Issues in More-Than-Human Climate Conscious Design

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The Small Things Matter

The first insight I would like to address is that unsurprisingly bioengineering and genetic manipulation form are a major influence on the field of designing with living materials. Projects such as Data Garden by Grow Your Own Cloud (2020) seek to intertwine the natural data holding capabilities of living materials, in this case, the DNA of plants, combining the field of Genetics and Software Engineering, to create a new way of storing information to combat the vast amounts of energy consumed by contemporary data centers (Figure 5). David Benqué on the other hand approaches Synthetic Biology from a less pragmatic perspective. His Acoustic Botany (2010a) and Silvery Acres (2010b) are designed to have an entertaining value and seek to explore the cultural implications for genetically modified plants. The modified plants from his project Acoustic Botany form a sound garden, to further develop aesthetic interactions people can have with the natural world (Figure 4). He mentions: “…we have been shaping nature for thousands of years, not only to suit our needs but our most irrational desires.” Exploring the sound garden in his project Silvery Acres he opens up about what these plants might bring in the future. These two projects reflect the earlier discussed division between natural and cultural sciences and together form a domain within which socio-technical challenges may be explored.

Conceptual and Critical

Most of the projects that I have encountered carry heavy conceptual undertones, most notably from the fields of Critical and Speculative Design. Tega Brain has developed two projects which start to explore the socio-technical challenges associated with designing for humans and nonhumans through the use of technology. The first, Coin-Operated Wetland (Figure 7), is a project that sets out to reconnect people with the habitats, in this case, a wetland, that provide them with necessary ecological benefits. It aims to pose critical questions about how humanity cares for its ecology and provides an almost satirical solution to the issues that arise from the disconnect between people and nature (Brain, 2011). The second, Deep Swamp (Figure 6), is a complicated dialogue between three AI’s that care for a piece of wetland situated in an exhibition area. One aims for the best care possible, the second for aesthetic expression, and a third “just wants attention” (Brain, 2018a). This project explores the dialogue the natural world can have with technology, whilst maintaining a human-centered design in the form of designing for aesthetical experience. It raises questions about systemizing the natural world for the sake of human appreciation and understanding. Similarly, Michael Sedbon situates his projects in borderline conceptual projects. I say borderline because within the conceptualizing of his projects Sedbon also tends to provide proof of concept. CMD is one of those projects, here Sedbon has put two cyanobacteria colonies in competition with each other over a light source, using artificial intelligence to manage a market (Figure 9). With this project, Sedbon aims to explore socio-technical issues surrounding biological computing (Sedbon, 2020). Similarly, ALT-C explores the socio-technical implications of an AI dependent on the natural world for its energy consumption, forcing its “voice” in the capitalist market through cryptocurrency mining and stock trading (Sedbon, 2018a) (Figure 8). Although these projects draw from more-than-human design research, they tend to instrumentalize the “nature” that is involved in the projects and capitalize on their material properties. This forms a dichotomy within the earlier established design fields (noticing, care, and cohabitation) by mainly focusing on the cohabitation aspect, but not building healthy relationships between humans and the natural world. Ultimately, humans, as individuals, play only a small role (if any) in these conceptual projects. This brings us to the next insight.

Come and See

Relating to the previous insight, it is notable to say that due to the projects’ nature within conceptual design, most of the previously described projects are designed for exhibition areas or function as a probe to explore possible futures. This means that even though some of these projects apply interesting principles from HCI, they are often not meant to be interacted with, but rather to be experienced by an audience. As Dunne and Raby (2013) note, this has strong implications for audiences’ worldviews. However, to move forward, there is a necessity for embodied experiences to further deepen the understanding and implications of such projects. First steps are being made in this direction, for instance, Plant Wave by Data Garden (2020) (Figure 10). This device is commercially available and utilizes the plants’ electrical potentials to create unique music, exploring, similar to Benqué, aesthetic qualities of nature in a cultural setting, only now aided by technology. Reflecting on the earlier distinguished design fields: noticing, care, and cohabitation, this project allows users to form new and meaningful experiences which were previously unavailable. Arguably facilitating the development of care and noticing. Another example that starts to bridge conceptual projects into the domain of cultural space is Plant-e’s market available products, using bio photovoltaics (a term I will come back to later in the thesis), to facilitate a continuous source of electricity based on plants (Hoe werkt het?, 2021). Although not bridging the socio-technical gap, this product provides a tangible and usable solution and helps not only consumers but also citizens to envision alternate futures.

Technological Voices

The final insight I would like to share is the use of technology to advocate for plants. For instance, in the earlier mentioned Deep Swamp, Alt-C, and CMD, technological entities (AI’s) are advocating for plant desires. This happens to the extent that the human actor is not actually in dialogue with the plants, but rather in dialogue with a digital interpreter of the plants. A project that leaves the language of plants open to interpretation is Michael Sedbon’s Wood-Wide-Web 1.0 (Figure 11). This project aims to aestheticize plant communication channels, without casting them into culturally conforming ways of communication. The project leaves open how the different visual and auditive stimuli may be interpreted. With this, the project shows how people might get to know their plants by eventually recognizing unique patterns after certain interactions, or how the plants might be able to communicate to people that air quality is low. In a sense, this project shows implications for a relationship between plants and humans that might become codependent and symbiotic rather than instrumentalized.

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Reflecting on the Design Collection

The analysis has left me with several conclusions. Although the conceptual approach to this domain has fruitful results, it is necessary to move out of the installation and exhibition setting and move into the daily lives of people. Furthermore, I see a trend where most projects capitalize on one of the material aspects of plants, whether this is their electrical potentials, the capability of producing electricity, or their genetics. Arguably, this signifies that there is a lot to gain from combining these material aspects and mapping out the different material capabilities similar to how inanimate materials have large databases of material properties. This would be beneficial for all disciplines looking to draw from the fields of Biology, Ecology, and Biological Engineering. Perhaps most notably it will make contemporary tools and knowledge accessible to designers (of all sorts) to start exploring the socio-technical implications that follow the use of these materials. Finally, I see a lack of canonical examples situating themselves on the intersection of technology, nature, and human. Projects such as Plant Wave are a good example of how we might start doing so. In Chapter 5 I will elaborate further on how evaluating the design collecting has informed the project.

METHODS

In this chapter, I will address several methods I have used throughout this thesis project. I would like to emphasize that the choice of materials has largely been influenced by a desire to promote methods that find their origin outside of industry-driven design. Therefore, most methods used find themselves affiliated with existing more-than-human, conceptual methods, material-driven, and participatory design methods. Before addressing the methods, I would like to elaborate on the design process model that was followed, to further strengthen the reasoning behind the methods.

Design Process Model

The design process for this project has been loosely based on the double diamond model (Figure 12). The double diamond model consists of four phases which can take many names, in this thesis project they are referred to as Research, Synthesis, Conceptualization, and Finetuning. Cat Drew (2019) informs that originally the model has been developed as a tool to visualize the design process and more notably the relevance of spending time and money on all parts of the process concerning the problem the design had to solve. In turn, the model has a solution-oriented focus, originating from industry desire. Based on the background information presented in the earlier chapters I have decided to alter the model to suit this project. To do so, I have drawn from both Critical Making as proposed by Matt Ratto (2011) and Speculative Design as described by James Auger (2013).
Critical Making has informed this project mainly in the manner of conduct. Ratto (2016) describes the Critical Making process as follows: “Rather than focusing on a method or a specific practice, critical making involves an evolving series of commitments that include a sense of complicity and responsibility for the state of the sociotechnical world and a desire to transform it.” Which shows us that it emphasizes an “ongoing-ness”, a notion that it is never finished, similarly Design for Care emphasizes an ongoing commitment to actors within the design domain. Furthermore, it shows a large emphasis on contributing to design practice and self-critiquing. Ratto (2011) mentions: “Critical making emphasizes the shared acts of making rather than the evocative object.” Further showing that Critical Making contributes to developing the field rather than serving the industry. Finally, it shows a large emphasis on materiality. According to Tung (2012) the material, context, and similar products should first be understood before adequately being able to address the design process. Together Ratto and Tung have informed this project to be more material-oriented.
According to James Auger, Speculative Design serves two main purposes: critiquing current practice and envisioning alternative futures (2013). Furthermore, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby add that Speculative Design should provide the audience with an alternative to the current market-driven context of design (2013, p.14). Speculative Design finds its origin outside of industry-driven design practice, therefore providing a rich pool of research and examples that either decenter the human or envision a future that creates a setting outside of the contemporary consumer-driven market. This thesis has been mainly informed by Speculative Design by its emphasis on research and understanding the context as well as utilizing tensions to make informed decisions during the ideation phase (Mitrović et al., 2021).
The result is a design process model with a large emphasis on the first half of the double diamond model along with a parallel track of material exploration throughout the project. (Figure 13).

Table of contents :

1. INTRODUCTION: AIM AND RESEARCH DIRECTION
2. BACKGROUND THEORY
Issues in More-Than-Human Climate Conscious Design
Design Fields
Living Material
3. DESIGN COLLECTION
The Small Things Matter
Conceptual and Critical
Come and See
Technological Voices
Reflecting on the Design Collection
4. METHODS
Design Process Model
Research
Synthesis
Ideation & Concepting
Developing
5. DESIGN PROCESS
Research & Synthesis
Conceptualization & Finetuning
6. MAIN RESULTS & FINAL DESIGN
Take a moment with your plant
Design for Plants evaluation tool: Amoebae Wheel
Contribution to More-Than-Human Interaction Design
7. DISCUSSION
More-than-human Knowledge & Time Constraints
Capitalocene
Care
Noticing
8. CONCLUSION

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