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Human Problems, Solved by Nature

Words:

Edd Norval
March 3, 2019

Design and creativity have no reason to live separate lives. From an artistic point-of-view, design is a discipline that answers questions. But what happens if the questions are best answered by scientific means? What if a leather chair could be made without an animal? This has long been a limit of design, but that's no longer the case.

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Faber Futures is a London-based design studio with the mantra, 'Learning from nature, making with life.' It grew from a project between studio founder Natsai Audrey Chieza and professor of synthetic biology from University College London's biochemical engineering department, John Ward.


Growing through research into the uses of a particular microbe's ability to dye garments, it grew into a sort of think-tank at the vanguard of an emerging discipline that straddles two usually disparate worlds.


Sustainability and innovation are two underlining features of the studio. In that project, harnessing the power of a microbe, the dye was created using 500 times less water than conventional methods as well as cutting the toxicity of the dye right down. The findings clearly hinted that such thinking could be applied to almost any facet of design and that, with the correct people and processes behind future projects, they were capable of producing findings that could change the world.

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Chieza is no scientist and does not claim to be, but she's not quite an artist either. Her ability to dialogue with scientists pushes her horizons beyond what is expected of an artist, and vice-versa. This combination makes her a sort of applied scientist or practical designer in that theory and conceptual notions take second place behind creating things that actually work. She's cutting through the jargon and noise of science and design to make sure that things actually happen.


This means that her work is highly experimental and some projects will fail. Failure though, in this context, isn't necessarily the same as wider society may view failure. After all, Penicillin was somewhat of an accidental discovery and one that continue to influence scientific practice and thought. What might not work as intended for one project, in this environment (not design studio, nor science lab), might work or influence another project. It's a raw vision that, due to its infancy, is a hotbed for new ideas.


The studio has already looked at using algae for sustainable building materials and the creation of textiles and fabrics without the harmful effects on the environment that occur using traditional techniques.

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Chieza's work jars with tradition. It is a direct challenge to design and scientific dogma. Standard and accepted beliefs carry little weight to her, even less if she can find a better (more efficient, safer or environmentally friendly) way of doing things.


The goal isn't just on a small-scale either. It's not just exhibitions and inspirational experiments that Faber Futures hope to produce, far from it. Larger-scale industry is where the real change happens. Showing that it is possible is only part of the challenge and even at that, it happens every day. Where it's usefulness will really matter is when it gets rolled out on a vast scale and implemented globally. It's here that the most difficult challenge will be faced.


Smashing dogmatic views in your own psyche is one thing and showing those results to interested parties doesn't pose too much bother either, but this is where science can struggle. These groundbreaking discoveries are often presented in an inaccessible manner that's difficult to relate to. Chieza's design background is what sets her hopes of real change apart.


Previously, biotechnology was thought of in the context of drugs and therapeutic treatments, only recently becoming involved increasingly in textiles. However, Faber Futures are working towards a near future where biotech is a normal part of the human landscape, in every aspect it can be used. With the raw ingredients of imagination and our natural world, Chieza and her studio are showing that anything can be possible. Ignore their work at your peril.

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