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Forward-thinking designers across all disciplines are seeking to harness the power of nature’s super-efficient circular systems, as we start to realise that working with nature rather than against it provides the best hope for the planet and its inhabitants.

Nature is amazing. Over many millennia, it has evolved perfectly circular systems that encompass the planet at all levels, from single-celled organisms to the complex, diverse ecosystems of rainforests and oceans. Living organisms take nourishment, use energy and return it in equal measure; there is no waste as everything eventually rejoins the circle, which is self-replenishing and self-supporting. Humans are the only species which regularly and systematically takes out more than it puts back. Earth Overshoot Day calculates the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. In 1970 it was 29 December; in 2018 it fell on 1 August.

Can we reassess our relationship with our beleaguered planet by following nature’s organic model, applying its efficiency to create new ways to create and consume, building systems that are healthy and functional rather than exploitative and polluting? Change leaders across disciplines from industry and the built environment to food and fashion are looking to nature’s examples – with designers, as the linchpin structure makers, at the forefront. There is a new fascination with the imperfect and the irregular, as designers take the leap of faith that allows them to give materials themselves the freedom to influence the final form. This fresh realisation of the potential of the organic is in part driven by the predicament of plastic: once seen as miraculously versatile, cheap and durable, its longevity is driving us to the brink of environmental disaster.

As discussed in Viewpoint Design #42, Guilt – Free? we are finally becoming aware of the damage caused by current systems of design, manufacture and consumption, to the planet and its people alike. High-performance tech developments are part of the solution, but, as we begin to question the value and impact of everything we make, we are also celebrating the stuff of nature – with all of the beautiful, unpredictable, diverse irregularities inherent in natural processes. Thinkers, designers and consumers are ready to embrace organic principles, seeking a whole-system approach that is adaptive, responsive, resilient and circular, taking its inspiration straight from nature.

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Crafting Plastics!


The 1970s were a decade of environmental stewardship. People had seen the Earth from space for the first time – there was a new realisation of both its beauty and its vulnerability. This eco-awakening was driven by thinkers such as designer, author and activist Victor Papanek, author of Design for the Real World (1971), which is still one of the most widely read books on design and inclusion, sustainability and social justice. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E F Schumacher (1973) pointed out the unsustainability of treating the world’s natural resources as infinitely exploitable; Schumacher, a highly respected economist, proposed a philosophy of ‘enoughness’.

Both these books, published around a half-century ago, suddenly seem extraordinarily modern in their thinking. Principles that were derailed by the greed-is-good ethos of the 80s are back. Thinkers in various disciplines, including economics and industrial production, previously perhaps not obvious partners for nature-derived models, are re-acknowledging that our current, largely linear consumption model – one that takes, exploits and discards – is unsustainable. There is growing awareness that we need to rethink rapidly, and one proposition is considering the world’s economies and industries as entities that can be modelled on natural systems – achieving a balance that can benefit humanity as a whole.

Industrial ecology considers industry as a man-made ecosystem, and uses natural ecosystems and the ways they repurpose waste and by-products as a model for industrial systems, while still meeting demand efficiently. As with many environmentally friendly initiatives, Scandinavia is a pioneer: industries in Denmark and Finland have been exploring this approach for some decades.

Human ecology is the study of humans’ relationships with their natural, social and built environments. The Human Ecology Talks programme is hosted by the B Corp-certified Invivo healthcare company, which aims to restore human health and ecology through ethical bioscience applications. It brings together thought leaders across diverse disciplines, asking how we can use modern technologies to redefine a healthy modern ecology. The first series of talks was held in October 2018. Speakers included Carole Collet, professor of design for sustainable futures and director of the Design & Living Systems Lab at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, who discussed the ways that biodesign can bring design and biology together, and Mark Aink, brand activist and founder of the Native Circles accelerator for conscious brands, who explored treating companies like living systems.

Kate Raworth describes herself as a ‘renegade economist focused on exploring the economic mindset needed to address the 21st century’s social and ecological challenges’. She holds various prestigious academic posts, including senior visiting research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and her 2017 book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways To Think Like A 21st-Century Economist offers a new economic model that focuses on human wellbeing and care of the planet rather than on growth at all costs – the traditional goal of economics.

The aim of economic activity, says Raworth, should be ‘meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet’ – we should seek economies that ‘make us thrive, whether or not they grow.’ This means radically altering our understanding of how economics works. The doughnut image (important to note it refers to a ring doughnut, not a filled one) illustrates that we all need to live in the doughnut itself, not the empty middle where there are insufficient resources, nor outside the doughnut, where we inflict environmental damage. The current industrial system is fundamentally flawed, she observes, ‘because it runs counter to the living world, which thrives by continually recycling life’s building blocks.’ Could nature be the ultimate teacher of economics?

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Biomimicry or biomimetics is a term popularised by biologist Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute. It refers to the application of biological models to human problems – Benyus’s book Innovation Inspired by Nature, first published in 1997, proposes that we emulate nature’s designs and processes, to work towards a healthier, more sustainable interaction with the planet. ‘Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world – that’s the switch. That’s the profound switch,’ according to Benyus, who has applied the principles of biomimetics in sectors as diverse as aviation, big pharma and fashion.

Examples in architecture can be as simple and familiar as using the sun for heating, or as complex as designing buildings that can construct and repair themselves using bio-based materials. The latter is one of the aims of Biohm, which hopes to ‘contribute to the creation of completely self-sufficient and self-assembling living buildings’. This may seem a far-off dream but the company’s Triagomy construction system, introduced at UK Construction Week 2017, is at the development stage.

Biomimicry is also under investigation at Central Saint Martins’ Design & Living Systems Lab, which is at the forefront of the field. Knowledge emerging from life sciences is beginning to offer extraordinary potential for future fabrication and manufacturing, according to the laboratory’s mission statement, which adds that not only are we are beginning to explore the advantage of biological systems in terms of zero waste and minimum use of energy and materials, but also, with synthetic biology, scientists have developed means to biofabricate as nature does. ‘We can program and engineer living organisms to grow tailored materials. Such extraordinary tools can trigger a paradigm shift in terms of design and manufacture for the future.’

We may thus one day talk about ‘growing’ rather than ‘making’ or ‘constructing’ our buildings and the products we fill them with. Designers across the world are working with a range of biomimetic materials; for example, Sebastian Cox (see the Studio Visit feature in this issue), in collaboration with Ninela Ivanova, is developing a biofactured range of compostable furniture, combining the properties of wood and mycelium fungus to grow the pieces – working to the principle of ‘traditional as radical’.

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Rewilding is most often associated with reintroducing key species to natural environments, to restore biodiversity and re-establish natural food chains. In his 2013 book Feral, George Monbiot suggests that rewilding ‘could repair the living planet, creating ecosystems in post-industrial nations as profuse and captivating as any around the world.’ Increasing numbers of people today live in cities; but the urge to reconnect with nature remains strong, and biophilic designs that draw directly on nature can be applied to urban environments as well as brands and products, bringing a natural element to day-to-day life and enhancing health and wellbeing.

Arup, multinational engineering and design company for the built environment, believes in the benefits of reconnecting with nature to create resilient, healthy cities. ‘Rewilding could create dynamic, ecologically rich urban landscapes with a sense of time and seasonal change, reduced management costs and increased social equality,’ writes Arup landscape architect Phil Denton. ‘Reconnecting people with nature is a self-sustaining process as they become more educated, and develop a stronger connection and a sense of stewardship to the natural world around them.’

The contradictory nature of society’s relationship with the rural was mapped in Hauser & Wirth Somerset’s spring 2018 exhibition The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind, which explored humanity’s evolving connection to nature, from the meditative hermits of the 10th century to a contemporary aquaponics system that integrated fish and plants. In 2019, the XXII Triennale di Milano will explore this further, around the theme of Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, surveying human bonds with the world’s complex natural systems in projects from objects to buildings, infrastructures and cities, and highlighting design examples that repair and reconstitute those bonds.

Leaving the city and pursuing post-urban life allows natural reconnection; City Quitters, by Karen Rosenkranz, portrays creative pioneers pursuing alternative ways of living and working away from big cities. In the city or out of it, however, it seems clear that some connection with nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative, a theme explored in The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

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While technology is at the forefront of many of the initiatives seeking to re-establish harmony with the planet, there is also a reappraisal of tradition and a fresh realisation that many ancient materials, used for centuries, are as efficient and sustainable as synthetic alternatives. Responsible management and production of resources such as timber, leather and wool brings these familiar materials back into the spotlight – with a new emphasis on sustainability. J&FJ Baker, for example, runs the only remaining oak bark tannery in the UK; not only is the process gentle and environmentally friendly, it produces luxury quality leather. The latest campaign from Woolmark promotes the natural, breathable qualities of ‘the original performance fibre’.

In food too, some of the world’s most prestigious chefs are turning back to long-established techniques such as fermentation – famously a culinary pillar at Copenhagen’s Noma, which has been named the world’s best restaurant four times, and has focused on local ingredients since it opened in 2003. Fermentation is not only an efficient and natural way to preserve foods, it’s also healthy – and makes for delicious dishes. ‘It’s a natural process and way of being, and ultimately the future of cooking,’ Noma co-owner René Redzepi tells Forbes.com.

The Mold editorial platform and magazine is dedicated to the future of food; not only does this encompass emerging ideas such as cellular agriculture and 3D food printing, it also emphasises circularity, citing design as central to the creation of sustainable systems for growing, harvesting, preparing and serving food.

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A new generation of designers are looking to alternative sourcing, exploring the possibilities of ubiquitous natural materials that have previously been almost entirely unexploited at scale, using both high-tech and traditional methods to tap their qualities.

Seaweeds and algae are among the best ‘super-natural’ examples: resilient, plentiful and readily harvestable. Algae is revealing its potential as a source of biofuel, a fertiliser and a foodstuff for both humans and animals. Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros, working in the Algae Lab at Atelier Luma in Arles, France, are refining an algae-derived bioplastic that they hope will eventually replace plastics made from fossil fuels; the ultimate aim is to allow consumers to use the biopolymer to 3D-print items locally. Other innovators are developing biodegradable and edible packaging, including the Ooho water bottle and Loliware’s edible cups, both made from seaweed. ‘As shops ditch plastic packaging, seaweed will take over,’ Ooho’s Pierre-Yves Paslier confidently predicts. At the simpler end of the scale, A Drive for Seaweed sees Design Academy Eindhoven recent graduate Ruth Klückers motoring around Europe, encouraging people to harvest, prepare and cook seaweed; in the UK, Margate-based Haeckels uses locally hand-foraged seaweed in its skincare products.

Hemp is another widely available, often overlooked material with surprisingly diverse qualities; it can be used in food, medicine, fabrics, cosmetics, bioplastics and as a clean energy source. Growing hemp is carbon-negative: the plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away. At Margent Farm in Cambridgeshire, hemp is processed into sustainable alternatives to the plastic, metal and cement board used in conventional building practices, and used to construct affordable eco-structures. ‘Whether we’re building a shed or a spaceship, our aim is to conscientiously grow and process adaptable and highly efficient products from, and for, the earth,’ say the founders. HoodLamb, based in Amsterdam, transforms hemp fibre into stylish garments, including supremely warm hooded parkas, using tailoring that combines the hemp fabric with faux fur made from recycled PET.

In keeping with the way that nature wastes not one speck of anything, makers are also reconsidering waste streams as rich resources, drawing on everything from hair, shit and dust to industrial pollutants. FranklinTill’s book Radical Matter discusses alternative abundance in depth, profiling the pioneers already finding the value in creating with ‘waste’ and responding nimbly to the challenge of finding alternatives to conventional materials.

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Nature is the master of symbiosis – adaptive, fluid interaction. Regenerative whole systems can be translated into a flexible, responsive approach to the production/consumption cycle. The Materiom international non-profit platform draws together design, digital fabrication, ecology and material science, seeking to ‘unlock a 21st-century materials economy that is regenerative by design.’ The Materiom interdisciplinary team is ‘passionate about developing, testing, and sharing materials that regenerate our local, regional, and global economy and ecology.’

Following similar principles, Jakartan fashion label Nikicio has introduced bags made from the roots of the cassava plant, readily available in Indonesia; the bags take just 180 days to dissolve after use. In southern India, The Malai biocomposite is grown on agricultural waste from the coconut industry; sheets of durable, flexible Malai can be used in similar ways to leather or paper and the material can be composted at the end of its first life. Fernando Laposse’s Totomoxtle material, derived from corn husks, is not only sustainable in itself – it encourages farmers in Mexico to grow richly coloured heritage corn varieties, promoting biodiversity as well as celebrating the corn’s brilliant natural hues.

At the London Design Festival 2018, the Crafting Plastics studio presented Nuatan, an oil-free bioplastic made from renewable resources, again compostable. ‘The material of the future has to be functional, sustainable, variable both in production and in applications, but at the same time it has to be degradable into harmless substances,’ say founders Vlasta Kubušová and Miroslav Kral.

Ego Sum Terra, based at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), discovered a way to turn cotton muslin, used in fashion designers’ toiles and test garments, into a rich compost humus – part of a wider research initiative into circular textile supply. FIT also supports the Natural Dye Garden, which, as the name suggests, grows natural alternatives to synthetic dyes – attracting clouds of butterflies along the way.

Colors of Best by Atelier NL was inspired by the sands, plants and water around the town of Best in the Netherlands – the resulting spectrum of browns, greys, blacks, greens and reds gives the town a uniquely local palette to draw on, entirely derived from its natural environment.

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There can be few terms with as many positive associations as nature and natural, with all their connotations of freshness, purity and health. The benefits to individual humans of (re)connecting with nature are widely acknowledged. But we are also now recognising nature as a model of design efficiency that we can emulate. This is a long-term, sustainable efficiency that can respond to change and embrace irregularity – while even nature cannot withstand infinite plundering, it can effortlessly accommodate and integrate a seemingly infinite array of diversity and individuality.

Nature’s amazing capabilities are simply waiting for us to tap into them. The power of plants is infinitely renewable, with our help; the regenerative resources of land and sea are there for us to husband. The more adept we become at unlocking such resources, and nurturing and stewarding them, the closer we come to designing a future where we nourish and support both the planet and ourselves.