Anastasiia Raina: Thank you so much for invit­ing me. And some­thing that I would like to talk about is actu­al­ly com­ing from my cours­es and— Although I was sup­posed to talk about cyborg aes­thet­ics, I decid­ed to actu­al­ly take a step back and focus on bio­cen­tric­i­ty in design and ped­a­gogy and the way it affects the way we think about nature and sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and how could we pos­si­bly move beyond that, and what are some of the method­olo­gies that I’m uti­liz­ing in my class­es in order to do that.

So today, we will exam­ine the his­tor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal roots of bio­cen­trism, bio­mimicry, explore the qual­i­ty of the rela­tion­ship it pre­sup­pos­es with nature, and ques­tion its ecofriend­li­ness. We will intro­duce emerg­ing alter­na­tives to bio­mimicry and dis­cuss the chal­lenges it promises. 

You’re look­ing at Ambystoma mex­i­canum, or an axolotl. This sala­man­der is rou­tine­ly used as a mod­el organ­ism in bio­log­i­cal research because of its abil­i­ty to regen­er­ate limbs, jaws, and even vital organs such as the brain. Scientists hope to use evi­dence gath­ered by study­ing these crea­tures to even­tu­al­ly endow humans with the abil­i­ty to regen­er­ate body parts. I came across this won­der­ful crea­ture a few years back when I was in the process of writ­ing my the­sis, and since then I have been inter­est­ed in the role of nature sys­tems, ani­mals, and their use in art and design. 

Few ideals have been as exalt­ed and per­me­at­ed in the design field as deeply as bio­cen­trism and what we know today as biomimicry. 

The for­mal imi­ta­tion of nature in the design of objects dates back to 19th cen­tu­ry Art Nouveau, notably reemerges in the design phi­los­o­phy of the Bauhaus, and con­tin­ues through many works today. 

In art and design, bio­cen­trism may draw upon the super­fi­cial like­ness of nature for dec­o­ra­tive, sym­bol­ic, and metaphor­i­cal effect. And alter­na­tive­ly, bio­mimicry may study the forms used to accom­plish spe­cif­ic goals, inspir­ing innu­mer­able high­ly prac­ti­cal human inventions. 

Nature’s influ­ence on design unsur­pris­ing­ly dates back to antiq­ui­ty. And organi­cism, the pre­de­ces­sor to bio­mimicry and bio­cen­tric­i­ty in art and design can be traced back to Vitruvius’ writ­ings and Goethe’s work on morphology. 

Organicism art is based on the con­vic­tion that art should not imi­tate nature, not with the aim of pro­duc­ing per­fect­ly faith­ful copies but with the aim of cre­at­ing the illu­sion of life, of con­fer­ring the qual­i­ties of liv­ing nature upon the prod­ucts of man in the hope of effec­tu­at­ing the meta­mor­pho­sis of dead mat­ter into a liv­ing being.*

Examination of nature in design gained much momen­tum in the 19th cen­tu­ry, par­al­lel­ing advances in biol­o­gy. Notable biol­o­gist nat­u­ral­ists of the time includ­ing Darwin, Lamarck, and Haeckel detailed how mor­pho­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences served spe­cial­ized func­tion roles. And 1923 saw the ear­li­est for­mal con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of bio­mimicry when Hungarian-born botanist Raoul Francé pub­lished a chap­ter of his book Plants as Inventors in an art journal.

In this text Francé dis­cussed how the idea of Biotechnik, the tech­no­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms of liv­ing beings, pro­vide a rich basis for the belief in inte­grat­ing bio­log­i­cal process­es in tech­nolo­gies*, and his books are full of illus­tra­tions com­ing from the nat­ur­al world and they’ve become the source of inspi­ra­tion for con­struc­tivist artists such as El Lissitzky, Wassily Kandinsky, archi­tects and design­ers, and Bauhaus edu­ca­tors such as László Moholy-Nagy. 

Biomimicry is basically taking a design challenge and then finding an ecosystem that's already solved that challenge, and literally trying to emulate what you learn. —Janine Benyus

The new con­nec­tion between form and func­tion res­onat­ed well beyond its sci­en­tif­ic ori­gin, pop­u­lar­ized in the Art Nouveau style in France and spread in iter­a­tions across Europe. Without a doubt, bio­mimicry, bio­cen­trism has been a very suc­cess­ful strat­e­gy for cre­at­ing and design­ing nature-inspired inno­va­tions for human­i­ty. Furthermore, for many bio­mimicry has tran­scend­ed its prac­ti­cal val­ue, trans­form­ing into a quasi-spiritual way of hon­or­ing nature. 

…if design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design. —Adolfo Natalini, Superstudio

However, bio­mimicry may not be the nature as it appears explic­it­ly. Most of the inven­tions inspired by nature have been used towards the express goal of ben­e­fit­ing human­i­ty and not nature. Through indus­tri­al­iza­tion, pro­duc­ing our nature-inspired nov­el­ties are often not made from sus­tain­able mate­ri­als. Moreover, the meth­ods employed in bio­mimicry act to reduce, obstruct, and sim­pli­fy nature into com­mon explod­able fea­tures, warp­ing the way we think about our rela­tion­ship to our sup­posed source of inspiration. 

The BP logo, a geometric sunflower-like design composed in shades of green.

Lastly, root­ed in the empir­i­cal study of plants and ani­mals, cre­ations employ­ing bio­mimicry bor­row cred­i­bly from both biol­o­gy and nature, appeal­ing to peo­ple’s sci­en­tif­ic and spir­i­tu­al sen­si­bil­i­ties. Such roman­ti­ciza­tion of bio­mimicry leaves it par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to exploita­tion by mar­ket­ing pow­ers, through nature-inspired adver­tis­ing and design con­tains [mask?] many unsus­tain­able busi­ness practices. 

So, how do we move beyond bio­mimicry, avoid­ing the pit­falls of the past? If bio­mimicry per­mits a frame of think­ing that allows humans to use nature for its uni­lat­er­al ben­e­fit, though not all bio-inspired inno­va­tions exploit nature. In a lot of cas­es this crude imi­ta­tion of nature ulti­mate­ly serves pro­duc­tion of objects under the guise of eco-friendliness, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, green­ing ini­tia­tives, afforesta­tion, and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal do-goodisms that para­dox­i­cal­ly pro­lif­er­ate at the expense of plant life. How do we move beyond bio­mimicry, and what would more just design inno­va­tions look like? And is it pos­si­ble to col­lab­o­rate with nature? 

The notion of what it means to be human in the 21st cen­tu­ry no longer reflects the ideas of human­ism. We grad­u­al­ly become aware that the man is not the cen­ter of the uni­verse and that we need to expand our under­stand­ing of what it means to be human today, and the notion of what con­sti­tutes design in the post-human age.*

The Great Chain of Being serves as an excel­lent illus­tra­tion of the fact that our under­stand­ing of the world and design has always been shaped by the act of ele­vat­ing man over known human realm on a hier­ar­chichal scale.*

Moving to mod­ernism, we see this idea pro­lif­er­at­ing in archi­tec­ture and design in 1930s influ­en­tial Swiss archi­tect Le Corbusier decid­ed archi­tec­ture need­ed a rev­o­lu­tion. Buildings should be designed to fit peo­ple,” he declared, and so he set about design­ing his human scale to do just that. 

There was just one minor prob­lem. Le Corbusier’s icon­ic Modulor Man was in fact well, a man. To be pre­cise, a six foot-tall man, and to be even more pre­cise a six foot British detec­tive with his arm raised to reach the top shelf that I can’t even reach. 

Rather than using body parts as we have been using before as a body mea­sure­ment, the body itself has become the unit of mea­sure­ment of the body and stan­dard­iza­tion of design the ratio­nal­iza­tion of the body mod­ernism has strived towards. 

And as today we see that con­tin­ues to per­pet­u­ate in car design, air con­di­tion­ing, and fur­ther archi­tec­tur­al design prob­lems. So an aver­age woman is regard­ed as an out-of-position dri­ver to reach the ped­als and see over the dash­board because women sit too far for­ward. So they’re like­ly to be involved in a car crash and less like­ly to sur­vive the injuries. 

Design has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, and, as I will argue, to nature itself—which is in great need of being re-designed. —Bruno Latour

As we can see that every ele­ment of our world is being designed, from busi­ness­es to gov­ern­ment that deploy design think­ing, and the plan­et itself has become an arti­fact of anthro­pocen­tric design that needs to be challenged. 

My class­room serves as a place for exper­i­men­ta­tion beyond com­mer­cial design, which has been tra­di­tion­al­ly true for graph­ic design­ers. In my class Design in the Post-Human Age we chal­lenge human-centered design, design think­ing, and what it means to be a design­er when our client part­ners, col­lab­o­ra­tors, are robots, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, and even non-human lifeforms. 

So usu­al­ly when I get stu­dents in the class­room they think that this human­ism has to do with Ex Machina. But the way I teach it, I believe that human­ism at its core is exclu­sion­ary and per­pet­u­ates bina­ry notions of the human and the oth­er. Posthumanism decon­structs any onto­log­i­cal hier­ar­chy*, to include per­spec­tives of peo­ple who con­tin­ue to strug­gle to be con­sid­ered ful­ly human: women, LGBT, post-colonialist per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties, ani­mals, plants, cyborgs.

We direct­ly engage with­in RISD’s Nature Lab, which allows us as design­ers to gain an under­stand­ing of sci­en­tif­ic approach­es, tools that probe the ques­tion of what it means to be human today. 

The open­ness of posthu­man­ism is placed in a hybrid vision of human­i­ty itself, through the cyborg specif­i­cal­ly locat­ed in the crit­i­cal reflec­tion of Donna Haraway* and her dis­man­tling of dualisms and bound­aries, in par­tic­u­lar the bound­ary between ani­mal, human organ­ism, and machine*.

So com­ing back to the ques­tion how do we move beyond bio­mimicry, avoid­ing the pit­falls of the past, and is it pos­si­ble to col­lab­o­rate with nature? In one of the projects, we explore— Well, I believe that non-human per­spec­tives need to become an active part of design knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. And we may even need to explore worlds beyond human per­cep­tion such as nat­ur­al events that occur at a quan­tum scale. So one of such prompts was based on Thomas Nagel’s What It’s Like to be a Bat, where stu­dents were asked to imag­ine the uni­verse from the per­spec­tive of a non-human organ­ism or an algo­rithm and to embody and doc­u­ment this non-human perspective.

As a fol­low up stu­dents attempt­ed to recre­ate for­mal prin­ci­ples of designs from this newly-acquired van­tage point. This is typog­ra­phy design from the per­spec­tive of a black hole. 

Next, we need to recon­cep­tu­al­ize nature as our col­lab­o­ra­tor, invit­ing non-human part­ners to freely par­tic­i­pate in cre­at­ing with us. Collaboration is under­stood as the act of work­ing togeth­er. But what does it mean to col­lab­o­rate with some­one who’s impos­si­ble to under­stand, or whose inten­tion, agen­da is not ful­ly known. The cru­cial part is to learn how these new types of prac­tices can emerge in rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ships or copro­duc­tion between organ­isms, algo­rithms, and humans. 

To invite some­one into a col­lab­o­ra­tion is to acknowl­edge that there is some­one. Therefore by imag­in­ing and con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with oth­er species, humans will be forced to ques­tion our self-proclaimed cen­ter posi­tion in the world, a posi­tion that has led to immense destruc­tion of the plan­et, as man­i­fest­ed by pol­lu­tion, cli­mate change, and mass extinc­tions of species.* This is the project that was done by Sarah Park who’s sit­ting in the third row, where she’s imag­in­ing what if a tardi­grade made TikToks. She had invent­ed tardi­gradism, the dis­course and method and med­i­ta­tion on what it’s like to be a tar­di? who’s the ves­sel to dis­sem­i­nate the effects of cli­mate change and new modes of sur­vival through the use of meme cul­ture to Gen Z, mil­len­ni­als, and Gen X. 

By intro­duc­ing the term col­lab­o­ra­tion” into our work with ani­mals, be it artis­tic or sci­en­tif­ic, we are com­pelled to acknowl­edge their agency and per­son­hood, there­by mak­ing it much hard­er and more eth­i­cal­ly com­plex to put ani­mals through the suf­fer­ing we do today. Instead of using nature sys­tems for our per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al gain, we need to invite them to be our intel­lec­tu­al emo­tion­al part­ners in quest for sus­tain­able envi­ron­ment for all of us to thrive with­in.*

As we devel­op a more nuanced under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ships between tech­nol­o­gy, soci­ety, and non-human worlds, we become acute­ly aware of our all-too-human nature. Our human-centrism and excep­tion­al­ism is now jux­ta­posed with incred­i­ble capa­bil­i­ties of oth­er species and algo­rith­mic intel­li­gences. Even when we try to make the leap to embody non-human per­spec­tives, we rec­og­nize our inabil­i­ty to escape our human-centrism. I think exact­ly this fail­ure to embody oth­er per­spec­tives is an impor­tant safe­guard from false empa­thy and impo­si­tion of our per­son­al under­stand­ing on oth­er enti­ties, instead allow­ing space and pos­si­bil­i­ties to imag­ine oth­er types of intel­li­gence that are com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from our own.* Thank you.

Further Reference

Climate Futures II event page

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.