Bacteria, Fungus and Decomposition (and growing new materials)

Maurizio

Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.

Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.

A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.

Materials

The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.

Grown Pellet

A Grown Pellet

The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.

For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.

Synthetic Biology

And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).

other forms

other forms

I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.

Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.

Designing a Better World

Last year I wrote a post about a baby incubator made from car parts, built here in Boston by not-for-profit organization Design that Matters. The incubator uses car parts because they are easy to find practically anywhere in the world.

One of the problems with baby incubators and other pieces of technology used in hospitals is that they are often abandoned once they break down because access to the parts is difficult. In many cases it just needs a fuse to go that cannot be locally sourced and a hugely expensive machine becomes unuseable.

The car parts incubator hopes to avoid this problem. Read more in the post here.

Readers will be glad to hear that the Design That Matters organization have been named as finalists in Fast Company magazine’s Innovation by Design Awards. They appear in the category of Social Good, and that really represents the philosophy of the organization.

Project Firefly

Project Firefly

This year they have received numerous awards and special mentions for their Project Firefly, a safe, robust and inexpensive tool to provide infant phototherapy and warming for otherwise healthy newborns at risk of developing hyperbilirubinemia (leading to jaundice) and hypothermia.

Design that Matters (DtM), the East Meets West Foundation (EMW) and Vietnamese manufacturer MTTS have launched a collaboration to develop the device. It is hoped that the product could save hundreds of thousands of babies from disability or death through jaundice related complications.

I believe that design really could improve the world. We might think about some relatively inexpensive technological idea that can improve life for many people. In an article I also wrote last year on the Bassetti Foundation website I mentioned the Microsoft Imagine Cup, a competition organized to promote and support such ideas.

Many great ideas come through design schools. One example is the liter of light project started at MIT. Plastic bottles are used to reflect light into dark rooms by being placed in the roof. They run on water, bleach and sunlight, and have brought light into thousands of homes. Check out the video on the post linked above.

A Liter of Light in use

A Liter of Light in use

One fantastic source of “design to save the world” is the website Inhabitat. This site contains posts submitted by its editorial staff and readers that bring such projects to the public eye. They have a newsletter, and there is something for everyone, from technology, to architecture and an entire section for kids.

Really educational, interesting and fun, and maybe you will get a world improving idea yourself.

Smarter Cities

Following on from my post last week about Apps and Christopher’s post about smart skies on Tuesday of this week I would like to introduce smart cities. Harvard University graduate School of Design run a course that they describe as Urban Cybernetics, called in fact Smart Cities. It is taught by Nashid Nabian, and the aim is to design urban projects that use technology to improve urban life.

The final projects are available to browse online through the course website, and many are very interesting. Cameras and sensors are some of the tools of the trade, used to measure pedestrian or cyclist use of the city, to improve traffic flow or better understand the mechanics of the city from a host of other points of view.

One of my favourite projects is called The Listening City and was written by Carolina Soto within the Real-time Cities course in autumn 2011 as part of the Responsive Environments and Artifacts Lab. Her project involves the use of QR codes that can be scanned using a smartphone. The codes are attached to street furniture, dustbins and all types of functional objects for the running of the city. If a passer by wants to report a problem with any of the objects, they just have to scan it with their smartphone.

 

An example of a QR code in use

A QR code on a traffic signal in Cambridge MA

Once scanned, the user is lead to a website where they complete a questionnaire related to the functionality of the object (in the case of a dustbin if it is full or empty etc, or for a pedestrian crossing light if it works or not).

As the position of each code is known the problem can then be signaled on an interactive map, with the data centrally collected so that it can be analyzed and patterns discovered that may help in improving services.

Take a further look and watch her slide presentation here.

Design and designers affect almost everything in our lives, and working towards improving city life through technology seems like a great idea to me. We are talking about real life improvement that can be seen and measured, information about which bins fill and overflow first is important, the city can be redesigned to confront the problems caused. It might also create solidarity within the residents, more participation in civic life and resolve some of the niggly issues that urban living throws up.

How to keep up to date with web design trends

A lot has changed in the world of web design in the past few years. For instance, today we use a lot of design terms such as minimalistic web design, intuitive interface, contextual menus etc. All these terms were unheard of or not so common, a few years ago.

Nowadays, there are a number of spectacular websites, which are dynamic in nature. These sites have been designed using some of the latest tools and technologies. Hence, if you too want to be a part of this new world and develop some of the most amazing and innovative websites, then you must be well-versed with the latest web design trends in the market.

Let us take a look at some of the ways how you can stay updated with the latest web design trends doing the rounds.

Take part in discussions with fellow designers

Take an active part in discussions with fellow designers on various forums and blogs or even face-to-face. This allows free-flow of information, which includes the latest design news and trends. For example, on one of these forums, you may get a chance to interact with an expert designer, who has used a certain technology on his/her website and end up getting a tip or two on that particular technology. Later on, you can implement whatever you learnt, on your website.

Make full use of the internet

You get a wealth of resources online, to update your knowledge in the latest web design trends. Let us take a look how you can use the power of internet for your advantage.

Social media sites – Social media sites need no introduction. Such sites are growing by leaps and bounds these days. You can use various social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to keep yourself updated with latest web design trends. For instance, you can visit various design forums, share your work, connect and network with the industry experts and fellow designers, join various groups, attend designer events and do lots more on these sites.

Design blogs – There are endless design blogs and even full-fledged websites dedicated to website design such as Smashing Magazine, Mashable, DesignModo etc. You can go through these blogs and websites and read reviews, comments, write-ups and learn numerous tips and tricks relevant to website design.

Smashing Magazine's logoeBooks – A number of latest web design ebooks penned by expert authors are available online. You can buy a number of such books at discounted rates or download some of them free of cost. Use these books as a reference when you design your sites.

Newsletters and magazines – Subscribe to receive various newsletters or online magazines from different sources. For instance, you can visit various tech-blogs or tech-news websites and sign-up to receive their newsletter/magazines directly in your inbox.

Browse the work of top designers

Whenever you find some time, go through the work of top/expert web designers. Many of these designers have their own sites. View their galleries/portfolios to get an idea about the latest, ongoing trends in web design and take a cue from them.

In conclusion

These are some of the ways through which you can know the latest web design trends in the market and design innovative websites.