Material reality: exploring the future of biodesign at Frame Awards with Natsai Audrey Chieza
In a 2017 TED Talk, biodesign firebrand and Frame Awards jury member Natsai Audrey Chieza outlined fashion’s enormous pollution problem, citing society's fossil fuel dependency as responsible for skewing our understanding of realistic production. But she presented a hopeful solution: the biodesigner had identified a way to alternatively dye textiles with Streptomyces coelicolor, a bacterial strain that produces a pigmented molecule. The finding ‘completely transformed her practice as a materials designer’ – from it, she understood how ‘nature was going to completely revolutionize how we design and build our environments’.
Fast forward, and Chieza has two years under her belt as the founder-director of London-based multidisciplinary design agency Faber Futures. A practice that ‘operates at the intersection of nature, technology and society’, Faber Futures helps clients across industries implement frameworks that address resource scarcity, climate change and sustainability using design thinking. Their work effectively postulates a future where humanity has the tools to work toward, not against, symbiosis with nature.
During the Frame Awards 2020 day programme, Chieza will come together with Klarenbeek & Dros founder Eric Klarenbeek, Open Cell director Helene Steiner and Central Saint Martins’ biodesign course leader Nancy Diniz to explore in conversation whether biomaterials can be the basis of a building a sustainable economy – and, if so, how we can move from material innovation to widespread implementation.
We take a holistic approach so that our futures go beyond being somewhat sustainable to actually equitable
You started working with bacterial dyeing in 2011 and founded Faber Futures in 2018. The conversation surrounding the climate crisis and sustainable solutions has greatly intensified in that short time. Has your practice changed in the past two years?
NATSAI AUDREY CHIEZA: Not really. I think we’re still too early. [Laughs] What I mean by that is that we are still at year zero – I’m very excited about where we’ll be five, ten years from now. While there’s certainly a cultural shift and growing demand, in terms of the actual doing rather than the talking-about and hoping-for, industry is decades behind. So our practice is really about formulating what that ‘doing’ really is, whether it means helping our clients with an innovation strategy that incorporates biotechnology in some capacity, creating a shift in mind-set within established companies or emerging ones, integrating design thinking into their technology provision, or developing a holistic approach for understanding how technology lives in the real world. Our clients come from all different industries. Primarily what they have in common is that they all understand that a shift is at a play, that technology has a part to play in that and that the solution space is very wide.
But it’s still extremely early for this to become the ubiquitous way of thinking and doing. Our approach at Faber Futures is something unique in that we take that holistic approach to technology provision and development so that our futures go beyond being somewhat sustainable to actually equitable. By the time that you start talking about equity, you have to start asking ‘Equitable for whom?’ So we do have a way to go. [Laughs] That’s why I wouldn’t say that our practice has changed, but rather that we are exploring lots of different avenues to think about how change gets made, from the material to the cultural to the true advancement of technology. It’s a learning process for us, as much as it is for people who want to be a part of that change.
You can’t sustain industry as it is while sustaining life
Do you think the term sustainability is overused? How can we work toward a better understanding of what it means to be truly sustainable?
I find it inconsequential as a word, because I’m more interested in what people do and less in the names they give to what they do. I obviously understand the power of language and the role that it plays in shaping our vision of a history, of a future – I do believe that it’s very important to be able to name the intention. But sustainability is shorthand for lots of different things. My question is – how do we start to qualify that action? What are we sustaining precisely, the argument against sustaining the status quo – which is what it feels like the industry is trying to do – versus sustaining life on this planet? Sometimes those two things are not compatible. You can’t sustain industry as it is while sustaining life. The word does have context, and I think people need to be able to qualify precisely what they mean when they’re talking about sustainability. I don’t think we’re there yet.
I also believe people who have a problem with the word sustainability think that everyone has a problem with it, without realizing that most people don’t even think about it. I got asked recently if I’m tired of talking, if I should do less speaking engagement. I thought ‘Gosh, the presumption there is that everyone is on the same page’ – but there’s so much to do, so much further to go. The idea of sustainability is so subjective that I find it tedious to wrangle about whether or not it’s a useful word. What we should be wrangling about is where action is happening and how it can be calibrated to actually meet the expectations that people have for the environment and their place in it.
One of the points you’ll discuss during the Material Reality panel discussion is how we can move from innovation to implementation. We clearly have a long way yet to go, but how can design be more proactive in getting there?
Biodesign is a very nascent field. On that basis, companies that are interested in picking up some of it as an innovation strategy need to start building intelligence as to what those opportunities are and how they intersect with their supply chain, so they can start to understand the scale of the investment required to implement these changes. Taking something out of R&D into a pilot into something scalable – this can’t happen in two years’ time. People’s expectations around what innovation means need to have a more long-term perspective of the work that they’re doing to meet some of these challenges.
Industry needs to conceptualize biodesigners as co-developers rather than suppliers alone
From a design point of view, from an architectural point of view, engineering and the like, I think it is about asking what the objective is, what learning is needed to equip the organization with to be able to meet those objectives – what are the R&D and testing timelines, what are the regulatory frameworks? How can we be part of creating that? That proactive, holistic approach is the attitude that people need to carry. For us to converge intelligence optimally to develop these new capabilities, industry needs to conceptualize biodesigners as co-developers rather than suppliers alone, in the same way that biodesigners have been co-developing with scientists, with engineers, with synthetic biologists. The industry needs to understand that the expectations of scale based on what petroleum enabled is not compatible with the logic of planetary boundaries. That new paradigm, that's what we need to figure out together.
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