Text: Jens Persson
Designers give form and function to things, relations and
societies. But what's the next step in the evolution of design?
Recent trends suggest that it will involve exploring the evolution
of our own species, and all living things for that matter. Biology,
that is. In the early 2000s, Steve Jobs famously predicted that
"the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the
intersection of biology and technology". Today, biodesign is a
rapidly developing field with the capacity to create both
excitement and skepticism, along with extreme visions of utopian
and dystopian worlds.
When we start to incorporate living organisms as building blocks
in the design process, it presents us with vast opportunities. At
the same time, the mere notion of tampering with the human biology
raises potentially divisive discussions ranging from ethics, to
integrity, to philosophy. When students from the IxD programme
kicked of a project exploring new innovations in biodesign, the
purpose was not to steer clear of such controversial conversations.
Rather, it was to provoke them.
Pioneering biodesign on the curriculum
Marije de Haas, PhD in speculative design and communication
design lecturer at UID, is part of the team of teachers pioneering
the subject of biodesign within the UID curriculum.
"Even though we would have enjoyed working in a non-Covid world,
we did experience some uniquely positive opportunities, such as the
involvement of external experts spread out across the world. I
think all teachers and experts are in awe of how the four student
design teams adapted to this unusual way of working as well as
liaising with varying disciplines and materials while navigating a
new landscape that presented both complexity and uncertainty", says
Marije de Haas.
Remote education interactive space on the Miro
The course is part of the 'Biodesign
Challenge', an international education programme and
competition. The core teaching team included Marije de Haas and
fresh MFA IxD alumnus Ivan Kunjasic, whose grad project from last
year was a biotech wearable for people suffering loss. They were
partnered by Giulia Tomasello, an interaction designer exploring
female healthcare through biotechnology. Another key contributor
was Teresa Frisan, Professor in Cell and Molecular Biology at Umeå
University, who incidentally tutored Ivan Kunjasic during his
'Equilibrium' grad project for UID20.
For Romy Koppert, first-year student at the MFA Interaction
Design Programme, the course represented her very first taste of
"The topic was completely new to all students in my team.
Biodesign offers an entirely different set of opportunities
and challenges than we're accustomed to. Having completed the
course, I now believe that biodesign could have a real impact,
first and foremost by opening up people's perspectives. Through
designing with living things, we can tap into almost untouched
areas. The future relationships we will build with biodesigned
products and services will be vastly different from the ones we
have with inanimate things, because living things carry
characteristics that are closer to our humanity", says Romy
Cooking with kombucha
The course kicked off with a couple of intense and eventful
weeks, where students took an academic deep dive into all matters
at the intersection of biology, technology and design. Then, it was
time to start physically experimenting with living materials, for
example the fermenting of kombucha. The student kitchen at UID
became the messy exploration space where the young designers cooked
up an abundance of strange concoctions in order to create their own
bio plastics or bio textiles.
during the intense cooking sessions in the UID kitchen
Before soon, the four groups of students had identified their
individual design directions. Using sweat, smell and hormones as
bio trackers they began devising a range of interactive biodesign
products, as well as sketching the speculative design futures where
they could be set.
One such design concept is OLFi, a biological olfactory
interface that brings smart home products to life, through smell.
The team, consisting of Alex Widua, Cornelia Hulling and Yanyi Lu,
wanted to bridge biology and technology while reflecting on human
relationships with smart devices. Their final concept is a design
speculation on what might happen if microorganisms could give life
to our smart devices and allow them to express "emotions" through
smell. Quite simply, a body odour system for our smart home
"We really came across the idea of focusing on smell by chance.
We realised that it's a subtle but inescapable part of daily life,
as well as human-to-human interaction. It is not very common
in human-computer interaction, though. Olfactory interfaces have
been explored within interaction design before but the difficulties
of synthetically recreating smells have made it hard to implement.
Working with microorganisms to create the smell for us opened up
many new possibilities", says Cornelia Hulling.
With OLFi, the design team wants to shine a light on the mutual
perception gap between humans and smart technology. Today, these
devices can often sense our movement and behaviour in different
ways. There are, however, few opportunities for us humans to sense
the actual behaviour and computational processes of our smart home
devices. Cornelia and her fellow designers wanted to explore if
there was a way to create a more symbiotic, two-way communication
between people and their smart products.
The smell-incuding OLFi
biodesign concept under development
"Smart devices often carry a big influence on our daily lives,
yet they have a quite subtle physical presence. We can see this in,
for example, the development of ambient computing and calm
technology. In this project we went in the other direction and made
the presence of technology more pronounced. What if Amazon's Alexa
had a body odour that changed depending on her activity? Do we want
to start closing this gap of perception, and what would it mean if
we did?", says Cornelia Hulling.
Sweating on the use of bio data
Another key element of human biology, sweat, became the stepping
off point for one of the other student design teams, consisting of
Barbara Schußmann, Jan von Loeper and Ruoyun Wang. They utilized
hormonal data, specifically cortisol levels in our sweat, to create
an app and a digital platform called Swyre, that measures feelings
of stress. To gather the hormonal data, the team developed a neck
patch that can measure cortisol levels in sweat droplets. The data
is then sent to a mobile application allowing people to monitor
their own stress levels in real time. Simultaneously, the hormonal
data is linked to the user's broader range of digital platforms
initiating shifts in personal algorithms geared towards activities
that can reduce elements of stress in our everyday life.
At the outset, this interactive product might seem helpful and
harmless. But can we trust our smart products to give substantiated
health advice based on raw hormonal data? And what happens when
corporations and state entities begin harvesting our bio data?
Already today, through health and fitness apps, tech companies have
started tracking, and collecting, our bio data.
The Swyre app displaying stress
levels in real time
"With our design concept, we want to highlight the ethical
issues tied to the use of bio data. By visualizing how hormonal
data can generate dark patterns in everyday apps we wanted to
underline the ethical concerns that might arise with biodesign when
there's a lack of transparency. As data has now become the most
valuable resource of the 21st century, the influence algorithms
have on our way of life continues to grow stronger. The aim of our
project is to raise ethical questions on what responsibility we as
designers have when it comes to the future of bio data", says
Teaming up with nature
The overall experience of designing with living things prompted
students to view current trends in design from a different vantage
point. Through the lens of biodesign, they were able to freely
explore speculative future scenarios without being bogged down by
"conventional" design thinking. The unpredictability of working
with living organisms offered something else. Sometimes it was
clarity of vision, other times it was just losing control of the
process and allowing nature to take the lead.
"Since most possibilities within biodesign have not yet been
explored, it automatically makes us think beyond what is possible
today. It triggers speculative designs that are created to be
thought experiments and conversation starters, rather than finished
consumer products. I believe that as humans we are conditioned to
forge different relationships with living things. We are able to
relate to them more, to care for them in a different way. To me,
this presents endless design opportunities", says Romy Koppert.
STUDENT DESIGN CONCEPT VIDEOS
Team: Alex Vidua, Cornelia Hulling, & Yanyi
Team: Barbara Schußmann, Jan von Loeper &
Team: Dongheng Wu, Christoffer Pedersen,
Charlotte Philippe & Connie Jehu
Team: Romy Koppert, Linda Kraft & Nina