Designing with nature and textile materials.

There is cross-collaboration in multiple domains caused by scientific research and propelled by global needs such as the urgency to implement cleaner technologies where economy, society, and environmental protection can thrive. How might we move towards regenerative systems with textile materials?

Photo by Alexandra Mateus

Some years ago, I got inspired by the work developed by Suzanne Lee on bacteria-grown clothes with reduced environmental impact encouraging bio lab practices. Also, Neri Oxman on designing at the intersection of tech and biology. Later, in Eindhoven at the DDW (Dutch Design Week), I saw other examples, such as making materials from living organisms, which made me understand the field was gradually gaining visibility in the design community. Science, Tech, and Design were cooperating to foresee resilient futures.
I got even more inspired when I came across the online platform The Next Nature Network and realized how microorganisms might chemically modify the metal, allowing it to dissolve. I thought it could overcome the e-waste we produce, considering that many of us may have more than one smartphone, laptop, and other tech products at home. Later, three years ago, I was amazed by the brilliant talk given by Carole Collet at Fotografiska — Designing for the Bio century, which made me feel even more intrigued about how to design with living systems in mind and develop new production processes.

I started to feel sensitive about the materials in which clothes are made of. I was at a Christmas dinner that year, and my cousin gave me a fleece made of polyester. I was nice and said thank you, but I internally felt that people could be more conscious once offering gifts. It made me wish to attend the bacteria grown workshop I was eyeing up at CIID in Copenhagen on Biodesign inspired by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — designing by nature and aiming for resilient futures.

We are still living in a world where consumption is continuing faster, driven by the availability of cheap petroleum — still, a world of fast fashion. Most of us know it must cease, yet some of us continue to participate. With its social and economic fallout, a different reality has emerged. Designers face unprecedented urgency to alter their methods and reprioritize goals to address the accelerating degradation of the environment. This pressure uncovers ethical, technological, and economic demands and our responsibility to preserve Nature.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. — Richard Buckminster Fuller.

In 2012, George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer) declared that synthetic biology is one of eight key technologies that can expect greater investment and aiming to boost the world economy. We can now design new species in a computer, we can design a genome, we can print the DNA, we can create an organism that never existed on a planet before. We can tailor the organism to produce bespoke substances that could be useful for the environment. By doing so, it relies on biological principles of producing with very few elements and very little energy.
The practice of do-it-yourself biology and the convergence of fields to support the ongoing effort to alleviate the negative impact caused by the legacy of the industrial revolution is leading to design principles that value regeneration and sustainability.
Designers are beginning to tackle the process observed in the living world, where natural systems achieve near-perfect economies of energy and materials. In the context of sustainability and textile materials, the concepts, prototypes employ new biotechnologies aiming to overcome issues caused by the linear economy.

We need to shift how we practice design, how we teach and learn about design. The change can only happen when we co-create. Research and industry shall focus on the role of science, design, tech, and innovation in support of more effective policies and actions towards sustainability in textile materials.
Taking the Christmas gift as an example led me to reflect on how might we, as designers, are able to adapt to our current needs in textiles, and gradually overcome fast fashion. We need to build a framework on how we observe, translate, speculate, roadmap, collaborate, recalibrate so that we can pioneer in the field of the circular economy.
We need to change a set of hierarchies in how we design with nature, how we reference nature. That might take us back to horticulture, working into a lab with synthetic biology towards an interconnected future, sustainable, circular, and mindful. We have to incorporate ethical issues, on how far we should go with living systems.
We must focus on the whole value chain, and invest in local cycles. We are then cooperating with nature and shifting mindsets for the long run. We speculate ways to replicate nature, develop a range of solutions adapted to our era — the Anthropocene. We adapt to our current challenges and enable resilience.