Natsai Audrey believes raw materials for products of the future will come from microbial life

Featured in Frame #107's material-themed Frame Lab, Natsai Audrey grows bacterial prints on silk scarves. The design researcher offers her perspective on material sources of the future:

How do grown materials fit in the future of materials in general?
NATSAI AUDREY: Climate change is the biggest challenge humanity faces and it’s plain to see that designers are major producers and therefore huge emitters. My research is driven by one key notion: Post Fossil Fuel Materiality. Rather than drilling for oil and turning it into a plastic bottle that can be recycled (using energy from oil) into another artefact that can be recycled (using energy from oil) – you get the idea – we can now suggest growing a compostable bioplastic from fungus.

Following this logic, there is a potential that so much of our material world can be grown from bacteria that have evolved a zero-waste metabolic capacity to produce specialized products that can be harnessed as alternatives to current material artefacts and manufacturing practices. So just as we had a period of mass discoveries of antibiotics, we are now entering a period of discovery for raw materials and systems of manufacture for products and services through microbial life.

Why are they important?
Designing with living systems offers a new paradigm of manufacture that presents us with an opportunity to design strategic design, fabrication, and market interventions that are wholly to do with the fact that the technology is renewable and also alive. The impact on the fashion industry for this is potentially huge, especially if we consider the distribution of goods that can be grown as they are transported.

It may also be the case that a culture of DIY biofacture is further enhanced by collaborations between stakeholders we haven’t seen come together yet: could Nike & Philips provide a wardrobe (incubator) and DIY biofabrication kit for the home – one that intermittently dyes your clothing so that inherent desire for individual customisation is perpetually fulfilled? Value systems associated with the visibility of fashion manufacturing systems and labor would also be radically challenged. 

What are the limitations right now? How do you see this area developing in the future?
From my perspective, the main challenges faced by designers in this space is forging research partnerships and funding streams that acknowledge this amazing crossing of disciplines. There are key examples of start-ups that have gone into full-scale production of living materials including Ecovative, Bolt Threads and bioMASON, but it’s an emerging industry. A key step is to bridge education with innovation, and we are likely to see more examples of post-graduate courses that train future makers and contributors to this space. 

Read further into the topic of smart materials in Frame #107 Material Futures. The Nov/Dec 2015 issue dissects the fabric of tomorrow. Find your copy in the online Frame store.

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