What can designers learn from interacting with scientists? Can the study of biological systems generate new perspectives on design?
Since 2007, MA Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins joined forces with the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Sciences Centre to bridge the worlds of biology and design. This relationship culminated in a series of Fabrics of Life workshops on various themes including epigenetics, model organisms, evolution, systems and synthetic biology. The last workshop on Big Data, took place in 2014 in the Lethaby Gallery and comprised an exhibition of existing biologically-driven work and a live project bringing together MA Textile Futures (now MA Material Futures) with students from the Bartlett School of Architecture’s Interactive Architecture Lab.
The exhibition in the Lethaby Gallery showcased work by, among others, Rob Kesseler, Ann-Kristin Abel, Amy Congdon and William Bondin, to demonstrate the breadth of work placing biology at its heart. It provided the backdrop for the collaboration between MA Textiles Futures and the Interactive Architecture Lab.
The three-week project focused on the uses and implications of big data in a world demanding more sustainable responses. Students worked with academics from a range of universities to explore their ideas for future propositions. A symposium and series of demonstrations laid the foundations for the project supplying students with a series of key questions:
How will the ability to interrogate and manipulate big data and biology impact the future of design?
Can designers embrace biological technologies to harness and exploit big data, while maintaining the pursuit of a sustainable design future?
When living materials become carriers for our data, what systems do we design, what applications and interactions emerge?
The collective responses to these questions were wide-ranging and compelling:
Bespoke Care by Maritta Nemsadze, Zhixin Zhao, Ran Xie, Ran Lu, Elysia Evers Wilson with Antonio de Marvao of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Genetics at the MRC Clinical Science Centre, Imperial College
The potential value of harnessing big data in healthcare is the ability to provide a personalised service featuring precise assessment of health risks, early diagnosis, and more effective drug prescriptions. We have designed a system where data indicators from our bodies such as hormone levels, blood sugar, nutrient levels etc. could be stored along with our genetic information and analysed to provide early warnings of potential problems. The system includes a personalised care kit with medication and supplements that are self-administered to prevent and treat conditions, which are not fully explained to the patient.
The Engineers by Ipek Kuran, Sunny Han, Alison Taylor, Roisin Johns, Zuzana Lalikova with Anne Ferguson-Smith from the Department of Physiology Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge
In the year 2100, a secret society called ‘The Engineers’ formed to confront this global and political inertia. By capitalising on advances in epigenomics, they began to release engineered viruses designed to modify the human genome. Each virus was programmed and colour-coded according to a specific environmental issue. For instance the Year of the Blue meant that anyone who contracted the virus that year was allergic to animal proteins, thus reducing the impact of the meat industry on the environment.
Living Maps by Stefanie Powell, Jaimme Guan, Marta Santambrogio, Ansha Jin, Shiori Aiba with Jonathan Chubb from the MRCA Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London
Even with today’s technologies, mapping and treating contaminated soil is expensive and time consuming. Companies failing to follow legal protocols around waste disposal suffer heavy fines, but the tools to assess whether they are acting within these parameters are ineffective. Living Maps harnesses the characteristics of slime mould to produce coloured smoke when in contact with certain environmental pollutants. The network of signals can be recorded by satellites to provide a global self-sustaining sensory network generating datasets of soil pollution.