Metabolic Efficiency as Design

An Interview with Andrea Ling

“We need to think about biological systems on their own terms. All these really remarkable things like renewal, reproduction, repair are possible because of certain responsive qualities that also make the system unpredictable and difficult to navigate.”


Andrea Ling is an architect and artist working at the intersection of design, fabrication, and biology. A maker of process before form, and, in working with autonomous organisms as design partners, Andrea has a special interest in how designers might accommodate variation and agency within the design process and the resulting cultural implications of this accommodation that might arise. Her work, both solo and group, ranges from wearable sculpture to large-scale public art installations with a focus on immersive work that affects the bodily experience and exhibits responsivity. Andrea obtained her MS from MIT and her M.Arch from the University of Waterloo with a background in human physiology from the University of Alberta. On becoming a member of the Mediated Matter group, her research into biologically mediated design processes began to shift to focus on living systems as a medium for design expression, and as a viable way of constructing responsive material relationships between body and environment. She is the recipient of 2019 Ginkgo Bioworks residency, where she developed modes of designed decay in man-made artifacts, with a focus on biologically derived materials.

Templating fungal growth, 2018. Chitosan, cellulose, vermiculite, brown rice, pink oyster mushroom spores. photos by Andrea Ling.

It is a common cultural trend to use our most advanced technologies as metaphors for the nature of reality. Reflecting on your recent residency at Ginkgo Bioworks, you write that synthetic biology relies heavily on computing metaphors. What issues do you see in equating living systems with computational systems? Can you please give us some examples about why this is a problem?

Computational metaphors can help us understand biological engineering capabilities to a certain extent, as they help make the processes of programming life functions accessible and tangible, but we need to be cognizant of their limitations. One is that this technology is still nascent and the degree to which we can program living organisms with predictable results is still extremely difficult, time consuming and limited to certain organisms. By using these metaphors, we are implying the same level of control that we have with digital computation. When you talk to someone like Josh Dunn, a computational biologist at Ginkgo – he might agree that extremely simple life forms are programmable at a DNA level – unicellular life. But this is not the case with any eukaryotic life forms. With most of biology, one can have influence, but not total control.
In industries such as agriculture or animal breeding, we’ve been trying different ‘recipes’ of control for hundreds of years – and it had odd results. We are able to create gigantic quantities of crops but many of them are monocultures that are increasingly vulnerable to disease. Or with animals, some of the inbreeding mechanisms to make pure strains makes these animals extremely sick or fragile. This is not to say that synthetic biology is an unpredictable mess. As Christina Agapakis, the creative director of Ginkgo, says, “you don’t wake up one day and you’re a lizard.” What she means is that there is a broad level of predictability and reliability to biological systems. But there is also room for a lot of individual scale variation. We see that everywhere, looking at leaves from the same tree, or people from the same family.
What I find as a bigger problem in the computational metaphor is the economic framework that is inherent in industrial systems (which I believe a computational system is) and applying that to a living system. The first metaphor Thomas J. Watson uses to explain how a computer processes data is the way a factory can process iron ore to make steel. Notice that there is no mechanism to replace the ore.
Consequently, ideas of resource processing and industrial manufacture also become embedded into the language we use to describe synthetic biology. This is problematic because the paradigms of industrial processes center on extraction, consumption and domination of natural resources. Dominance and control are inherent to industrial systems because they extoll standardization and predictability and coupled with this are ideas of exploitation rather than partnership. And when working with biological systems, I believe that partnership is the type of relationship we have to nurture in order to be successful.

Left side, biological material system experiments using pectin-chitosan-cellulose composites. Right side, tripod structures made of pectin-chitosan-cellulose composites using enzymatic degradation (pectinases and chitonases) as subtractive fabrication tool. Photos by Ally Schmaling. Source: Ginkgo Bioworks.

Conversely, you speak about biological systems in terms of restorative power, unpredictability, and limitation. What advantages might we gain from thinking through a biological systems metaphor (for example, growth cycles, nurturing, mutation, etc.) in lieu of the controllable computing metaphor?

Our economic systems are based on endless growth predicated on endless supply and consumption, in linear supply chains. We know this is not possible in biological systems. Culture something in a petri dish and eventually your culture will starve if you don’t feed it or it will die in its own waste. There are no mechanisms for nutrient input or waste disposal here and no way for the culture to reach a dynamic homeostasis. We need to think about biological systems on their own terms. All these really remarkable things like renewal, reproduction, repair are possible because of certain responsive qualities that also make the system unpredictable and difficult to navigate because we are trained to understand static systems. If we can study and learn from this we will start to make progress.

You write that the efficiency of biology is metabolic. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by metabolic efficiency? How does this differ from economic efficiency?

Biological systems have a metabolism to maintain a steady state. There is a constant circle of matter and energy and the exchange between the two. Metabolic efficiency is the efficiency gained from using that energy or matter better. Metabolism finds a way to use fewer resources or use those resources better in order to survive, grow, and thrive. There is also a need to dispose of the unwanted parts better or to transform them and make them usable again. It is a systems-level efficiency. Even though an individual step or mechanism may seem weird – like having a leaky membrane that lets bad things in as well as good things – when you take the steps together as an aggregate it provides for the most resilient, adaptable, and efficient way of surviving. This is really different from industrial and economic efficiency especially in manufacturing when the cost of making something includes the cost of the material and the labour but doesn’t take into account the cost of disposal or things like material extraction very well. There are parts missing from the circle which makes this a really poor indication of cost at a systems level and is thus a very narrow definition of efficiency and distorted view of worth. The other difference between these efficiencies is the unit of worth, money versus carbon or perhaps heat; one of these is a societal construct that is artificial and the other is environmental and biological.

We found it fascinating that you introduced natural decay as a design strategy for your residency at Ginkgo Bioworks. Can you tell us more about the programming of obsolescence versus the straightforward loss of utility? Where does this boundary become blurry?

I don’t think I’m programming obsolescence into objects. I am programming transformations or mechanisms for material transformations into them. One thing to consider is that I’m creating art objects without any functional capacity. When I think about iPhones and how Apple programs obsolescence into them and required OS updates that make the phone slower and more annoying to use – this is what I think loss of utility is. This is not what I’m attempting. I’m trying to gain access to circular systems by programming transformation into the material from their conception rather than something that is applied to them as an after thought.

What does waste mean in a non-anthropocentric perspective?

Waste is a decidedly human invention. I recognize that what I make will eventually be garbage. So I feel I should design with this future garbage in mind and make that garbage useful, if not to me, then to some other organism or system. I am trying to adopt a non-human centric design methodology, as I think human centered design pedagogy has exacerbated the ecological consequences of some really selfish tendencies towards convenience and capitalism. Nature doesn’t have waste, it simply re-organizes matter and energy. Utility is not lost, it is just changed to become useful for something else that isn’t necessarily me or another human. Decay and renewal are paired, so I’m trying to figure out a design strategy that takes into account both creation and destruction as concurrent processes.

How do you balance the functional versus aesthetic capacities of the artifacts you create? Do you intend your work to be functional at all?

Right now I’m working in the space between design and art objects — rather than immediate functionality, I’m focused on novel processes and material systems that could potentially have practical use, so in that way the work is functional, even though the resulting artifact is not. The bioplastics that I helped develop at MIT could have functional use as degradable packaging material and there are already labs and companies working on that. But our design contribution was to develop a way to scale the technology to make large scale artifacts with the same material system that people want to use to replace plastic bags.
At Ginkgo, I was trying to figure out a way of embedding enzymes in the same materials and use them as a subtractive fabrication method. I think this has many functional implications. I am a process designer first and the object is usually a thing I can try to make with a new process or new material that embodies certain qualities I want.

Do you think there is such a thing as an aesthetics of living systems?

Given the diversity of form, structure, and aesthetics of living systems this is difficult to answer. I think the aesthetics of living systems are linked in that they reflect the process by which that system was made. There is evidence of growth, or remnants of metamorphosis in many living systems. I also think that working with systems that have the type of agency that living systems have results in work that looks a lot messier and less standardized that what we are used to. But that might be because bio-design is still a fairly young discipline.

In another project of yours, you worked with a non-human collaborator - silkworms - to create planar textiles. What do you think of the role of non-human parties in biodesign and fabrication - tools, materials, collaboration?

A really key part of working with non-human collaborators is to recognize their agency and what might bias them or incentivize them to do something that you as a human designer also want. What can you do of benefit to the system they exist in? What are the tolerances that can be accepted in a design strategy that employs autonomous biological agents as co-designer, co-fabricators, and general partners? Which errors or variations are ok? With domesticated silkworm farms, the silkworms will make cocoons and then workers collect them and boil the cocoons to get the silk. So, getting them to make flat sheets would be to their advantage (if you accept the inequity that they have been domesticated to human purposes). At the same time, it is their instinct to make cocoons and we disrupt this instinct by not giving them a Z-axis to build off of. They need to expel silk or else they will die, so we are basically forcing them to spin flat sheets by removing the Z-axis from their environment. This is really challenging ethical territory to navigate. On one hand, here is a way to get silk from an animal that allows it to live its full life and not kill it. On the other hand, we are disrupting what it would naturally do. Where is this ok? Where is it not? My hope is that when looking at non-human agents to work with in design, that we understand enough of these potential partners to really treat them as partners rather than as slaves.