the pressure to build more ecologically, a new kind of ‘reinforcement’ may be microbes, an area of research pursued by researchers like Henk Jonkers at TU Delft.”

Currently when concrete cracks it needs to be replaced, but that process can weaken the structure or at least endanger its integrity.  The natural microbe Jonkers uses is found in swamps, but when it is embedded in concrete remains inactive.  When the concrete cracks, however, oxygen and moisture appear which reanimate the bacteria stimulating it to release limestone.

“Of course even I am unsure how these ideas can really work,” admits Myers, “but I know it is important to be thinking about the possibilities now.  One reason concrete is so important is because it’s use and environmental impact is so vast. 5% of all human made carbon emissions originate from the production of concrete.”

The upcoming exhibition will have around 57 research projects from around the world on display.   Everything from Next Nature’s genetically modified ray fish sneakers to Ecovative’s packaging material made from mycelium – the vegetative part of a fungus.  “Styrofoam lies in landfills for hundreds of years and can even be toxic, “ Myers say. “Mushrooms, on the other hand, are renewable and compostable.”

“I think the general public is conditioned to be afraid of biology and more generally with trying to tamper with it,” says Myers.  “I hope this exhibition serves to show how important it can be to the design of our daily lives.”

“Bio-design – on the Cross Pollination of Nature, Science and Creativity” runs from September 27 to January 5 at The New Institute in Rotterdam. 

William Myers followed by pictures from the upcoming exhibition Myers curated:
BioDesign: Nature + Science + Creativity (Bookcover) 
Eco-pods: Pre-cycled Modular Bioreactor. Höweler + Yoon Architecture and Squared Design Lab (2009)
Cypher. Eduardo Kac (2009)
Palmleather. Tjeerd Veenhoven (2011-2013(
Rootbridges of Meghalaya. Many designers and the Khasi-tribe (India). Photography by Justin Ames and Lambert Shadap (1500 and continuing)
Solaris @ 1- North Singapore. T.R. Hamzah and Yeang Sdn. Bhd. (2013)

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