Synthetic biology can play an important role in the future of our cities, via economic benefits, functional benefits, and infusing our social spaces with enjoyable, emotional qualities.
We’re living in an age of synthetic biology where we can design and engineer organisms using life’s building blocks such as, fats, proteins, minerals and genetic code.
This is a relatively new practice in science and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what kinds of challenges life’s processes are best placed to address and how we can use these ‘technologies of life’ in everyday situations.
My work looks at how synthetic biology can be used in the built environment to help our buildings be less like machines and more like natural systems.
From a design perspective, the most striking characteristic of synthetic biology is that its materials are uniquely lively - and I wondered how curious it might be if it was possible to invite life’s processes - to be co-authors in an open system of architectural design.
I set out to explore this question working as Nature does, taking a bottom up approach to growing an architectural experience using living building blocks. These are materials that are not alive but possess some of the properties of living things – such as, growth or movement. These properties can be harnessed in the design process to solve challenges. So I did not formalise the outcome at the start of the experiment but left the system open in terms of what it could be come to allow the living building blocks to respond to environmental challenges and take new opportunities as natural systems do.
This is a very different approach to the way we’d normally make architecture, which uses a top down plan, or blueprint and imposes order upon matter.
I also hoped that the living building blocks would grow large enough to produce an immersive experience so that I could see whether this technology could inspire the same Romantic sense of awe in me that Nature does.
I needed to find a way of working that was practical and accessible so I chose an old soap-making recipe to make the living building blocks that I needed. Now, this may not sound very biological but when you add alkali to an oil field to make soap it spreads out and breaks up into tiny droplets that are about one millimetre in diameter and are only just visible to the naked eye.
However, when these droplets are examined under the light microscope they exhibit incredibly life-like behaviours such as, being able to move around their environment, sense it and interact with each other. Each droplet has a unique character and trajectory and as they push their way through the oil field they leave trails of soap crystals behind them. Some of these are remarkably biological in appearance – these are spiral formations and these are in a rose-like configuration.
In order to take this fascinating miniature world from the laboratory into a public space I needed to get the droplets to work together but I did not initially think that I would be able to do this since they behaved in surprising ways. However, all living things respond to food and energy sources and these droplets were particularly fond of alcohol and stampeded towards it. But the droplets were still very small and looked like milky stains on an oil field to the naked eye which was not very attractive and it did not show what was going on so I needed to make the droplets bigger – much bigger. I did this by adding soap which slowed down the chemical reaction and produced droplets that were up to several centimetres in diameter – which enabled me to add simple salt solutions that produced contrast by growing miniature crystal gardens inside them.
But I still had not made the immersive experience I was looking for and thought that a tennis court sized field of olive oil would be the next step. And just as this seemed like a daunting prospect, good fortune struck – I was invited by architect Philip Beesley and engineer Rob Gorbet to collaborate in a tennis court sized installation called Hylozoic Ground for the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. We divided the droplets into separate containers and hung them in the responsive, cybernetic matrix like golden fruit, which changed colour in the presence of carbon dioxide. I likened them to artificial smell and taste receptors as they responded to dissolved chemistry in a similar way to our own sensory system.
I would love to say that this installation inspired in me the same kind of awe that nature does but it did not – it provoked a different kind of experience – an emotional space that tickled, tasted and smelled its inhabitants.
By the middle of this century most of us will be living in cities and there may not be much room for the Nature that we know. Synthetic biology is likely to play an important role in the future of our cities. It will bring economic benefits such as, the production of biofuels as alternative energy sources. It will bring functional benefits by recycling wastewater and removing pollutants but it also has the capacity to enhance our subjective well being by infusing our social spaces with emotional qualities that we can share and enjoy.
After all, a city is not a story about its technology but one of its people and a really great city is one whose inhabitants are happiest when they’re at home.
This essay is from the notes delivered at a TEDU talk