A science-meets-architecture concept dubbed "bio-design" could offer a cleaner, greener future where clever engineering and next-generation smart technology boosts our health and protects the environment. That's the hope of award-winning Auckland architect Jo Aitken, of Atelier Aitken. She chats with science reporter Jamie Morton about a new exhibition, "Imagining A New Future: How Biotechnology And Artificial Intelligence Can Change The Way We Live", opening at Wynyard Quarter's Silo 6 as part of the inaugural NZ Festival of Architecture.

Tell us a little about this exhibition and the fascinating science behind it.

We are a research and idea-led studio with a department, Futurelab, that's dedicated to future focused ideas and technologies.

Through Futurelab, we try to work collaboratively with other professionals and disciplines, such as scientists and engineers, to come up with forward thinking and creative solutions to deal with key issues that we are facing either globally or locally

Advertisement

This particular project kick-started after we met our lead scientist on the project, biologist Dr Svetlana Boycheva from the University of Auckland.

We discussed what our possible design parameters could be to best explore these technologies in a creative way.

At Atelier Aitken, we explored lots of scenarios within the studio before focusing on four domestic dwelling typologies: "coastal", "forest and rural", "alpine" and "high density urban".

In parallel to exploring biotechnological advances, we have also been exploring intelligence technologies and how we can better utilise them within the home to improve our physical and mental wellbeing.

A key aim for our research project was to bring together creative and scientific minds to try and find solutions to these key issues.

At this early stage, we are bringing together and presenting these developing technologies and conceptual ideas in a cohesive fashion, in an "architecture meets science meets art" exhibition.

The aim is to develop public awareness of a possible pathway to a future that could be more idyllic or utopian and remind people of how important it is to not lose sight of our collective goal - to be able to live healthy and happy lives, while protecting and enhancing the environment for our future generations.

We are working with glass artists from Monmouth Glass Studios, and 3D printing labs to help bring some of these ideas into a physical form or experience.

Open Media Lab from the University of Auckland School of Architecture will provide their Hololenses, by Microsoft, to show some of the possibilities with augmented reality devices.

We will also display a selection of futuristic projects from the University of Auckland and UNITEC Schools of Architecture.

Later, we hope to attract more funding and support to collaborate further with engineers and fabricators, such as Fisher and Paykel, and other creative professionals to further develop and prototype these new technologies and materials.

Why did you choose this particular topic?

In a world that is slowly being destroyed by human infrastructure and lifestyle, through resource depletion, deforestation, excessive waste and pollution, humanity faces an unprecedented urgency to change our current model of life.

Current fossil-fuel-driven methods of generating power and materials are normalised and retained through habit, dated technologies and established industries and corporations.

These methods not only continuously harm and exploit the health of all beings, the resources we are using are limited.

Architects play a key role in creating better communities and a better environment, both man-made and natural, so we must take this responsibility seriously and push for some bold shifts to address the accelerating degradation of the environment.

While specialisation has led to expertise and new discoveries, it has also helped people lose focus on the bigger picture and priorities in life.

We need to work closely with other disciplines, such as science, to come up with new infrastructures, building methodologies and materials that work to reverse some of the damage and create cities and homes that work in harmony with nature.

In parallel to this process we need to find and encourage new ways of living that are not creating negative impacts on our environment or our health.

Specifically, what exactly is "bio-design" and what elements does it incorporate?

Bio-design encompasses a lot of ideas and technologies from biomimicry to re-programming DNA to create renewable and living structures.

The latter, while not free from controversy, offers too many positive possibilities not to pursue.

The urgent need to reform current practices towards an approach that is more in tune with our planet and eco-systems makes change for both how we work and live inevitable.

How is this concept - especially when it comes to infusing VR and AR technology - a step beyond green building design as we've known it over the past decade or two?

It has been approximately 35 years since scientists first altered a bacterium's DNA.

Ethics is a big issue for both bio-design and artificial intelligence, so this could be one of the biggest hurdles we are facing at the moment.

Green building design as we currently know it still relies, to some extent, on an industry that is still dominated by petrochemicals.

Although they are definitely making good progress, the changes that need to be made, need to be made by governments who must be prepared to shut down large industries and embrace and pursue new technologies.

We believe that in a country like New Zealand, with a small population and early adopter attitude, we should really be pushing towards these kinds of new ideas.

In Kenya for example, a country that up until now has been a big manufacturer of plastic bags, has just banned them completely and implemented the harshest law worldwide against using or making plastic bags that can lead to imprisonment.

Intelligence technologies offer a way of making processes more responsive and more efficient.

3D printing means that your structural components, for example, would only need to deal with the forces they are supporting, and so the conventional beams and connectors that we are used to could look quite different.

Home design, despite technological advances, hasn't changed a lot over the last 50 years.

New automation technologies are starting to come in but we think that things could potentially change in a much more radical way, if we combined design and technologically together in a much more seamless fashion.

Both the types of appliances and types of spaces found in a home will change in the near future.

An example of Atelier Aitken's
An example of Atelier Aitken's "alpine" bio-design concept. Photo / Supplied

Artificial intelligence could be a huge game changer.

We see intelligence technologies such as AI and AR as offering good opportunities for improving your health.

For example, in a school of the future project, where we are trying to combat increasingly sedentary lifestyles, we imagine that educational games will be developed and played "physically" at school using AR technology.

Our home appliances will start to evolve into other things.

In this project, one of our challenges has been trying to imagine the kitchen of the future.

We see the urban kitchen as having a series of modular glass vessels, which store and distribute the food.

We imagine that the bulk of food store replenishment may be done in an automated fashion, to remove the need for any packaging.

Our so-called "fridge" could evolve into our personal therapist, doctor and nutritionist, in one.

We could get our daily health scan and then the kitchen of the future can concoct the perfect meal or smoothie for our physical or mental wellbeing.

We can tap into a database to follow other people's diets or cuisine creations and doctors and other researchers can also learn from us, if we were prepared to let our data be distributed.

New intelligent machines can get to know our patterns and desires more intuitively.

Maybe a morning chat with this mysterious machine will help us get our thoughts in order for the day.

We see the bed becoming a relaxation or rejuvenating therapy pod that can also improve your mental and physical wellbeing.

So do we have any real-life examples yet?

Honestly, this technology is still in its early days and so it's difficult to find real-life examples.

The Genetic Barcelona Project is pushing towards having the first bio-luminescent trees to replace street lighting.

Bioluminescent lighting, which comes from introducing the gene for luminescent protein production from jellyfish, consumes very little energy and produces no harmful waste.

In the Netherlands, DELFT University uses bacteria to "heal" cracks in concrete.

This process isn't too different to the way in which bacteria can be used to convert sand into sandstone.

How exactly does this kind of green design stand to benefit both those who interact with it and our environment?

Although we have narrowed down our output to four types of dwellings, the ideas all address much bigger picture issues, which will benefit all and of course our environment.

Physically, the technology could potentially be used for much larger structures.

Our coastal scheme looks at a way in using new technologies to control erosion and oceanic pollution.

The forest scheme looks at vertical farming, which would reduce the amount of land needed for farming and replant those areas as forest, which absorb CO2 and other harmful gases.

It also looks at other bio-technologies such as chemical free farming and bio-luminescence.

Our alpine scheme looks at many biotechnologies but the thing that is particular to that scheme is the fact that 3D printing with different materials allows for a totally different construction method, such as a "spiky" facade that's been proposed.

The spikes allow the building to retain a layer of snow over the winter months, to act as natural insulation, while also letting in light.

Are there any challenges or hurdles that is holding this innovative form of design back?

The main hurdle for carrying out these kinds of designs initially is probably finding organisations who want to fund the development and prototyping phases.

Another issue with all new discoveries and technologies is the cellular nature of research, where people all over the world could be discovering the same things and not sharing their knowledge in a way that can be used for our universal good.

Ultimately, what future do you see for it?

We definitely see a long-term future for these technologies as we simply cannot, as human beings, carry on as we are.

We see this initial part of the project as a stepping stone to building awareness and attracting more funding for developing these new, positive possibilities for our future.

We really believe that New Zealand would be a great place to try to develop these new ideas, technologies and way of life - taking us back into the future.