Truman Brewery
17-20 September 2020

Natsai Audrey Chieza talks Biofutures

Biomaterials

Project Coelicolor: Terrior, 2019; Natsai Audrey Chieza, Faber Futures in collaboration with professor John Ward, Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London. Image Credit: Oskar Proctor. 

Tell us a little about yourself?

I am a Zimbabwean-born London-based designer with a background in architecture and material futures. I’ve spent the last decade exploring how the field of design intersects with technology and nature, and at multiple scales. This has seen me collaborate with scientists to develop new systems of thinking and doing materiality and mapping out the implications of such a practice. 

You’re the Founder and Director of Faber Futures, what’s it about?

I launched Faber Futures in 2018 to empower organisations, brands and even the supply chain, to begin to implement new material strategies emanating from the emergent field of biodesign. Organisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae are being grown to develop new materials, processes and applications across a spectrum of industries- from textile manufacturing to the beauty sector. By mimicking, co-creating with and engineering living systems, we work to generate effective, scalable innovation frameworks to address the ever-more pressing challenges of resource scarcity and climate action.

What does sustainable design mean to you?

Although the word sustainability can be a useful shorthand to signal intent, it still renders opaque. At this moment in time it is important to be able to qualify how we create resilient and regenerative systems, where we do this and who benefits. It is also about exercising a well-defined code of ethics, as well as building out new systems in a way that is equitable. 

Equity, not only for humans but for non-human life too. 

Biofabrication

Credit: Natsai Audrey Chieza / Faber Futures. 

We offer a platform within our show that is dedicated to new materials. This year we focused on biomaterials, specifically waste from the agricultural industry. What do you think the materials of the future are? 

We have traditionally used agriculture as a source of natural materials, but in the future, increasing pressures on land use means re-wilding and food production will need to priority in the future. Where microorganisms may be beneficial, is if we can harness their capabilities to produce molecules that are of use to us through the process of fermentation. Sometimes these capabilities are innate, and where they are not, technologies like synthetic biology could be used as a tool to engineer microbes for different functions. So where historically microbes have been grown to produce antibiotics–a critical millstone for human development in the last century–we might think of working with microbes that can also be fermented to produce biopigments to dye textiles. At Faber Futures, we are interested in the many application spaces for pigments. We have been working on bacteria dyes for textiles and other industries where harmful chemical processes and intensive water use are can be replaced by biological protocols. 

We are also really excited about developments in engineered yeasts that produce silk protein that can be spun into yarn, and the potential applications for mycelium-based materials. We are starting to see a number of start-ups scaling up the way packaging is grown from mycelium, or used for beautiful flooring solutions for interiors. Biomineralisation is a microbial process that turns aggregate into a structural biocement at ambient temperatures, which is key to reducing the carbon emissions of the cement industry accounting for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. It’s an area of biomanufacturing that could also make a huge impact on both environmental and geopolitical forces that can be traced back to the economics of our built environment. 

What’s exciting about these and other emergent materials, is that they often exhibit more diverse and better performative qualities than the present-day solutions they are being used to replace. There are so many different spaces, from a systems point of view, that are going to witness a lot of change over the next couple of decades as far as material science is concerned. We are really excited to be working with our clients to build these new infrastructures on the basis of ethics, ecology and equity.

Materials

Project Coelicolor: Assemblage 2019; Natsai Audrey Chieza, Faber Futures in collaboration with professor John Ward, Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London. Image Credit: Oskar Proctor.

 What advice would you offer to designers that are wanting to become more sustainable in their design products and practices?

To not only consider the nature of the products they are designing but go further to develop a literacy on the processes, materials and impact of their practice. I don’t think that designers can continue to produce without engaging more intently with their supply chain. I take a view that thinking and acting in a way that places emphasis on regenerative systems is no longer an option, so if there are designers who are at universities where that curriculum is not accessible, they ought to voice their demands for provision that reflects our changing times.

What has been your greatest challenges working in the industry and getting your product out there?

An ongoing challenge we are addressing in what is a multidisciplinary/multisector field, is effective communication and value setting of design thinking at the early stage of scientific discovery and development. For example, we are fortunate to work with clients that understand the investment required to build biotechnology start-ups that can engage with design on a more equal footing. With consumer-facing product launches on the horizon, it won’t be long before we can measure the impact of this levelling up. At Faber Futures we also focus our attention on the networking and education piece that is necessary to catalyse collaboration and partnerships at scale, and though this culture shift will take time, I am optimistic that starting from the ground up will yield invaluable benefits now and long into the future. 


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