In the last years a new generation of researchers are perceiving the world around us in a different way. They see objects and materials through a multiplicity of properties and features which open different ways to interact with them. They’ve realized that most of the matter is able to respond to energy sources like temperature, moisture, light, pressure, vibration, electricity and this capacity activates a series of possible transformations we can control.
They call them smart materials or programmable matter and their experiments explore how these materials can respond and adapt to environments. At the same time, they are also shaping an alternative way to expand the realm of digital fabrication. The most visible feature of these smart materials is that we can talk about interaction design getting rid of screens, phones and blinking lights because the smartness is programmed in the material itself.
One of the most interesting approach to this field of research is when we can go beyond man-made systems and enter the biological kingdom and this is the focus of chinese-born designer Lining Yao. I stumbled upon the video of her Biologic project published some weeks before where she explains her work at MIT mixing biology, fashion and digital fabrication.
The video shows two dancers wearing Second Skin, a garment developed within the research, which we can see reacting to the change of their bodies’ conditions. When humans exercise our skin is able to take away the excessive heat through sweat and the garments we wear sometimes prevent this process. With Second Skin Lining Yao developed an ecosystem between the textile and the human body because created a bacteria composite, 3d printed it on the flaps of the garment: when the flaps perceive the humidity, they open up to make the skin cool down more easily.
How could this happen? Lining and her Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab have been growing Natto bacteria and exploring how they can be used as bio-actuators – making textile become “alive” reacting to a change of the environment. Natto bacteria have been traditionally used in Japan to ferment food and Lining discovered they have a specific property: they are able to contract and expand according to the level of humidity in the air. From that moment she started to look at them as living nanoactuators which could possibly be controlled by electrical signal and communicate with the virtual world
While digging more in her research, I realized she was landing in Milan at the beginning of June thanks to the invitation from Meet the Media Guru team which organized her keynote speech at the Leonardo da Vinci Science Museum. We had some friends connections in common and I was interested in understanding how much of her research could also be part of a fablab like ours at WeMake. Therefore I dropped her an email to see if she was interested in meeting and visit our makerspace for an informal chat. We met on one of the hottest afternoon of June in a deserted Milan while most of the people left the city for Republic Day bank holiday. Here’s some bits of our long conversation.
Zoe Romano: In one of your talks, you say that instead of imitating nature or being inspired by it, you wanted to do a research to create a dialogue with nature. Do you feel you have you accomplished your challenge with BioLogic project?
Lining Yao: I wouldn’t say anything is really accomplished, for me it’s only a start. I do feel like I’m getting closer to the idea of designing together with nature by the project. It’s my first time working with something living and I realized the frustration of working with something that’s living it gets also exciting in a new way. For example we had to process the bacteria, make the composite, prepare the fabric and do the printing within a few hours. Speed is needed because if the composite stays overnight some bacteria will die and other start to be less active, affecting the adhesive properties on their body and becoming less likely to stick on the fabric.
All these life qualities are harder to control to engineer materials: we are working with biology, with living systems and the process becomes unpredictable. This unpredictability gets interesting when it creates new parameters we can play with. As designers, working with living materials give us an interesting space for imagination because self-replication, mutation and the evolution aspects of those materials are very unique and provide us new tools for design. If I go back to work with wood, for example, now I’m also keeping in mind that wood can self replicate and mutation can be a feature for a new type of object.
Zoe Romano: Natto bacteria, the protagonist of your research, has the property of expanding and contracting according to the level of humidity, acting, at the same time, like a sensor and an actuator. At which level bacteria can really become attached to our garments? Some people asked me: do they survive a journey in a washing machine?
Lining Yao: Our garment is an early prototype and is not water washable yet. Bacteria adhere to fabric now by physical bonding and there’s no magic chemistry to make it permanently bond. If you put it in a washing machine all the bacteria will fall but will not die. These bacteria can survive over billions of years because Natto belongs to the Bacillus subtilis, a family can form a protective endospore turning it into a zombie-mode if nutritions lacks or environmental conditions are bad. In that mode, it doesn’t eat or duplicate but it does not die.
Zoe Romano: What do you think about the DIY communities working on biology, are you in touch with any of the DIY biology lab in US?
Lining Yao: In Cambridge I’m in touch with a group called “Street Bio” initiated by David Komb, phd student at MIT and then Senior Researcher at Lincoln Lab. I didn’t help much but I was among the people who assisted him start from scratch. We got a lot of support from the government and the Cambridge City to approve the lab because there were some bio safety stuff to be managed. We got a lot of recycled machines from Biogen, one of the biggest biotech companies in Boston area. The idea of bringing people on board is really fascinating to those who have authority in the bio-world. I’m sure you could have some support too here in Milan if you want to create a bio-lab here at WeMake.
Biotech is a social issue, the team of “Street Bio” is interested in coming together to discuss topics such as “What’s biology bringing to the community on a bad and a good side?” , “What can biology do for you also beyond medical uses?”, and in a broader sense: “What creative things biology can do? The group made a project called Biota Beat which converts information from human microbiota — bacteria that live on our bodies — and turns it into music.
Zoe Romano: We are now in a makerspace. Our aim is to bring people closer to technology, lowering the barriers to make them become active participants and not mere consumers of tech. In which way could we bring the experiments you are doing in a makerspace? Is it necessary to have a very expensive research lab like the one you have at MIT?
Lining Yao: We had a course at MIT lasting for one week inviting undergraduates coming from different background and it was run in a class that was not at bio-safety level. The theme of the class was origami plant, we were using biologic actuators and providing substrate material, to applying the bacteria and also play with a simulator software. Even if in BioLogic we 3dprinted the bacteria on the fabric, you can actually do it by hand or use screenprinting. It’s not that hard to work with it. You can buy the seeds of the bacteria and grow them in an incubator to keep the correct temperature and start experimenting with them.
Zoe Romano: In the past (before internet), research and experiments were not something people could easily access to them outside of labs. Now there’s a lot of materials, videos, demos online of what’s happening at the level of research and you can really perceive it takes so much time to bring an innovation to the market, and very often it never happens. For example we’ve been seeing and also experimenting ourselves on wearables mixed with e-textiles for the last 10/15 years but it seems companies can’t make it to bring a convincing consumer product in our hands. Do you see an easier path for you and the companies you are collaborating with to create products sold in stores based on your research?
Lining Yao: The fashion designer who worked on BioLogic, partially because of the project, got a very good job at the Nike Explore Team in the innovation lab in Portland. We were discussing on how Nike to us is already an innovative and avant garde company but as the profit is still the driver, they are focused on creating products that are beautiful but also cheap enough to have a market. All these technologies definitely raise the price and if you want to reach the market successfully you really have to hit the need. There are a lot of things that can be really poetic from a design perspective but most of them are not a necessity for daily life. If you hit the necessity you can raise the price, but if you provide just an experience, the price should be low enough for anyone to buy it. We did a calculation and it would not be so expensive to grow bacteria and then screenprint them on fabric, so we’ll hopefully see something on the market in the future.
Zoe Romano: What are the most important ethical questions arising when playing with microbiology?
Lining Yao: Our BioLogic project doesn’t have any issues being raised because we are using very simple functions. I talked to a lot of different biologists and the ethical issues mostly come when you do genetic modifications, trying to change the life itself or modify really critical functions. For example genetically modifying mosquitoes so they don’t bite you or that affect the whole ecosystem. These are the big ethical questions and most of the biologists would not be able to answer you.
Zoe Romano: What is your next step with your research?
Lining Yao: My personal real passion lies in the intersection of science and design, especially researching on new materials. It doesn’t need to be living material or biological. I do a lot with programmable materials that can transform, being responsive and adaptive. I use a lot of 3d printing to engineer materials with specific behaviour and functions. I love to adapt those material systems to a wide variety of design scenarios, for example on furniture and food. How can you engineer materials that can swell differently at the same hydration conditions so you can have different self folding behaviours for flatly shaped food which save transportation costs.
The exchange with Lining stimulated various reflections. It was around 2005 when, for the first time, I heard someone say “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. It didn’t take too long to recognize this as one of the sentences representing the attitude you find in people taking part of the maker movement. Being aware of how technology works and being able to put your hands on it to customize modify devices and objects, is all part of a new type of citizenship which doesn’t want to be left behind in decision making.
The real challenge is to recognize that we can’t shape what we don’t understand, and what we don’t understand but uncritically use ends up shaping our life and society as a whole. Now we are moving from smart devices to smart materials and the knowledge gap to fulfill is still wide.
On one side we need to involve small and medium enterprises in a systemic process of territorial innovation. For example in United States the researchers of MIT are part of the newly formed Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute with the objective of building a sustainable, high-tech ecosystem to enable a manufacturing-based revolution by transforming traditional fibers, yarns, and fabrics into highly sophisticated, integrated and networked systems.
In Europe we’re reflecting on technology within the framework of Responsible Research and Innovation, and also experimenting on how innovation could be developed outside of high-tech labs to become part of an ecosystem of research for societal good (see DSI). Still not much have been done at a national level to address these specific interdisciplinary topics mixing design and biology.
On the other side, institutions and the policy makers should increase the efforts to bring DIYbio and making among the citizens, in order to higher the level of awareness and activation. Fablab and makerspaces, together with science museums and newly conceived libraries could become the spaces where this hands-on awareness-building happen and we could all be contributing to answer the question: “What’s biology bringing to our community?”