Imagine your feet growing their own shoes. Under sustained human guidance, some of the microorganisms living on your skin have learnt how to use the mechanical energy of walking, the sunlight and the sweat from your feet to synthesize an extra foot cover for mechanical protection. The heat generated by their metabolic activity is sufficient to warm your feet. These living shoes are able to adjust their shape and thickness in relation to your mobility levels, walking style, and seasonal changes.
This is an example of the sort living material scenarios we envisage in our project Material Imagination. They draw from the inexhaustible potential of living organisms to emerge into new forms and relations, better adapted to the surrounding conditions. And as much as living materials open exciting scientific opportunities at the interface of ecology, evolution and material design, they also question our scientific practices and aspirations. Material Imagination investigates the opportunity to replace our damaging material culture with one rooted in interdependence and interconnectedness of species, where people do not forcefully impose their needs on the earth ecosystem but skillfully craft their presence.
With the support of IAS, we gathered an interdisciplinary team to discuss the scientific and social innovations needed for these changes to take place. The team was led by a biophysicist (Margarita Staykova) and a social scientist (Tiago Moreira) with the collaboration of two other physicists (Wilson Poon, Suzie Protière), an anthropologist of technology (Torben Jensen), a design scholar (Laura Forlano) and an artist (Alexandra Carr). The versatile backgrounds and experiences within the team helped us root our discussions not within the interests and ambitions of specific disciplines but from the perspective of human citizens concerned with the ecological and societal failings of our civilization.
Scientifically, we define living materials as working ecosystems, composed of living cells and artificial or natural scaffolds that are in close and evolving relation with their environment, users and applications. In contrast to the current strategies in the field, we believe that living materials cannot be rationally designed using engineering approaches and genetic manipulation. Instead, we need to learn how to facilitate the adaptation of living organisms to new material habitats and how to guide the evolution of new material ecosystems towards user-desired functionality and applications. In essence, we propose to explore how the very processes of life- emergence, adaptation, resilience and death, can be used to develop new materials.
Shifting the frame from designing materials to designing relations between engineered cells, material scaffolds and users is a challenge in both scientific and social terms. We need new collective models of innovation, where diverse stakeholders- scientists, citizens, funders, politicians, but also the cells and their material habitats participate in imagining the futures of the material ecosystem and become active collaborators in evolving research. As the material ecosystems evolve, there will be a continuous renegotiation of the participants’ identities, interests, abilities and power, leading to an ongoing re-definition of the aims of the research at hand. For example, as the living component of the material learns to adapt and function in artificially designed environments, so do researchers will learn about the ‘desires’ and responses of cells and the emerging properties of the whole system. Equally important, ensuring close and sustained interaction between stakeholders and living materials prototypes will provide knowledge and experience of what it is to live with a material that has its own life, timescales and even agenda- an important input to the research practice, which could only be acquired outside the lab. Material ecosystems, created by such forms of collective experimentation, will be resilient to challenges and open to emerging possibilities. Eventually they could replace the dysfunctional vision of global economy with in situ material ecosystems, where local voices and needs matter.
Last year, we were very fortunate to win the Royal Society APEX award to pursue our ideas. We started developing a model material ecosystem, whereby we enclose bacteria cells in artificial lipid containers, whose size and composition we can finely control. We are interested to understand how bacteria and containers shape each other, what new properties emerge from these interactions, and whether we can guide the interactions to obtain novel and useful functions. Alongside our experiments, we are developing practical ways to include stakeholders- both non-scientists and professionals, into shaping our project and research. For this we draw on two methods: participatory design, a technique that involves users in the development of technologies, and speculative design, which emphasises the role of the imagination in co-creating social and technical futures. The activities consist of bacterial ‘walkshops’, during which stakeholders would engage in mutual learning about the continuous role of bacteria in shaping local environments; a living material probe that would direct and document the interaction of stakeholders with living material prototypes at their homes, and speculative workshops, where we would generate together imaginaries and expectations of living with living materials in the future. Our hope is that the ideas created during the activities will feed back into our research.