Working With Nature

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How can we STOP controlling nature and START participating with it? This might sound rather obscure, but I believe it is a design shift that needs to be taken in order to support our rapidly growing population.

Our controlling attitude towards nature since our existence on earth can be seen everywhere. We have dammed and diverted half of the world’s major rivers, cut down half of the world’s trees, built over 1 million cars, causing greenhouse gases to melt the polar ice caps, and hunted and destroyed the natural habitats of animals, selfishly driving around 1000 species to extinction. This little endangered monkey isn’t too happy with us!

So are we destroying the world? Well, no. Nature is resilient, as seen in this former rubbish dump in Fort Bragg, where the sea has worn away our errors and produced these beautiful glass pebbles. The earth will survive with or without us, it is our fate that hangs in the balance. If we go on over consuming and over populating, we will simply drive ourselves to extinction.

Initially I thought it would be impossible to take a step backwards in technology, as human instinct is to keep advancing. Renewable energy can help to sustain some of our energy needs, but it doesn’t solve the whole picture. Eco cars are also advancing, but biofuels use vast amounts of energy to grow, and electric cars still take their energy from those dirty power stations.

I then came across this rather fun 3D printer for the desert by Markus Kayser. It uses sand as the material, and sun as the energy. There are no solar panels here though, just a large plate which focusses the sun’s rays, and burns each layer on to the one below. This does not aim to provide a definitive solution, but rather a point of departure for fresh thinking.


Theo Jansen has also found an ingenious way to harness the wind’s energy and use it directly for mechanical movement, skipping the conversion to and from electrical energy. The flapping wings of these ‘Strandbeests‘ capture wind and pump it in to old lemonade bottles, which move the spindly legs. Perhaps it goes to show the possibilities for future transport.

There are more products and systems which use nature not as the energy source, but as the technology itself. Eco-machines, by John Todd, provide waste water treatment for towns and buildings, using bacteria, algae, plants, snails and fish to digest the pollutants in our sewage, and leave the water clean enough for irrigation or toilet flushes. New products are also emerging which utilise plants in the urban environment to treat bathroom water or purify air, while plans for urban algae farms are in progress.

This moss table provides more natural renewable energy. During photosynthesis of the moss, the chemical energy, or electrons, are captured by conductive fibres and converted to electrical energy. Just now the table can power a clock but they hope in future it could power a laptop.

But none of these products or systems are going to make much difference unless we change our lifestyles. I used to think that would be impossible, but this Microbial Home concept, by Philips Future Design Probes, makes it appealing. Methane, collected from bacteria growing on vegetable peel and bathroom waste can be used as cooking fuel in our kitchens, as well as to power the rest of the house. The larder table stores produce in terra cotta compartments which store food at optimum cool temperature. The plastic waste up-cycler mixes ground plastic packaging with fungi to produce edible mushrooms, and this indoor bee hive allows bees to enter through an outside flower pot, while you safely watch them at work and collect their honey. This is a concept for a future about 20 years away, but gives an indication of the way in which we can use nature’s technology to power self-sufficient homes, and the cyclic process where one product’s output is another’s input, and we are not reliant on energy or water from the grid.

So which of these examples above is actually sustainable? The way I see it, there are two halves to ‘that word’, which is so over-used in the wrong context that it is rapidly becoming devoid of meaning. The main focus of the media and corporate companies has been on environmental sustainability; ‘greener’ product lines, sustainability reports and strategies, and of course, recycling. But how many companies actually believe in change and how many are just jumping on the band wagon?

These plastic cups for example, claim to be 100% compostable, but this is only true if they are heated at 60°C for 3 months (how much energy?!). So if you chuck them in the compost they’ll still be there years later, and the special plastic category means they can’t be recycled either. This is a prime example of something which doesn’t comply with the other half of sustainability; the social side. If we can’t be expected to use them in a way that fulfils their ‘green credentials’, then they surely fail the sustainability test. We need a new word for the handful of products that can actually help us create sustainable lifestyles, consuming less energy and using more abundant materials.

I believe we have begun to shift our attitude towards nature, but there has been too much focus on ‘how’ products can be sustainable, and less on ‘what’ the products need to be. We need to re-assess our lifestyles, understand what we really need, and implement technology in our designs using nature instead of chips and computers.

This article was written by our intern, Hannah Jenkins

If you’ve got to the end of this rather lengthy post and are still interested, visit her blog for more in depth discussions on the issues highlighted. It’s not all doom and gloom, promise. She also hopes to put some of the knowledge she’s learnt to use in upcoming projects. Visit her portfolio for examples of her work.

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One Response to “Working With Nature”

  1. Toby Mottram

    I think you will find that a compost heap will be at 60 C for a long period of time so its not so daft.

    PS tell the boys that I have been appointed to a Professorship in Biosystems Engineering. eCow keeps on growing.

    Give them my regards



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