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