What is Biodesign?
Kiersten Thamm | July 5, 2021
The term “biodesign” seems to be just about everywhere these days. It’s often mentioned as part of a comprehensive approach to combating the climate crisis. Other common suggestions include biomimicry, bio-inspired design, bioengineering, and biofabrication.
But what do these terms mean, and why should people who use objects (rather than design them) be interested in them?
Here’s a biodesign explainer for people as confused as I was.
Clearing the slate: What biodesign is not
We’re going to start by getting a few terms out of the way. These are the terms that describe concepts associated with but specifically not biodesign.
Please note that people and publications don’t always use these terms consistently. This guide explains how people use the words most of the time. And, while they vary in definition, they all affirm that we can learn from nature to create more ecologically sound ways of living.
Biomimicry. This refers to the process of copying aspects of organic entities to optimize performance. Someone making a biomimic jacket might replicate the tiny hairs found on a gecko’s foot to make super-sticky tape to secure the hems.
Bio-inspired design. This term is simply too vague to be helpful. A bio-inspired jacket might be made with cloth that has a pattern that looks like leaves. Bio-inspired design is often used interchangeably with the over-used “green design.”
Bioengineering or biofabrication typically refers to design that utilizes the tools of synthetic biology or involves the use of biological processes for production. A biofabricated jacket, like the Moon Parka, uses a brewed protein fiber that has some of the qualities of spider silk. Sometimes other technologies are added to the mix, like a custom 3D printer in order to build layers of a chair seeded with mushroom spores (see below). Biotech jackets aren’t too typical because biotech generally makes food and structural materials.
Biodesign is more than green design
Biodesign more deeply integrates organic entities into design practices than these other concepts. Biodesign isn’t about merely taking cues from organic structures and operations, but it incorporates living organisms into design as building blocks, materials, and energy sources. This can mean using living materials, such as fungi, algae, yeast, or bacteria in design.
To continue the jacket example, a biodesigned jacket might use fungi to form insulation materials.
Between born and made for new futures
Because of this integration of living organisms and human craft, some say that biodesign “crosses between the ‘made’ and the ‘born.’”
The Next Nature Network explains biodesign as “bring[ing] us products that adapt, grow, sense and repair themselves. Industrial and mechanical systems are replaced with biological processes. Biodesign overtakes imitation and biomimicry, completely dissolving the boundaries between organisms and objects.”
Our biodesign jacket might be made of spider silk.
Taking this position between born and made opens new possibilities. As Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Natsai Chieza put it, “biology need not exist in the form we know it. Other biologies are possible. That means other worlds are possible. We can, and must, continue to imagine life otherwise.”
Working across disciplines isn’t optional
To have a biodesign practice, working across disciplines is required.
Artists and designers need the scientific knowledge of biologists, who in turn need the craft and conceptual skills of artists and designers. A biodesign team might also benefit from engineers and technologists, who can inform production methods.
The team that designed our biodesign jacket would include all of these people, along with craftspeople and systems engineers that design ecologically sound forms of distribution.
Digital technology is optional
While some of the best-known examples of biodesign involve labs and technologists, not all do. Some designers look to ancient methods of making rather than digital tools. But all biodesigners share “an earnest desire to re-envision how we make, to set aside fossil-fuel-based production with processes that integrate with ecosystems, or at least not harm them,” according to M21D’s organizer William Myers.
With biodesign, start to finish means pre-existence to post-existence
To incorporate organic entities into designs that also benefit the organic world, designers must think about where their materials come from, how their designs will be used, and what happened to them at the end of their life cycle. A well-designed object that uses organic materials but adds to the toxicity of the earth kind of defeats the purpose.
Our biodesigned jacket might be extremely durable and also 100% biodegradable, for example. And because it’s made from non-extractive materials and methods, its creation also avoids causing environmental damage.
Some promising examples of biodesign
I’ve used my imaginary biodesigned jacket as a simple example to explain the foundations of biodesign. In real life, everything is a bit more complicated. Additional topics that need to be considered in biodesign are regulatory institutions; local, national, and international laws; cultural norms; and new scientific discoveries.
Thankfully, people have written about actual biodesigns in all their complexities. You can read about them in publications like Forbes and Smithsonian Magazine. Here’s just a few.
Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bioconcrete.” The material includes limestone-producing bacteria called Sporosarcina pasteurii that, over time, fills in cracks.
Concrete production is a significant source of CO2. Producing less concrete that lasts longer without needing mending would drastically reduce the amount of atmospheric CO2 over time.
Other labs and producers have joined Jonkers in his efforts to make and popularize bioconcrete. Read more.
Furniture composed of mushrooms
Furniture made from the rigid root systems of mushrooms, a fibrous material called mycelium, is surprisingly durable and beautiful. Of note: the mushrooms used often seen in a market are the fruiting bodies, with just cap and stems.
Mycelium is all the rage these days for a range of projects. Scientific American explains that “Mycelium is kind of like yeast, but unlike most yeast cells, which grow as a single cell, mycelium is multicellular and can grow into macro-size structures. [...] Once the mycelium has fully built its network, it transitions to its next stage: building a mushroom. This is where humans can intervene. Rather than letting a mushroom pop up out of the substrate, the mycelium can be coaxed to build predictable structures by controlling temperature, CO2, humidity and airflow to influence the growth of tissue.”
This happens quickly. An 18-by-2-by-12-inch sheet weighing a few pounds can be produced within a single week.
The Dutch designer Eric Klarenbeek has combined mycelium and 3-D printing technology to create furniture. While Ecovative Design has been creating packaging and several other products for over a decade. The question of mass production of this kind is still being answered, but these prototypes suggest a future where humans live more kindly, collaboratively, and gently with other species.
(Almost) all species benefit from biodesign
Biodesign offers a range of benefits for humans and the earth alike. It values renewable resources and respects species of all types and sizes. Ultimately, it’s a method for improving the relationships within and between species. As Myers writes,
“Biodesign has the potential to produce replacements for mechanical or fossil-fuel-based designs and introduce biofabricated materials. People are acquainted with applications such as spider silk dresses or algae fuels. Biodesign also can provide ecosystem enhancements, foundational space for species to thrive.”
The imagination inherent in biodesign encourages creativity, innovation, and empathy. It’s one thing to develop new products with all the exploitative tools and resources available; it’s quite another thing to develop new products that respect all living entities. This leads to reimagining the future, speculating about potential developments in fantastic ways.
Small disclaimer: biodesign processes often kill microorganisms — lots and lots and lots of them. Sorry, little guys.
Keep learning about biodesign
If this introduction to biodesign has piqued your interest, there are many great resources to keep learning. There’s even a few degree programs you could apply to if you’re looking to complete a BA, MA, or certificate from an institute.
You can also sign up for the M21D newsletter to learn more about biodesign and other types of designs that have social and environmentally positive impacts.