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In winter and spring 2018, the Department of Design at the University of California at Davis offered a two-quarter course for design, bioscience, and engineering students to collaborate with each other in teams to compete in the international Biodesign Challenge. Although only one team of the seven in our class had the honor of competing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, winning two of the six prizes, the process of bringing teams of diverse students together to work on sustainable biodesign was reward in itself.
Co-taught by myself and biomedical engineering faculty member Marc Facciotti, the class focused on innovating with the material bacterial cellulose, which some know as the "mother" or "SCOBY" in kombucha beverage production. Having been used recently as a material for fashion design (for example, see http://www.kombuchacouture.com/), bacterial cellulose is the purest form of cellulose, since plant cellulose is usually combined with lignin and hemicellulose, requiring extra treatment to remove and soften the material for textiles. We wanted to explore different uses of this material in fashion, packaging, interior architecture, and product design.
The first quarter entailed bringing these diverse students together with a foundation of common knowledge about bacterial cellulose. We lectured on its material properties, the metabolic cycle of bacteria, and invited guest lectures by other UC Davis faculty in dermatology/medicine, food science, and textiles chemistry. Students learned about its use in bandages for wound healing, and to reconsider claims of it being probiotic as part of the drink kombucha, but also potentially as probiotic to the skin microbiome if worn as clothing. They learned the molecular structure of cellulose and how that affects what dyes work well with it, as well as how it might be strengthened.
After being placed in multidisciplinary teams of four students each (ideally, at least one designer, bioscientist and engineer), they defined their innovative approaches. They conducted extensive research to outline the need for their innovation, the problems it addresses, current infrastructure and contexts, and their planned scientific experimentation and prototyping for the following quarter. Teams chose to use bacterial cellulose to create: 1) a genetically-engineered water filter that removes arsenic from contaminated water; 2) fast-fashion shoes with mushroom mycelium soles; 3) a new packaging material to replace Styrofoam peanuts; 4) a diaper with aerogel layer for absorption, where pee diapers could be thrown on the compost pile; 5) an armband with arduino circuits and app to help identify health conditions; 6) a tampon or feminine pad; and, 7) interior wall panels infused with a bacteria that absorbs and breaks down the off-gasing from vinyl and PVC, in order to purify interior air. The winning design, an aerogel diaper grown with citrus agricultural waste, has a circular life-cycle in that it is compostable to grow more fruit for more diapers. At the Biodesign Challenge, the Sorbit Diaper team won Runner-Up to the overall prize and Outstanding Science. Overall, it was a fantastic teaching and learning experience for all.
From the standpoint of the discipline of design – meaning architecture, interiors, products, fashion, graphics, – it is still rare for design students, professional designers and design firms to work directly with biology, including familiarity with laboratory processes. This is as true in the design classroom, which this two-quarter course in 2018 for the Biodesign Challenge at the University of California at Davis Department of Design aimed to change.
"Biodesign" is a new subfield or approach in design that integrates biology into the design process; the term has become popular after William Myers published Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity in 2011. Since then, a number of exhibitions on this topic have been staged, including those associated with the international Biodesign Challenge competition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, beginning in 2016. Biodesign differs from eco-design or green technologies through its dependence in some way upon living organisms in the design ideation or production process and it may or may not involve biotechnology or synthetic biology.
Despite how it may appear, within the design sub-disciplines not all approaches that are referenced as "biodesign" are sustainable, when sustainability is defined by minimal environmental and energetic impact with generational longevity. I therefore define "sustainable biodesign" using the lens and tools of life-cycle assessment with an important goal of achieving closed loop design, which is also referred to as "design for the circular economy." This was therefore a major criteria that students in this class needed to engage.
The process of rapid sustainable biodesign innovation is enhanced by interdisciplinary collaboration between designers, engineers and bioscientists, owing to their complimentary theoretical knowledge, technical training, approaches, foci and skills. Such was our goal when in January 2018, biomedical engineering professor Marc Facciotti and I teamed up to co-teach this two-quarter course.
The goal of the competition is to introduce art and design students to new approaches using biology, biotechnology and synthetic biology as important strategies for considering and achieving sustainable design. While the field of design has strongly emphasized sustainability for the last decade, few art and design students have access to or familiarity with working with living organisms and materials, a process that usually involves working in a laboratory. The competition encourages art and design students to seek out collaborating scientists and labs or DIY spaces to break through the discomfort of unfamiliarity to inspire new modes of design thought and production.
Because UC Davis is a comprehensive university, students entering our course were fortunate to have access to interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate student collaborators, a lab, and mentors from different disciplines. Marc Facciotti directs the student-research-focused TEAM Molecular Prototyping and BioInnovation Laboratory, so we were well prepared to offer students both foundational knowledge in biodesign and access to the tools that teams would need to be able to innovate new solutions.
We sought a balance of students from the biosciences, engineering and design, which we basically achieved in the enrollment along with students from a few other majors on campus. Our class combined students from design, economics, biophysics, biology, cell biology, neurobiology-physiology-behavior, cognitive science, genetics and genomics, animal science, sustainable environmental design, chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, and material science and engineering.
Apart from being the most rewarding teaching experience that I have ever had, with many students in the course saying the same thing about their learning experiences, what does this interdisciplinary process of competing for the Biodesign Challenge demonstrate that is relevant for design education and sustainable biodesign innovation?
This process is like a low-stakes, mini-version start-up innovation and entrepreneurship experience, which is a rare experience to find in design education. In other words, just as start-ups (that already have a good idea) are encouraged to create inexpensive prototypes at the outset in order to learn the most the fastest with the least cost outlay, this interdisciplinary classroom experience (which had minimal lab costs and travel costs for the team) serves as an inexpensive prototype in answer to the question: how can industry innovate for sustainable biodesign?
Having students or employees from different disciplinary backgrounds work closely and rapidly together on innovation is efficient, effective, engaging, and energizing for a number of reasons. To expand upon this with an eye towards teams containing bioscientists, engineers and designers, consider the complementarity of the general core theoretical knowledge, technical training, approaches, foci and skills of individuals trained in each of these three areas.
The projects that our teams tackled and the laboratory experiments and prototyping that were part of their development would never have been possible in twelve weeks if only designers were working together, or only bioscientists, or only engineers. Designers are not trained in designing DNA plasmids or trying to hybridize bacterial cultures to introduce a new bacteria for particular chemical effect in the overall functioning. Yet on a more basic level, even, designers generally are not lab-safety trained, and do not know when to use a vent hood, centrifuge or incubator. They also do not read scientific articles that give them the idea to turn BC into an aerogel so as to attain new material properties that offer increased functionality.
Similarly, bioscientists do not usually conduct user interviews or consider, say, the wall panel forms – shape, color, size – in which the new bacterial colony will be grown and shaped. They are not trained in software that lets them mock-up how the panels will be arranged and function in a virtual interior space. Engineers may be satisfied with attaining predictable functionality – for example, UC Davis's winning iGEM olive oil rancidity detector (2014) -- but leave the human interface of the casing material, ergonomics and aesthetics for a designer to add on later. This sequence extends the timeframe of the overall process of design to production, especially if the technical portions could be arranged differently early on to better final user success and the engineer receives this feedback then.
In the workload distribution during the experimentation and prototyping phase, we observed a complementarity of effort both in terms of skills and action and in sequence. Those more comfortable with laboratory experimentation took the lead early in the quarter as teams tried to discover how they could attain the material functionality they sought. The designers participated in formulating the desired functionalities and in hands-on experimentation, thus gaining very useful laboratory skills. With teammates, they interviewed potential users, conducted surveys, and even talked with innovators at other biomanufacturing start-ups. The designers spent the bulk of their time, however, on collaboratively creating the name and brand, doing photo documentation, designing the poster, website, video, and the finished form of the physical prototype.
When teams of bioscientists, engineers, and designers (as well as other specialists) come together to tackle a problem, aiming for a sustainable biodesign innovation as the result, the process becomes a catalyst for new modes of thought, process, and production. This process stretches each individual beyond her comfort zone, and sparks curiosity and joy from learning something new and accomplishing something not possible by oneself or within one's own discipline.
Perhaps this is why both the instructors and students involved in the Biodesign Challenge two-quarter course at UC Davis found the learning process so energizing, invigorating, and effective. We pushed beyond past practices of having engineers first design a functional product followed by designers then coming in to "touch up" its exterior surfaces or complete the human-centered requirements or branding adjustments. By putting designers into to mix from the outset, their creativity and insights shape the design all the way through, so that each successive iteration has the possibility of being further along or more thoroughly considered at each stage. Similarly, because biodesign entails biology, bioscientists offer crucial insights about the needs and infrastructures of living systems and potentialities or lack thereof of standardized outcomes at the end. Biodesigns are often unique, variable, perhaps even short-lived, although usually death enters somewhere in the production process owing to the need for stable end products to result.
To return to the framework of the field of design, few designers working in the field today have had experience in biology. Introducing them to biodesign and having them learn fundamental biological considerations that come with working with living materials gives them a much deeper understanding of and questioning about what counts for sustainability, and it often shifts their expectations from perfect predictability to the beauty of natural variability. Designers still serve as the intermediaries between industry and consumers, so even in biodesign production, in order to shift the consumer mindset towards greater consciousness of the importance of life-cycle assessment and variability, first we need to accomplish this with designers. The process of interdisciplinary sustainable biodesign innovation is a fantastic way to cultivate this, whether in academia or in industry.