Welcome to episode 213 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m sure host, Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Today, we’re joined on the podcast by special guest, Nic Hogan. Nic is a computational designer who’s focused on the creation of design and fabrication techniques that emulate or implement biological processes. Nic’s work includes projects with Harvard i-lab and bio-inspired technologies currently being developed at the Wyss Institute. Nic, thanks for joining us today.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to explore further one of my favorite subjects around bio-inspired design and biofabrication, and some of the science that goes into it.
That’s right. Bio everything. One of our big touch points on the show is the intersection of design and science. We’re going to have a lot of fun with that today with Nic as our resident expert. Nic, let’s start off with a softball question and we’ll get into the harder ones later.
How do you view this intersection of design and science and how do you describe what you’re doing in your field for the non-initiated?
Gosh. Well, I would say it’s important to recognize that design is just the process of shaping any kind of matter, any sort of media whether it be digital or physical into any kind of form. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation and where design actually becomes cool is when it intersects with stuff that we know and are familiar with. That’s when you get these things like the design of systems that we interact with every day, or the design of ideas, or in my case, the design of things that might be alive, or acts like things that are alive.
Interesting. What brought you to this field in the first place? Obviously, you’re a very smart guy. You’re interested in biology and science, how did that intersect with design for you?
I don’t know if I’m a very smart guy compared to a lot of the people that have been operating in this field for a long time. I got into it recently. I was an engineer up until about a year ago and really have adopted computational design more recently, but I always wanted to create things that were like I saw them in nature. I grew up catching snakes and looking at spiders and funny things out in the woods and it was always really clear to me that nothing we were making was as beautiful as like one leaf from one tree and nothing we were making was as complicated as roots and grass.
The potential of nature’s design process was always there and apparent in my life and it wasn’t until right towards the end of college that I started to become familiar with people who were making living things and designing the way that living things have learned to design through evolution. It was really getting exposed to groups like Mediated Matter at MIT or seeing the work happening at the Wyss Institute that I started to realize that this was not just something that was amazing happening, it was something that was successful to me if I was willing to learn the right tools to work with it.
Very cool. Let’s shift to talking about some of the work that you’ve been looking into and researching and implementing over your time here in Boston. I wanted to start off by talking about your biofluorescence project because I know that technology is being further developed over at Wyss and we were all familiar with biofluorescent materials whether they’d be plants that could glow in the dark or I don’t know if the firefly has elements of biofluorescence or there’s the classic, the scorpion that under ultraviolet light has a certain luminescence, but what was the core research that you did with your biofluorescence project because I know you had some interesting discoveries along the way.
Yeah, definitely. Like with a lot of cool discoveries, it started with a very fundamental misunderstanding of a material that we were working with which called chitosan and like the name suggests, it’s derived from chitin which is what makes up shrimp shells and the cell walls of mushrooms and it’s this ubiquitous national material. We know it can take many forms and we got interested because we knew that chitin was in exoskeletons for these scorpions and we knew that’s scorpions glowed in the dark.
We thought, “Hey, chitosan comes from chitin. Well, maybe we can make it glow by working with the same materials.” The thing is that chitosan is materially very different than chitin but what we found was when we used this material that we derived from scorpion shells and we combined it with chitosan, it actually improved the fluorescent properties of the material and made them last for months when the half-life before was 24 hours. It was this discovery that stemmed from a misunderstanding but was ultimately inspired by something that happens in nature that we thought could be replicated in a very cool way which is the production of fluorescent solids.
I read as part of your work that industries that would be interested in using this material might include the healthcare industry for example. Could you explain to me how that material might be used in a healthcare context?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the things that’s always appealing about chitosan is that it’s not naturally harmful to humans. It’s something that you could eat if you wanted to and even though it has all these uses as a plastic material, we like it because it’s biodegradable and it’s safe for the environment and it’s safe for the human body. People are already studying its properties with wound healing and a bunch of other things that I don’t fully understand. We like the idea that this could be a molecule that can enhance fluorescence and allow it to last longer without being harmful to the human body.
Most of our fluorescent anti-fade agents that are on the market right now, they’re similar to formaldehyde, they’re fixatives and they kill the cells that they interact with so this could be an anti-fade agent that actually can exist in the body while someone is alive. Maybe allowing somebody to tag a tumor during surgery and be able to visualize things that you normally wouldn’t be able to see just on a natural light. Being able to have a lasting florescence in the biomedical sphere would certainly be something that could be of use to people so we hope we can develop it that far.
Yeah. You did some fabrication around this material. What kinds of things did you fabricate as part of your research?
We built a hanging structure that was composed of 18 panels and the panels were a backbone of largely sugars, fructose and glucose and similar to glass and their properties in the way that we fabricated them and then the final layer of it was this chitosan, this fluorescent chitosan material that we put over the entire structure and so the idea was that it was a hanging structure that we shined ultraviolet light on to and then it would in turn reflect blue light down on to us.
We took these pictures of it and demonstrated that it was this fluorescent solid and the thing that was cool about that was that it had nothing to do with the biomedical application of this material. It was just something that we could show people and they immediately understood what we were doing. They could see that this was a structured that glowed under certain light and that got them engaged with science that me talking about biomedical dyes probably wouldn’t have gotten them engaged with.
It sounds like education is a big part of your work or at least a desired output.
Absolutely, yeah. I think for any designer and especially in a field where science is often misunderstood or is published in ways that is not accessible to large populations thinking about how you can make people realize what you are doing and share your work with them requires us to perceive some nontraditional methods. That’s not to say that we could have gotten published in a high hitting journal, we did the most rudimentary level of science but it got people engaged enough that we could continue working on this which was a wonderful experience as a designer. It’s to see that arm method of engaging people was actually resonating and allowing us to communicate across disciplines
What’s the path to commercialization with the things that you’re doing? Are they open to scientific discoveries that people are using their whim or are there things that you’re patenting and then there’s a process there? How do you fit in to the broader capitalist system?
The first step for all of this is verification of the science and further testing of the material. When we’re working in a design setting, we often don’t have the luxury of time to lay out perfectly meticulous experiments where we can then characterize our results well and have them reviewed by our peers. We just have to build something that works and get it to where it needs to be at this deadline.
Right now our process is largely going back and repeating experiments and asking some of the more fundamental scientific questions like does this chitosan combination prolong the fluorescence just of the molecule that we derived or does it work with other fluorophores and can we use it with other dyes? Then is it really chitosan or are there other polymers that could have this effect when you combined silk with dyes, you get a preserving effects?
Answering those first questions, I think is more important than developing a functional product. Once you have that science down and you look at it if you are faced with the fact that this really is a unique combination. It’s about chitosan and it’s about the molecule that we’ve combined with it then you have a product that can actually be commercialized because you have a lasting dye that only works in one combination but if you find that works with all these other dyes and all these other preservatives, then it stays in the scientific sphere.
We have something new to research which is anti-fade properties from naturally occurring polymers. Either way, I think that what you’re doing and saying that will lead to inventions in the future, that could be commercialized but right now, we’re taking a step back and trying to really characterize the science behind it.
Let’s pivot now to some of your other work that you’re doing in conjunction with Harvard i-lab and I wanted to talk about your Hive Mind project because it’s relevant to extremely important area of the economy which of course is agriculture. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Hive Mind and what brought about defining the need for the project?
Absolutely. Just to start out, Hive Mind is a new form of bee hive which is meant to make it so anybody can participate in bee keeping and to reduce the amount of bees that die every year. The reason that we’re interested in this is that we rely on pollinators, mostly honey bees for 35% of our food production. In the past 50 years, we’ve lost 50% of the honeybee population and while there are varying accounts of why this might be happening and the numbers are disputed, it’s pretty clear that most people who raised bees are losing up to 40% of their bees every single winter has to do with their genetics being weakened through inbreeding or else selecting four week bees through different processes. We wanted to take a step back from that and really consider the question is the upcoming generation going to raise bees in the current state?
The answer was no and that’s the problem because if the upcoming generation doesn’t raise bees, we’re probably going to lose them as a species and we’re going to find ulterior or other ways to pollinate our crops. Then a design question became how do you develop a new relationship between humans and honeybees? What we came up with was this-self contained ecosystem that would allow for the regulation of temperatures when they get too hot or too cold regulate humidity so you don’t have fungal growth and also gather important data. How many bees are coming in and out of a hive? When is it safe to extra honey? All of those are questions that we have the technology to address and we hope we’ll get a wider population engaged in bee keeping once we launched our products.
That’s completely fascinating to me because it seems like as a species, humidity has managed to screw up pretty well the bee population for starters so we created the problem set ourselves through various practices which I’m sure that we don’t quite fully understand the systemic repercussions of. Now, it’s …
We don’t even partially understand.
Now, it’s part of our responsibility to find a way to stimulate the bee population so we don’t end up creating some kind of famine because we can’t figure out how to pollinate crops. How have the initial prototypes gone? What stage are you with the project now?
Right now, we have a sensory system that we developed for counting bees going in and out of a hive and we’re really fortunate that a research group at Harvard had already been doing this and making smart hives to gather information on that. Just by being able to partner with people who are already passionate about this, we were able to piggyback off that technology to make this sensor system.
We’ve hooked it up with a system for recording temperature and humidity and the next step in that is hooking it up to our fan and heat blanket system and to construct our first prototype of this hive in the next two weeks. The reason that we have been delayed in this year of developing it is largely because we’re trying to reimagine how you get honey out of a hive and we were met with a lot of challenges that people just haven’t had answers to.
The idea right now is that … I’ve been raising bees since I was six and this is part of the reason that I wanted to change how it was done. When you go out to extract honey right now, you go out to your hive in full protective equipment. You have to fake a forest fires so the bees all go to the queen and get out of the parts of the hive that you want to interact with.
You’re setting stuff on fire, you’re wearing protective equipment and then you have to physically open up the hive, remove all the frames that honey in them, brush bees off of them, move it to a new location, use a hot knife, cut off all the wax from those combs, put those frames into a center fusion, extract all this honey and it’s like a day’s effort and you end up with 30 gallons of honey and no one needs 30 gallons of honey. That’s just an insane amount of honey to have. We had six hives too so that’s obviously a really number of hives to be working with in this case.
Anyways, we were like that’s absurd. These animals are thinking that they’re dying so that we can go out and take all of their food at once. With Hive Mind what we’re doing is we’re developing a novel system for slowly extracting that honey in a totally passive way. At night, frames that have capped honey in them that you would be able to harvest are collapsed when the bees are all inside the brood and they’re near the queen.
As those frames collapse, the honey is slowly dripped out of it and collected in a vessel. Our dream is that you would get a notification on your phone that says your honey is ready and you got out and you get a fresh jar of honey. What that allows us to do is never over-extract. You can take only as much honey as surplus and will allow the bees to last the winter and it means you don’t have to go out to these hives and have this invasive experience of stealing all their food and setting stuff on fire which granted people do very well now and they’re very considerate as to how they treat their bees but we just want to develop a more passive system that’s more like having an apple tree where you go out and you take as much as you need and you’re benefiting that system by taking care of it.
What does the whole system look like? I know for example right now one thing that happens is trucks will drive bees across the country and pollinate in different states and different seasons. Are you imagining the bees being permanently locatad in this model as opposed to be driven around?
Mobile pollination units are something that’s really interesting to us and it’s wild that there’s this massive industry spun around renting bees to pollinate crops but that’s how all of the almonds in California are pollinated right now. We are developing this unit for more like weekend warrior, backyard chicken farmer person in Portland. We like this to be a backyard unit that allows the normal person to be a beekeeper. We realize that there’ probably more money going into mobile pollination or the industrial honey side but we like the idea of engaging every day people and protecting the environment and protecting vital species. We would rather make this something that hobbyist are using than industrialist are using.
There has been an explosion in hobbyist beekeeping in recent years.
There has been and a lot of that has to do with developments that make beekeeping easier. One of them that did a great job was the flow hive which raised more than $12 million on Indiegogo. They way overshot their campaign and it was like a father and his son in New Zealand too just made a beehive that there wasn’t really that much different about it except instead of using a centrifuge to extract, you could go out and on top have honey to fill up a jar.
People just came out of the wood work for it. They’re like, “Wait. This is usually something I could do now and I want to do it.” I think that what we love about talking to people about bees is a lot of people out there want to be beekeepers and they thing these are really interesting and they’re rightfully intimidated by the hobby as it is right now. Those are the people that we would really love to see our product and feel like, “Yes, this is something that I can do. I’m ready to raise bees.”
Yeah. That’s a great project and we wish you best of luck as you get that off the ground.
I want to talk a little bit about bio-inspired design and engineering and how you see this field developing and evolving overtime. I think it was Bill Gates who said that if you had to pick an industry to be involved with, right now biotech is where the interesting work is. How do you see design and bioengineering coming together and developing because we’re at the … I mean to be honest, we’re at the very beginning of the stages of this.
Absolutely. That can’t be emphasized really. That Bill Gates quote is great because I think about biohacking and synthetic biology is being … where computers were 60 years ago. You’re just getting the base mechanisms of how this stuff works but it’s not inconceivable to think that we might be living in a world eventually where you could write your own species and create living things at will.
That’s a design process that we frankly are not prepared to engage with yet and I don’t think we’ve answered a lot of the fundamental questions about designing life itself and thinking about what we’re doing with the underpaintings of what governs species. A bit of a tangent but I think that going back to the initial question of what is going on in this field and what is important about the intersection with design and biology is not a lot of the things that we see in the news with biomimicry making our lives better or improving engineering. What I think is really fundamental and really exciting is that it’s a reimagining of how we create things and how we design things.
The things that seem mundane like imagining that you might be able to grow a structure instead of building a structure or you might be able to have something that has living skin instead of concrete on it. These are weird out there ideas that we’re not comfortable with but what it shows is a shift in our thinking from us being separate from other living creatures to being part of a greater ecosystem.
I think that that’s most exciting thing that we’re getting to experience right now in design is that people are being really bold with what they’re pushing. They’re putting stuff out there that makes us uncomfortable but it’s a discomfort that we need. We need to start getting okay with the idea that we’re going to lose some control of our design process and we’re going to hand it over to processes that have been proven through evolution for millions of years that they’re better than us.
That’s a heavy mandate and one that I like quite a bit. What kind of breakthrough do you expect people to see from this field in the coming years. I mean, you talked a little bit about that, a growing structures or having a living surface on buildings perhaps. Could you dive in to that a little bit.
Absolutely. I should preface this by saying I study advanced materials and systems as my designation in my program. I’m slightly biased in what I’m exposed to but I think materials are one of those things that is really obvious to us in terms of biologically inspired design. When somebody says that spider silk, the quintessential example is spider silk that is thick as a pencil can stop a 747 in flight. That’s a tangible example that makes us realize why we consider silk to be a super material. As people start to work with that and develop practical applications of that silk, it in turn makes us feel like something like a spider is more important and worth protecting and worth really studying and understanding.
The stuff that’s coming out of the material research side of bio-inspired design in terms of looking at maker like mother pearl or thinking about living structures that can self-heal the way that skin does, that’s amazing and is tangible and people really understand it. I think that’s the first thing that we’re really getting exposed to. The second thing that I am really excited about is computational strategies that mimic living systems.
Things like generative design which is right now when we design structures in the field of architecture and design often times we are defining what shapes are whether it’s through the stroke of a pencil or through a mathematical equation, I have full control over how that structure is going to be shaped. What we’re starting to see with things like Project Dreamcatcher over at Autodesk and really cool open source software too is this ability to define a structure not by how it looks but by what it does.
I can say I need my structure to be supported here and I need it to lift something up here and then have math fill in what the form is in between and the funny thing that you see when you use these kinds of generative pieces of software is everything starts to look at like them or it starts to look like hits and it’s the weirdest thing because you start to see biology and emerge out of this and you realize that it’s because we are the result of optimization and generative design.
Everything that we are familiar with in biology has come through evolution trying everything else and all of that failing. I think that that’s exciting to me because it represents a fundamental shift and how control we have over the design process and how much we are willing to push to practices that have been modeled by nature.
Yeah, that’s great. The Autodesk project is especially interesting. They’re doing all kinds of interesting work there at Autodesk. We’re lucky to have them in town. Final question. If I was looking to find a bio-inspired product that I could purchase today on the market, what would that be? Are there examples of products that either a consumers or businesses might consider purchasing?
Yeah. This is a really fun question and I was talking about it with the lab that I’m working with before I came over here because a lot of what we see on the market are things that maybe back solved to biomimicry or they look like biological system on the outside but maybe the interior of how it works isn’t so defined by biology. One example being something like robotic arms that look and move like tentacles. People will compare them to octopus but that’s not how an octopuses internal musculature works, it’s mostly based on pneumatics in the biomedical industry and then over in nature you have this complex muscle fiber arrangement. It looks the same on the outside but it’s not the same on the inside.
That being said, there are things that really blur the line or what is being inspired by biology and what is just looking like biology. I think prosthetics are a great place to look that’s on the market that is starting to really incorporate biological inspiration especially with electro reactive materials that shrink when you run a current through them. That’s an artificial muscle and thinking about the amount of dexterity that you could put into a prosthetic if you were able to make artificial muscles for it is exciting.
Then there’s other things that you would necessarily think of an everyday basis that are a lot more mundane like shatterproof glass. A lot of it is based off of the layer and structures that you find in things like mother pearl and in shells. You would never notice looking at it. You wouldn’t even necessarily think that glass on windshield is layered but there are strategies in there that were pulled out of nature. I think all of that to say that there are things that are more in your face and you’ve looked at it and it looks alien or it looks like it’s from nature and you get that.
Then there’s the stuff that really subtle and I think that a lot of the materials and a lot of the products that we interact with have something in them that was inspired by nature on a fundamental level. Glass is a great example but thinking about silks, fibers, all these things mimic some aspect of nature and you just have to dig deep into the story to figure out where people got their ideas from to figure it out, I think.
Excellent. I want to say thank you very much, Nic for joining us today on the show.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in the digitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you like.
You can find the Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N -F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening. Nic, how about you.
You can follow me on Instagram @edlinic.hogan. It’s E-D-L-I-N-I-C.hogan
Excellent. That’s it for episode 213 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.