I’m here to talk about dig­i­tal cul­ture, but a strange, very inter­est­ing aspect of it: how close it has brought us to nature. How much it has brought us clos­er to the dream, to the Holy Grail of all design­ers and archi­tects and engi­neers and you name it, to do it like nature does because nature does it best.

And you know, organ­ic design in his­to­ry has had so many dif­fer­ent notions and forms. If you just look at the col­lec­tion of the Museum of Modern Art it can see the imi­ta­tion of the forms of nature by Gaudi or by Hector Guimard. 

Or, it can also be the trans­po­si­tion of the forms of nature. You see here some images of dig­i­tal in the Museum of Modern Art, lit­er­al­ly dig­i­tal. One of the first exhi­bi­tions about microchips and dia­grams, and then Tetris, that is in the col­lec­tion of MoMA, and the graph­ic user inter­face by Xerox PARC, which we want to grasp for the col­lec­tion. But this is what I want­ed to show you. This is a visu­al­iza­tion designed by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas that shows the wind over the ter­ri­to­ry of the United States. Absolutely digitally-founded. It’s about data that is gath­ered by the gov­ern­ment, but ren­dered in a way that makes us feel that real­ly that’s how nature does it. 

And that’s what I love so much about dig­i­tal cul­ture. Even though it used to be Gaudi and Majorelle, it is also now Neri Oxman and Joris Laarman, who par­tic­i­pate in that cul­ture but get clos­er to it by using the com­put­er. Neri Oxman, who is a pro­fes­sor at the Media Lab, is spe­cial­izes in observ­ing nat­ur­al behav­iors and trans­form­ing them, dis­till­ing algo­rithms and laws from them, and we’ll see more of her work later.

Joris Laarman, great Dutch design­er, that’s pret­ty much the same. Uses soft­ware that mim­ics what nature would do if it had to sus­tain a human body in a seat­ed posi­tion. It’s real­ly inter­est­ing because you see it’s so much more than form. It’s think­ing of of the sys­tems that nature par­tic­i­pates in.

These days, we’re real­ly try­ing to move the whole behav­ior of peo­ple and the whole sen­si­tiv­i­ty of peo­ple towards a kind of an ecos­o­phy. You see here our food by Félix Guattari, but there are many oth­er peo­ple that are try­ing to make us under­stand that we have to change our behav­iors if we want to recu­per­ate some sort of bal­anced rela­tion­ship with nature.

Without mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the social and mate­r­i­al envi­ron­ment, there can be no change in men­tal­i­ties. Here, we are in the pres­ence of a cir­cle that leads me to pos­tu­late the neces­si­ty of found­ing an ecos­o­phy” that would link envi­ron­men­tal ecol­o­gy to social ecol­o­gy and to men­tal ecology.
Félix Guattari 1996: 264 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

So it’s very impor­tant to do it in a way that is also visu­al­ly con­vinc­ing, not just moral­ly con­vinc­ing. And that’s where design­ers and archi­tects come into play. They’re try­ing to bring togeth­er high and low, com­put­er and nature. 

This is a beau­ti­ful old-style ren­der­ing of elec­tron­ic pieces of equip­ment that look like a botan­i­cal draw­ing from the 18th cen­tu­ry. And in this case instead, today, the con­tem­po­rary draw­ing is a ren­der­ing by Daisy Ginsberg of a new branch of sci­ence, syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. The abil­i­ty of putting togeth­er dif­fer­ent strands of DNA and then design­ing new organ­isms with them.

So you see, it’s a flow that has begun cen­turies ago but that con­tin­ues today and that has to be under­stood. This is an exhi­bi­tion, that togeth­er with some of the peo­ple that are here in Davos actu­al­ly, I orga­nized in 2008. It was about design and sci­ence, and it looked at all the dif­fer­ent scales in which design­ers and sci­en­tists come togeth­er and work on nature and try to imi­tate nature. From the nanos cale, to the 1:1 scale with facades and build­ings and oth­er details, to the large scale, large com­plex­i­ty. So, it was a way to real­ly look at the algo­rithm which in 2008 was of course already well-known, but not yet. The kind of emper­or that we see today in so many dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines, and under­stand how it could be used for nat­ur­al purposes.

So, we see here exam­ples of work by a great sci­en­tist, Paul Rothemund who’s at CalTech, that was among the first to do DNA origa­mi. It’s a way to work in biol­o­gy that has intel­li­gent and smart design appli­ca­tions. Here is the work of a nanophysi­cist, Keith Schwab, and you see design­ers start to col­lab­o­rate with sci­en­tists also in the ren­der­ings of sci­ence. A lit­tle paren­the­sis, sci­en­tists usu­al­ly don’t want to appear ele­gant and don’t want to have good slides and good images, oth­er­wise they’re not tak­en seri­ous­ly. Well, they’re start­ing to see the pro­pa­gan­da impor­tance of also hav­ing good images. 

And here, to give you an exam­ple of what was hap­pen­ing in that show is the jux­ta­po­si­tion of work by UCLA sci­en­tists, a new method to mark pro­teins not only with col­or but also with let­ters (an alpha­bet soup of sorts), and instead this great Israeli design­er and artist that had hypoth­e­sized a whole world in which you can put one char­ac­ter into each sper­ma­to­zoa so that each ejac­u­la­tion becomes a poem. So com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, but the two were next to each oth­er in the exhi­bi­tion and they were hug­ging, so hap­py to final­ly meet for real. So, this is kind of a metaphor of how the future will be. Scientists and design­ers need­ing each other.

This is a work com­mis­sioned for the show. Two archi­tects, ArandaLasch, work­ing with the sci­en­tist, nanophysi­cist Matt Scullin, who’s now an entre­pre­neur in pre­serv­ing ener­gy and who is here. Matt pro­vid­ed Ben and Chris with a nanos­truc­ture based on the num­ber six. And on that, Chris and Ben formed the whole law, this algo­rithm, that is almost like leav­en­ing for a land­scape that could be both a land­scape of a city, or a facade treat­ment. You see here the indif­fer­ence to scale that comes from build­ing an object that can grow itself.

And that’s one of the most beau­ti­ful tenets of today’s organ­ic design. Designers want to grow things. Engineers and archi­tects want to grow things, not to make them. It’s some­thing that starts from a law that is with­in, whether it’s the num­ber six nanos­truc­ture, or whether it’s crys­tal as Skylar Tibbetts does at MIT. So, it real­ly is inter­est­ing this inner growth is so impor­tant to sci­en­tists and to artists.

In the same exhi­bi­tion, there was also this great piece. It was alive. It was called Victimless Leather,” and it’s by a group of design­ers and artists that are based in Perth, Australia that is called SymbioticA. It was a lit­tle leather coat that was done using stem cells of mice. And it was quite amaz­ing because it was lit­er­al­ly done this way. I did­n’t tell my MoMA that there would be an incu­ba­tor in the exhi­bi­tion, you know, I just like, let it hap­pen. Columbia University col­leagues made it go and start­ed it. And then after awhile it became too big and one of the sleeves start­ed dan­gling. There was an incu­ba­tor with nour­ish­ment. So I called the artists in Australia, and I asked them, What do I do?” And they said, Oh, Paola, you have to stop it.”

And I was like, What do you mean I have to stop it?” 

And he said, Just turn off the nourishment.”

And I’m like, What? I have to kill the coat?”

And very inter­est­ing­ly, I start­ed hav­ing this moral dilem­ma. I could not real­ly sleep at night. I thought I’m like the Governor of Texas, I have to make a deci­sion of this kind. It was just real­ly quite amazing. 

But that goes to tell you the moral dilem­ma that is instilled by art when it’s well done, or design when it’s well done. And of course when you’re in a moral cri­sis, what do you do? You talk to the press. And I did. There were some peo­ple from The Economist that were tak­ing a tour, and and I told him about it. And they pub­lished it, and it start­ed this amaz­ing debate.

So that’s tru­ly once again where organ­ic design today is based on sci­ence and based on dig­i­tal cul­ture, but it kind of needs the lat­i­tude of art and of design in order to cre­ate real quan­daries that we dive into in order to progress in the future. 

And there are many many design­ers and sci­en­tists as you know that are work­ing on in vit­ro meat, which is a very inter­est­ing dilem­ma. I know the most basic ques­tion is, if you could grow meat in vit­ro with­out hurt­ing any ani­mal and with a foot­print that is decid­ed­ly less than what is hap­pen­ing today, would you eat it? Is it moral? Is it taste? Is it cul­ture? It’s very very interesting.

And this hap­pens on an on again also with the imi­ta­tion of organs and the mod­eliza­tion of organs. I real­ly like what the Wyss Institute at Harvard is doing. They’re try­ing to sim­u­late organs, like full-fledged human organs on microchips, using some basic cells and some nan­otech­nol­o­gy so as to be able to test some med­ica­tions before they go into tri­al, and speed up the whole phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal pro­duc­tion process. And of course that’s what artists do. They sim­u­late brand new organs that we don’t have yet, right? 

So, you see the jux­ta­po­si­tion. Scientists, quite advanced sci­en­tists that are still kind of test­ing their way…artists. I real­ly like that, because that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is what brings all the dif­fer­ent par­ties to new real­iza­tions all togeth­er. So we go back to this idea of the syn­thet­ic aes­thet­ic, of adding a new branch to the way we build and do things.

This is a project by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, the same per­son that did the new dia­gram. And it was a col­lab­o­ra­tion that hap­pened dur­ing I think one of the first iGems. iGem is a com­pe­ti­tion that hap­pens every year at MIT for stu­dents to do some­thing with syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. In this par­tic­u­lar case, Daisy had worked with the team from Cambridge, England to do this redesigned, re-engineered E. coli milk­shake that would be drunk and then would change col­or depend­ing on the enzymes released by dif­fer­ent pathogens in your gut. So in oth­er words, your stool was the diag­nos­tic tool. 

And it real­ly could hap­pen, and it did hap­pen. They test­ed it. So, a sci­en­tist would not nec­es­sar­i­ly think up some­thing like this, and thank god they use their time in a dif­fer­ent way. But that’s when design­ers and artists come into play and real­ly make things hap­pen. So you see, syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy— [audi­ence laugh­ter] Yeah, that was part of the pre­sen­ta­tion I was telling you—that would be the case. Synthetic biol­o­gy, a col­lab­o­ra­tion— This is kind of a at a dia­gram of syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. They actu­al­ly call them Lego—you know, syn­thet­ic bricks, and Andy, who’s a biol­o­gist at Stanford that kind of coined that term. And the iGem team’s here.

To the point that Autodesk has also designed a new virus. Andrew Hessel is their sci­en­tist in res­i­dence. So, syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy is very seri­ous, and right now I’m show­ing syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy to you at this kind of rar­efied lev­el. But there are cit­i­zen sci­en­tist labs that are non-profit that are in all cities the also teach chil­dren how to work at this par­tic­u­lar scale.

Of course, the vision­ar­ies go one step for­ward. Some are design­ing for the sixth exten­sion and think­ing up new organ­isms that can help us get rid of the car­bon monox­ide that we release. Others are mak­ing jew­el­ry out of waste. Or we have Stewart Brand that is try­ing to de-extinct ani­mals that don’t exist anymore.

It real­ly is far-fetched, what peo­ple do. And Steward Brand has also inspired this great design­er from London, who decid­ed to pos­tu­late a future in which women can ges­tate not human babies, but rather endan­gered species. And why not?

So, it’s all up for grabs. But the way we build is one of the biggest rev­o­lu­tions. I was telling you before about Joris Laarman and how he builds his chair using this par­tic­u­lar soft­ware. There are oth­er design­ers that are try­ing to cre­ate a new sup­ply chain by hav­ing just made on time objects that are made of recy­cled. These chairs are made of recy­cled refrig­er­a­tor inte­ri­or. So, it real­ly is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way to think also of the sup­ply chain in an organ­ic way.

Look at how, for instance, Joris Laarman is think­ing also of mak­ing chairs in met­als in the future. So you see here it’s a mix­ture of robot­ics, and instead an ancient sen­si­bil­i­ty for shapes that have exist­ed for mil­len­nia. And that’s when I find the most inter­est­ing design hap­pen­ing. When it’s not about mim­ic­k­ing the future, but it’s build­ing the future with­out for­get­ting the past. It’s quite an amaz­ing way to build. This is met­al slurry.

Other mate­ri­als that are used very often are of course plas­tics and all the laser sin­ter­ing mate­ri­als. But Markus Kayser as you see here does 3D print­ing using the sand of the Sahara desert and the beams of the sun, which is quite won­der­ful. If you see the ves­sels that he makes, they look like they could have exist­ed for mil­len­nia, but at the same time you see the hor­i­zon­tal marks of 3D print­ing. And it’s won­der­ful because it’s some­thing ancient and con­tem­po­rary at the same time. It’s some­thing that could have nev­er hap­pened cen­turies ago, but that was hap­pen­ing already.

Ways to build from the ground up, ways to build har­ness­ing col­lec­tive intel­li­gence or even swarm intel­li­gence. You see here a very very Swiss and won­der­ful piece of archi­tec­ture. It’s the col­lab­o­ra­tion between Gammazio & Kohler, two archi­tects and Raffaello D’Andrea, who’s a robot­ic expert. And you see here that this build­ing is built by robots. And the dig­i­tal plan of the build­ing is sent to their col­lec­tive intel­li­gence so that they can build it the way it’s need­ed to be built. 

So it’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way in which we are approach­ing mate­ri­als. This is more of the work of Neri Oxman that shows how 3D print­ing today can real­ly mim­ic not only more organ­ic shapes, but also more organ­ic ways to build. You know, 3D print­ing has become real­ly the stuff of every­day life for so many, but there are dif­fer­ent ways and dif­fer­ent sophis­ti­ca­tions, and this is one of the high­est ways to mim­ic that kind of organ­ic behavior.

And I want to end by show­ing the amaz­ing work of design­ers that are using mush­rooms to build a lot of dif­fer­ent struc­tures from chairs, of course, to bricks and bridges, to even mor­tu­ary cham­bers. They are using the myceli­um of mush­rooms also to think of new ways to actu­al­ly think of how we mourn and how we bury our loved ones.

And you see here appli­ca­tions of that kind of study. This is a struc­ture that was built in Queens at MoMA PS1 last sum­mer that was all made of bricks made of corn­husk that was kept togeth­er by myceli­um of mush­rooms. And you see the whole tow­er went up, and then it kind of biode­grad­ed in a beau­ti­ful way, as if it were a sped-up decay of a city, of a lit­tle vil­lage in Tuscany. It was quite fan­tas­tic. And here you see instead the work of Ecovative, which is a com­pa­ny that has decid­ed to use—actually they were among the first to exper­i­ment with this material—to have a sub­sti­tute for poly­styrene in packaging. 

There are so many design­ers and archi­tects and sci­en­tists that are work­ing togeth­er, and that are using the intel­li­gence of com­put­ers to insert dif­fer­ent process­es of nature in the way we build so that we will be able to get clos­er to nature in the way we will con­struct the future. Thank you very much.