Finding hope as our world changes
A few months ago I was lucky enough to go to the Cooper Hewitt Design museum in New York. Having been to lots of museums in the past, I figured I'd see a few interesting things and then head back to the hotel.
Instead, I ended up spending the entire day at the museum, absolutely entranced with it.
That was in May... and I'm still thinking about what I saw.
They're running an exhibit now called Nature: Collaborations in Design, and is presented by both Cooper Hewitt and Cube Design Museum. Researchers and designers from around the world have submitted work that combines, simulates, recreates, conserves, and elevates nature in ways that are beautiful, sad, and exciting.
I wanted to share a bit about my favorite exhibits in addition to some really amazing breakthroughs we're starting to see as a way of extending hope in a world where we are in the midst of a climate crisis but still having to go about our day to day lives.
I want to share this to inspire you, excite you, and give you the hope that this gave me. Because we can be sad, we can be angry, we can take action, but sometimes we just need to have a dose of good news to carry us through.
I should start by saying that my true love, first and foremost, is research and design. I love talking to people, learn what motivates them and what makes them tick. I want to understand why they do the things they do. Because once we understand that, I believe that we can start to design a world around us that comes from a place of practicality, but it also helps us solve some of the more serious issues that we face.
The biggest issue we face right now, worldwide, is climate change. It underlies and impacts all parts of our society. As temperatures and seas rise, I think we will see: more human rights violations and diminished response to them, an increase in black and brown communities in the US being targeted and forgotten, more illness, food and water insecurity, an increase in conflict in the world's poorest populations, economic impacts that hit many countries, and a huge loss of biodiversity, the impacts of which are hard to know since biodiversity is part of a complex natural system.
We are at a tipping point and need to act quickly.
So I chose these design examples because they represent an exploration of the underlying problem with climate change: our relationship with nature.
In order to solve systemic problems, we must first understand the root of those problems, and I think that our relationship with nature is one of the main pillars of climate change.
So what were some of the coolest things at the museum?
Open Source Food
First, let's start with food. I love the combination of tech and nature, because it's given us advancements like vertical farming and permaculture, which help us rethink land use and food production.
So, one of the exhibits I really liked was the Personal Food Computer created by the Open Agriculture Initiative. It's an open-source growth chamber where people can submit "climate recipes" that change the environment inside the chamber to optimize plant growth. These climate recipes can then be shared around the world, which is a way of decentralizing our food production on a really small scale.
You can watch the video below to learn more about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=12&v=-J1DNp4M_1k
Creating better built spaces
One of the things I love to do is imagine how we could reinvent our land usage and materials to make cities more welcoming and less harsh. I've wondered for a long time why we didn't try to create literal green buildings out of more natural materials, or add green roofs on literally every space we could.
And it seems I wasn't alone.
We know from several studies that having green, natural spaces in urban areas contributes to better physical and mental health.
In an effort to make this a reality, a new building is being designed at the FPT University Ho Chi Minh City that seeks to create green terraces on the building and a lush green plaza as well.
The goal is to provide as much natural cooling and shading as possible, which reduces the need for constant air conditioning, which emit quite a lot of carbon emissions.
And all that before mentioning how beautiful this is! It's a wonderful combination of nature and built structure.
Speaking of buildings, that leads right into the next thing on my list: living cement. So, I had an idea similar to this about 3 years ago, but clearly this team of scientists and designers were able to make good on something that was only a dream in my mind.
Much of our world is concrete. And the manufacturing of concrete is about 7% of industrial production and 7% of the world's CO2 emissions. It's a popular building material, so rather than try and get rid of concrete altogether, why can't we find a way to make buildings themselves literally more green and filled with plant life?
That's what Richard Beckett, and Marcos Cruz are working toward with the BiotA Lab. Along with Javier Ruis, they've design Bioreceptive Concrete Panels that encourage the growth of moss, lichens, and algae. These microorganisms conduct photosynthesis just like plants and trees, and absorb air pollution while they're at it.
The goal of the design is to get moss, lichens, and algae to attach to the concrete and grow, much like we see these plants growing on old brick and stone.
The best part is that plants like moss can remove tons (literally) of CO2 from our air each year!
Connecting to the past
When we're discussing built environments, we're implicitly discussing what we have killed in order to create that built environment. Every house, building, and store brings demolition and disruption to its environment. And over time, the constant advancement in the name of "progress" means that we have killed a lot of the world around us.
Many people already know that there is a huge problem with human-caused extinction for the millions of species we have around the world. Humans cause anywhere between 100 - 1,000 animal species to go extinct per year.
But we don't often account for the plant life that we are destroying and also causing to go extinct. As someone who loves gardening and plants, I was really excited and sad to see the Resurrecting the Sublime exhibit. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, an artist and designer, teamed up with Sissel Tolaas, a smell researcher to recreate the scent of flowers that have gone extinct.
Our sense of smell has been linked with memory and emotion. Think about all of the times you've smelled the air after a rainstorm, or know when the season is changing because it "smells like fall". Those smells likely evoke an emotion as well as some memories, and in the past that connection has helped humans know if there was danger, or remember something
I think this work is important because it makes what we have lost more tangible. In the exhibit, you step on to an elevated platform, with a large, black square hanging above you, right about head-height. As you stand there, the air starts to change. Slowly at first, and then suddenly there is fragrance all around you. You're in the middle of an open field, smelling flowers that haven't existed on this earth in years.
It was thoughtful, beautiful, and horribly sad.
Considering our Future
So connecting to the past like this, also made me think about my own future, and how limited and finite it is. About seven years ago, I started talking to friends about a "Living Graveyard". I wanted to take all the cemeteries in town and turn them into forests. Each person that died got a tree, and we would commemorate them with a plaque on the tree.
It's a better use of land, since we are creating a forest where there was once only grass. It's better for the earth because it wouldn't require cremation, which is surprisingly toxic to the environment, and it would provide psychological relief to the loved ones who visited. Walking among trees is proven to help our mental state and calm us down.
I was about 26 when I had this thought, and no idea how to buy a cemetery, so I put the idea to rest (eeeewww, a bad morbidity pun). But I never forgot the idea, and I still stand by it.
This year I learned about Peter Wohlleben in his book The Hidden Life of Trees. Peter manages an old growth forest in Germany, including a wildwood cemetery where people can bury their cremated remains.
So he got halfway to my idea. But I was still bothered by the fact that people needed to be cremated first.
At the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum I saw the final pieces of the puzzle. The Studio Nienke Hoogvliet and the Dutch Water Authority are collaborating to introduce a biodegradable alternative to cremation.
The Dutch Water Authority made Polyhdroxyalkanoate (PHA) using the leftover material from wastewater treatment. PHA is a type of bioplastic made by bacteria as a way to store energy (like we store fat). They realized then that they could just collect PHA from the bacteria already living in the wastewater treatment plants since it is abundant and availalable.
Hoogvliet took the PHA and combined it with cremation ashes to create Mourn, which is a cone that can be buried in soil or water, without contaminating its surroundings.
For those who don't want to be cremated, there's also the Infinity Burial Suit, created by Jae Rhim Lee of Coeio. It's an organic cotton suit that has a built-in mix of mycelium (a network of fungal threads found in forests).
Through her research, Lee selected a specific types of fungi for the different stages of decomposition and absorption of chemicals. There are about 219 toxic chemicals in the human body, ranging from tobacco to dry cleaning chemicals, to pesticides and heavy metals. Mycelum helps break down these toxins.
If we pair these two designs with the Living Graveyard idea, we've now made our own deaths just as beneficial for nature as nature is for us.
I believe we can be better
These are just a few of the many exhibits I got to see. All of the exhibits gave me hope because it shows how people from around the world can come together to rethink our relationship with nature.
When I look at the world we are going into, with fewer forests, higher climate, rising sea levels, and very real food and water shortages, I get scared.
But these exhibits gave me inspiration and courage. I don't think that everything is going to be okay, but I can continue fighting to make it better.