Prototypes of Future Nature

How do you design nature?

How do YOU design nature? Whether we like it or not, nature evolves, following its own path towards the future. But is it really its own path? It’s probably fair to say that most people agree that Darwinian evolution is still happening today – natural evolution, survival of the fittest, species evolving to best fit their ever-changing environments. But what about the kind of evolution that some may consider, not so “natural”? Man-made species, genetically modified organisms, test-tube body parts, and creatures that have been forever tweaked by human interference.

These “things”, neither purely natural nor artificial, represent a new frontier – prototypes of future nature. Glimpses at what the future holds for natural organisms. A sort of engendered snapshot of a prediction of evolution, and in some cases, even a seemingly forced evolutionary process. It should come as no surprise that designers have taken an interest in this burgeoning arena of change. Proposing innovative lenses through which to view our inevitably prototype nature-filled future, designers shape this very future in their own way. Adopting the languages and materials of science, designers are beginning to understand the role “of design in a world in which humans have surpassed their Enlightenment roles as neutral observers and have become actors on the very forces of nature.” The merging of science and design is depicted heroically in Paola Antonelli’s 2008 MOMA exhibition, Design and the Elastic Mind and in the accompanying book. In the book’s preface, Barry Bergdoll says, “While the show’s viewpoint is largely optimistic, embracing science and design as agents of progress, there is also a clear undertone of urgency. Together, design and science must deal with the consequences of our ability to engineer natural phenomena.” In a future where it is difficult to differentiate between natural and unnatural, these prototypes of future nature, culled from the merging worlds of science and design, may be what people look to as the source.

Future Evolution, by Amelia Altavena (1986-). Digital illustration, 2010.


An important takeaway from Antonelli’s MOMA show

is that it “is not concerned only with designers who have an interest in the latest scientific achievements, but also with scientists who are (unconsciously or otherwise) engaged in the act of design.” It’s hard to imagine a more striking example of this kind of science/design blend than Craig Venter’s project, partially funded by the US Department of Energy, to design new microbes. The idea of man-made species is not a new one, however, it would seem that the idea is now a reality. Venter’s heavily funded experiments are “part of an effort to create designer bugs to manufacture hydrogen and biofuels, as well as absorb carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases.” This brings us to a vital question: What will a future be like where the things that used to be nature, are instead, designed things? Where will society draw the line? I suppose to some, the possible benefits to engineering natural things to be better than they could have been naturally, outweigh the drawbacks. Microscopic bugs that create biofuel may be the beginning, or maybe genetically modified beef was the beginning years ago, (or maybe still it was the domestication of dogs centuries ago). Either way, what might the middle of this story look like? The end? Imagine if every single natural thing is now engineered to outperform its own natural abilities. One such orange tree grows more, larger, and vitamin boosted superfruits, for more months out of the year. Hypo-allergenic pet dogs are engineered to be more loving, easier to train, and live 3 times longer. And of course, humans will be different to – pick your future body from any number of science fiction movies from the past 50 years.

As you may have expected, it’s about the money.

There’s simply more money in “better” things: wine grapes modified to yield great tasting wine for more months out of the year earn their vineyard more money. Although the business case for Venter’s “designer bugs” may not be as clear-cut, it is an economically driven industry, “…a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms.” Wondering where the “materials” for these synthetic organisms and printed body parts come from? Well, there’s a business for that. Emeryville, California’s BioFab “plans to churn out thousands of free standard DNA parts that academic and private biotech labs can use to create new designer microbes that can make everything from new drugs to fuel.” The mass production of such materials is expected to massively drive down costs of biotechnology work worldwide. Keeping the opensource wetware movement churning on the east coast is BioBricks, an MIT-based non-profit. According to their website, “Using BioBrick standard biological parts, a synthetic biologist or biological engineer can already, to some extent, program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer.” Long live garage bio-hacking.

At a recent TED talk, Craig Venter spoke about his budding abilities to create prototype nature: “…this is software that lets us design species…Changing the evolutionary tree…Speeding up evolution with synthetic bacteria. We’re a ways away from improving people…Our goal is just to make sure that we have a chance to survive long enough to maybe do that.” And Venter isn’t the only scientist on the block looking to progress humanity to a point where people like you and me are benefiting from this same kind of bioengineering work to make us healthier, stronger, and live longer. While Venter’s San Diego lab is cranking out fresh organisms, just down the street, aptly named startup Organovo is showing off its 3-D “bio-printer” capable of building human blood vessels and organs. Yes, dear reader, they are printing out fully functional body parts. For designers it’s probably not hard to grasp the value of creating from scratch – livers, kidneys, and other vital organs that are usually in short supply for patients in need of organ transplants, but making the mental connection to rapid prototyping machines used in the design industry is unavoidable and downright eerie.

Modelmaker at Product Development Company A: “Let me just get this plastic product model out of the machine here, Steve, then you can go ahead and print out that live kidney you were working on…”

It would seem that scientists now have the ability to “grow” almost every part of a human body in the lab. How far away can we be from growing superior versions of these parts and selling them as commodities? Dr. Anthony Atala, one of the pioneers of human bio-engineering and director of the Wake Forrest Institute for Regenerative Medicine proposes a deep future scenario: “I don’t know how long it will take, but I do foresee a future when organs will be available off-the-shelf, ready to “plug in” and replace injured or diseased organs. I believe we’ll have a boutique of technologies that will include tissue engineering and cell therapies and doctors will select the ideal treatment based on the patient’s needs.”

Concerned about the scarring involved with getting cut open to swap in a pair of lungs that will give you 10 times the breathing power? Don’t worry, old-fashioned surgery involving cutting people open won’t be around forever. A team of scientists at the University of Michigan “plans to recreate jaw bones within the human body itself. It will create its bone scaffolding based on a printer laser system and CT scan, and then fill the scaffolding with cells taken from the patient who requires the bone replacement. Once implanted, the scaffolding would get absorbed by the body.”

Horrifying or terrifyingly appealing? Regardless of your moral stance, this work is happening. Scientists are orchestrating a massive shift in our understanding of nature; engaging in acts of design on the natural world and on the human body itself. Designers who imagine this future alongside them have a unique opportunity to apply much needed design thinking to the future of nature.

In the design process, there can often be an element of surprise,

an unexpected result, or even a total accident leading to an interesting outcome. The same applies in nature. Not every case of prototype future nature is as intentional as using software to design new species or growing body parts in the lab. Nature constantly generates things that could be perceived as “accidents” all on its own. That said, there is no doubt that humans have had a profound (and in most cases, damaging effect) on Earth. We have made certain decisions that have forever changed the evolutionary path of almost every other species we have come into contact with. To be more specific, animals that live near our nuclear power plants have a tendency to mutate far more often than their non-nuclear neighborhood inhabiting brothers and sisters. “Scientific illustrator (and coiner of the term “prototypes of a future nature”) Cornelia Hesse-Honegger details these minute mutations in the so-called “true bugs” she collects near nuclear facilities and areas of chemical contamination. True bugs don’t travel far, and they suck the liquid from the plants they live on,” she says. “So if the plant is contaminated, they take a lot of radioactivity into their bodies.’” She “discovered mutations — curtailed feelers, misshapen legs, asymmetrical wings — in as many as 30 percent of the bugs she gathered.” Her illustrations are a beautiful artistic representation of these creatures that are forever changed by human technology, for better or for worse.

Scorpion fly from Reuenthal, Switzerland by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger (1944-). Watercolor, Zürich 1988.


Illustration and science have long been intertwined,

as have design and engineering. Practically since the Enlightenment, scientists have relied on artists to visually depict their discoveries, experiments, and theories. Not until much later though, did artists and designers look to science for visual, physical, and conceptual inspiration.

Christopher Dresser, widely regarded as one of the grandfathers of industrial design was an expert in botany, and his plant studies not only revealed crucial scientific knowledge but also directly inspired his product designs.

Diagram illustrating Lectures on Botany at Marlborough House, by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). Watercolour on paper, laid on canvas. London, 1854-55. Victoria and Albert Museum

Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, was the first artist to look at nature under water with microscopes and recorded a massive array of forms that influenced every designer living at the time. His book, Art Forms in Nature consists of over a hundred semi-fictional illustrations of the ocean creatures he discovered. As with Dresser’s plant illustrations, Haekel’s fantastical forms influenced almost every designer working at the time. Art Nouveau from the ocean depths to your table top.

Diagram illustrating species of Siphonophorae, by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Lithograph 1898. Art Forms in Nature

You know you’re respected by the scientific community when they name a molecule after you. Such is the case with the prolific architect, designer, inventor, and futurist, Buckminster Fuller, after whom fullerenes were named for their resemblance to his best-known invention, the geodesic dome. But Fuller wasn’t just a designer who scientists respected; he used scientific methods to arrive at his groundbreaking designs. Having decided to focus on the problem of shelter, he resolutely looked to technology to provide the solution. “To Fuller, a great technology had already been at work for millions of years – Nature. To look at the way ‘she’ designs the universe was to unlock the most useful direction one could take in designing the artifacts that would make the world work for humanity. Nature’s design was fluid, ephemeral, beautifully patterned. Nature’s technology was dynamic, lightweight, and driven by a functional imperative – optimum efficiency.” Fuller borrowed from nature for his projects because he believed it was perfectly designed and could guide him towards a better solution.

R. Buckminster Fuller, by Boris Artzybasheff(1899-1965). Tempera on board 1963. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.

The likes of Dresser, Haeckel, and Fuller no doubt led the way for today’s scientifically inclined designers, yet the vigor with which the design community has leapt into the realms of bioengineering, genetics, and other cutting edge sciences, has no precedent in history. While scientists lead the crusade towards our bioengineered future, designers pose provocative questions about the implications of that future, develop fictional scenarios of behavior, and design objects that match this imagined evolutionary curve.

Part of his “Biotypography” series, “Typosperma” is Oded Ezer’s project to create cloned sperm designed to each have unique typographical information implanted in their DNA. Ezer’s fantastical creatures literally blur the line between science and design; between Craig Venter’s species designs and the Eameses’ mid-century modernist graphic designs.

“The main purpose of the Typosperma project was to create some sort of transgenic creatures, half (human) sperm, half letter.”

Would you catch a virus for fun? Mikeal Metthey thinks future people will. In a future where all disease has been eradicated by medical technology, Metthey says, “the anxiety associated with disease will be replaced with a recreational approach to illness in which potential patients will check into a ‘counter-spa’ where they will be infected by engineered viruses designed to mimic the [physical and psychological] experience of having a particular malady.” So proposes Metthey’s 2006 thesis project at the Royal College of Art in London, “The Minutine Space”. The project is meant to emphasize the social aspects of being sick and how, in this utopian future, people will actually miss being ill.

In the larger scheme of the science/design overlap, “The Minutine Space” jumps to a fictional future where medical science has taken its course and proposes a design scenario for these future humans.

“Scientists at the University of Western Australia have coined the term ‘disembodied cuisine’ to refer to a new tissue engineering technique that makes it possible to grow edible meat in a laboratory from sample cells.” But what would this in vitro-cultured meat look like, taste like? Interaction designer, James King offers a solution with his “Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow” project: “A mobile animal MRI unit scours the countryside looking for the most beautiful examples of livestock. The selected specimen is scanned from head to toe and accurate cross-sectional images of its inner organs are generated. The most aesthetically pleasing examples of anatomy will be used as templates to create molds for the in vitro meat. We wouldn’t necessarily choose to eat the same parts that we eat today. However, we might still want to recreate a familiar shape to better remind us where the ‘artificial’ meat came from.”

Is that real animal hide you’re wearing? No way man, this is that new stuff – “Victimless Leather”. A small scale prototype of a leather jacket grown in vitro, “Victimless Leather” is a project by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of SymbioticA, a self-described “artistic research lab. “The grown garment confronts people with the moral implications of wearing parts of dead animals for protection, aesthetics, or expression of identity and social class.” “Victimless Leather, on the other hand, offers the possibility of wearing leather without directly killing an animal as ‘a starting point for cultural debate.’”

We are living in a time of square fruit, palm-shaped islands, snow control, and engineered microbes.

“An age in which the ‘made’ and the ‘born’ are fusing.” There can be no doubt that our relationship with nature is in flux. Disregarding any potential moral guidelines around interfering with natural things, scientists and designers are increasingly governing our notion of nature – trees, plants, animals, atoms, climate. Where technology and evolution collide, we arrive at prototypes of future nature, things that we are not yet comfortable relating to. Is this deer natural or robotic? Is my cell phone breathing? During these moments of confusion and adjustment, we may fall back on richer connections to purely industrially manufactured items; things that we can associate with an origin, a natural habitat (be it a Chinese factory or a Walmart).

The blog NextNature “explores our changing notion of nature. How nature™ has become one of the most successful products of our time, yet much of what we perceive as nature is actually a simulation: a romanticized idea of a balanced, harmonic, inherently good and threatened entity. How evolution continues nonetheless. How technology – traditionally created to protect us from the forces of nature – gives rise to a next nature, that is just as wild, cruel, unpredictable and threatening as ever. How we are playing with fire again and again. How we should be careful in doing so, yet how this is also what makes us human.”

Humans are evolution catalysts. Yet we rarely discuss the responsibilities of this job description. We understand product evolution – how one generation of iPhone evolves into the next. And we understand Darwinian evolution in the traditional sense. But is that enough? Do we not also need to dive deeper into the nature designed, prototyped, and built, by people?

If the upcoming movie Splice can serve as an answer, then it does so with a resounding YES. Enjoy:

Seth Snyder

Seth Snyder is an experience designer at Tellart in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in cross-disciplinary explorations through research, brainstorming, concept development, and interaction design. Prior to joining Tellart, Seth graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tellart.

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