Published 05 September 2011


‘Metabolism’ can be seen as a new paradigm for designing resilient healthy cities, products and services. How can understanding and adopting underlying ecological principles influence society, manufacturing and urban planning in the future?

MetaboliCity: a New Ecological Paradigm

We have created cities that are energy and resource hungry, yet are thriving centres of creativity and innovation with surprisingly more biodiversity than some surrounding rural areas due to industrial-scale, monoculture farming.

There is a need to radically and creatively re-envisage how we relate to nature and the built environment by understanding the city as an emergent living system. We need to mimic ecology as a complex system, not just biology, and learn to understand resilience: the ability to recover from shock.

Loop.pH surveys projects and initiatives that have learnt from ecology and established living systems and environments that synthesise both living matter and technological tools through the convergence of biology, ecology, architecture and design. It traverses many disciplines that relate to the built environment, with a focus on green technologies, but also community groups engaged in the bottom-up urban transformation of green infrastructure.

Design and Ecomimetic Principles

Ecomimicry underpins many of our projects, and it’s important to define the difference between the fields of ecomimicry and biomimicry. Biology is the study of life and living organisms, whereas ecology is the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. The term biomimicry was originally coined in order to describe the transfer of ideas from biology to technology, and as the field of engineering mimics biological processes.

Design consultant and strategist Ken Fairclough talks about the difference between ecomimicry and biomimicry:

“Ecomimicry moves humanity on from using nature as a biomimetic source book for engineering, materials and medicinal solutions, to being inspired by and understanding the wisdom of utilising the system that designed these solutions in the first instance. Biomimicry often takes biological solutions in isolation, and does not necessarily imply sustainability."

Ecomimicry can also be seen as a strategy to act at a local and community level, engaging people, expert or not. Enabling communities to observe and learn from their local ecologies. It can also be seen as a new paradigm for architecture and design whereby buildings become ‘living structures’, providing life support for inhabitants, with waste remediation and food production as examples.

Ecomimicry moves humanity on from using nature as a biomimetic source book for engineering, materials and medicinal solutions, to being inspired by and understanding the wisdom of utilising the system that designed these solutions in the first instance. Biomimicry often takes biological solutions in isolation, and does not necessarily imply sustainability.

Design consultant and strategist Ken Fairclough

Ecology & Systems

Today, ecology is often pitted against the economy, yet economy and ecology go hand in hand and even share the same linguistic root: ‘Eco being derived from the ancient Greek word oikos, meaning household or family. So both words refer to the art of managing or understanding the environment in which you live. Many people understand the word ecology to mean 'sustainability', and we have come to realise that this word is now outdated. In the context of healthy ecologies, the ambition to be sustainable is not a very high one – do we really want things to simply sustain and stay as they are? Huge paradigm shifts are required across society, business and policy to propel us into a mode of abundance and adaptability.

It was German writer and artist Ernst Haeckel who first defined the word ecology in 1866 as ‘the science of relations between organisms and their environment’. But you can't talk about ecology and ecosystems without mentioning its relationship to the field of cybernetics. Cybernetics is an interdisciplinary field that emerged during the 1960s and is closely related to what we know as systems theory, and has since divided into many subdivisions, including AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Emergence. Cyberneticians create models of reality in order to predict how changing conditions affect the whole system. This is very powerful, but also risky, as the predictions are only as good as your model.

Cybernetics developed the idea that the world is a stable, self-regulating system, with a closed network of energies, flows and feedback loops. Ideas learnt from biology and ecosystems were reduced to simplified mechanistic code and algorithm. Today we know this is not true, as the world as a large system is unpredictable and in constant flux – as seen in our changing climate patterns and our economic system.

So what is the new and meaningful language for treading lightly on this planet?

Resilience Science

Resilience Science is a new field that merges the complex systems of science and ecology, to understand and preserve natural ecosystems with wider relevance to the economy and society.

Canadian Ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling first introduced resilience theory in 1973 with two radical ideas:

1) Humans and nature are strongly coupled and co-evolving, and should be conceived of as one “social-ecological” system.

2) Systems do not respond to change in a linear, predictable fashion. According to resilience thinking, systems are in constant flux; they are highly unpredictable and self-organising, with feedbacks across time and space.

"Resilience shifts attention from purely growth and efficiency to needed recovery and flexibility. Growth and efficiency alone can often lead ecological systems, businesses and societies into fragile rigidities, exposing them to turbulent transformation. Learning, recovery and flexibility open eyes to novelty and new worlds of opportunity."

C.S. Buzz Holling

What is important about the concept of resilience is that it highlights why the word ‘sustainability’ is no longer helpful as it promotes a ‘stasis’ – a state of no change. Resilience science teaches us that life on this planet has always been one of dynamic change, and humans have added to this by exploiting resources and reducing diversity – and, in turn, reducing the resilience of the system.

To a designer and innovator, resilience is about turning crisis into opportunity.

Design as a Seeding Process

So how can ecological principles be applied to the field of design? Design is often planned, predetermined and fixed, whereas biology is evolutionary, adaptive and emergent.

We have observed shifts within the design practice:

  • product  >  process
  • planning >  seeding
  • problem solving  >  opportunity seeking
  • controlling  >  facilitating

A key idea for designers is that of ‘seeding’. Design can be described as a ‘seeding process’, as opposed to top-down planning. The seed contains all the initial information and nutrition for life to flourish, if the environment is right. To seed means providing the necessary environment for healthy growth. This is where the role of co-design processes is vital. The role of designers is changing to one of facilitating and nurturing such environments, to allow for healthy growth and development.

Living Machines: Symbiosis

Loop.pH is interested in the tools and methods to establish living systems and environments in urban areas that weave biological matter and technology into the fabric of the built environment. These living technologies can transform and metabolise our waste into food.

One such technology is urban aquaponic systems, used on both a commercial and domestic scale. Aquaponics is the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a re-circulating environment. Farm:Shop in Dalston, London, is a recent example of an abandoned shop being transformed into a micro city farm, with chickens on the roof, and fish growing in tanks supplying nutrients to the tomatoes and other produce growing within the walls of the building. Productivity is a question here, but what started as an art project by Something and Son, a collaborative agency of makers, has stimulated debate within the community, and created a hub for innovators to experiment with new ways of growing food in the city.

Canadian Biologist Dr. John Todd has pioneered the field of Living Machines and won the Buckminster Fuller prize in 2008 for decades of work developing technologies that build healthy symbiotic relationships between nature’s living systems and modern human needs.

The Living Machine is an intensive bioremediation system that can also produce beneficial by-products, such as reuse-quality water, plants and plant products for building material, energy biomass, and animal feed. He uses an incredibly diverse array of life within a wetland system to filter and clean water. Very soon, these systems will be fully integrated into the fabric of the city. The building, dubbed the ‘greenest office space’ in San Francisco, currently houses an indoor wetland that filters the wastewater within the building, designed by Worrell Water Technologies.

Metabolic Materials

So what does the future hold for working with and interfacing ecological systems?

Dr. Rachel Armstrong, a Global TED Fellow and Teaching Fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London is an interesting example right now of someone working in an emerging field that is beyond bio-mimicry – not copying nature, but using physics and chemistry in a material way. As a trans-disciplinary practitioner with a background in medicine, she collaborates with scientists, architects and artists to create new experimental spaces to explore living materials for the built environment.

Armstrong’s core idea is to sustainably grow an artificial limestone reef underneath the city of Venice, to slow down its sinking into the soft delta soils on which it is built, using a new chemically programmable, DNA-less cell called a ‘protocell’.

She is pioneering futuristic, yet transformative solutions for the built and natural environment using advanced new technologies such as Synthetic Biology – the rational engineering of living systems – and smart chemistry. She says:

Architecture can only be truly sustainable when it is connected to nature, not insulated from it.

Metabolic materials will challenge the assumptions that we have about architectural building processes.

What Next?

It’s an exciting time for design, as a new mode of operating is needed where boundaries between disciplines are dissolved and interfaced. In order for these ecological concepts to permeate our man-made world, designers need to become ‘specialist-generalists’, and engage in trans-disciplinary practice.

Are designers the pioneer, gateway species in our society, the change agents and innovators making fertile new ground? And do we need biologists and ecologists with design training, or designers with biological training? Learning from ecological systems could certainly provide the framework for a more resilient and abundant future.

Ecological Glossary

Language and terminology is important as it shapes our understanding and behaviour. This glossary selects some key and simplified concepts from ecology that could provide an important framework and new language for the future.

  • Metabolism: All the physical and chemical factors in the production and breakdown of living matter and energy. Metabolism is the fire of biological life.
  • Adaption: How living things change what they do in order to survive in a particular environment. The organism is not a passive recipient of external circumstances; the relationship is interactive.
  • Co-evolution: When an organism evolves in response to environmental change. It puts new pressures on that environment, which likewise evolves, prompting further evolution in the organism.
  • Symbiosis: From Greek, meaning 'to live together' in a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence. In biology, symbiosis is a close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may benefit each member.
  • Abundance: The opposite of scarcity, and ecologically, the relative representation of a species in a community.
  • Biodiversity: The degree of variation of life forms within an ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of an ecosystem, and is in part a function of climate and environment.
  • Succession: A fundamental concept in ecology, it is the process by which a community progressively transforms itself until a stable community and situation is formed.
  • Emergence: Describes the way unpredictable patterns arise from many interactions between independent parts.
  • Self-Organisation: A basic emergent behaviour. Plants and animals assemble and regulate themselves independent of any hierarchy for planning or management.
  • Resilience: The ability to deal with change and continue to develop. It is the capacity of a system to continually change and adapt, yet remain within critical thresholds.