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Interview with Melissa Sterry on biodesign, biomimetic cities, and more

Darran Anderson interviews design scientist and systems theorist Melissa Sterry on biodesign, biomimetic cities, and more. Melissa is recognised as a world leading authority on the science, technology and thinking that could help build a better world.

Darran is the author of books including Imaginary Cities which was listed in the Financial Times Bests Books of 2015.

Melissa Sterry

Darran: We tend to focus on the macrocosm of the city but you’ve shown there’s much to learn from the microcosm: crystals, cells, flora and fauna, metabolic processes and so on. Have we been dwelling too much on the shell of architecture at the expense of the biology, chemistry and physics of the city?

Melissa: My experience of most late 20th and early 21st century built city architectures has been that of a crescendo of materialism, and of all that it constitutes; ego, inequality, division, ostentatiousness, and superficiality. However, that which has manifested is by no means for want of original architectural ideas, inventiveness, and ambition. There are plenty of wonderfully inspired and experimental projects at the intersection of science, arts and humanities, and slowly, but surely we’re seeing a progression towards more interdisciplinary design thinking and practice.

Darran: Part of the problem, your work suggests, is that we tend to resort to limiting binaries – the man-made and the organic, the city and the country etc – and miss the interconnected and inter-dependent processes between all these things. Do we forget that the city is an environment or even a series of environments?

Melissa: Are humans really so different from animals? For example, our closest living relatives – chimps – are highly territorial, so much so as to have been observed beating their neighbours to death in turf wars. Arguably, our behaviour is akin to that of chimps, for what are cities, if not demarcations of boundaries? But, like those of chimps, the boundaries we draw are not just culturally specific, but they are species specific. I think it imperative that all they as are stakeholders in our cities remember this, and no less so than architects, planners, policymakers, and financiers.

Darran: We’ve spoken before of the danger of much-touted Green Cities being superficial and dealing, literally and figuratively, in window-dressing. Is there a need to go beyond the surface or even beyond the emphasis on the visual look of cities being a dominating factor in our designs?

Melissa: Architecturally, the only thing I find more disappointing than a green-washed ghetto of the future is one that’s won an award. No names mentioned, but let’s just say I’m not a fan of trees on balconies being dubbed an ‘urban forest’. In this, the information age, I think there no excuse for abject ecological ignorance. It’s simple, if an architect or a planner has no understanding, let alone credentials in ecology, they need reach out to they that have. If they understand not why, a browser search on’ biodiversity loss’ and ‘planetary boundaries’ ought help resolve the issue.

Darran: Bionic City has a fascinating breadth as well as depth; taking in design, science, architecture, urban planning amongst other disciplines. Does the future lie with polymaths? A Renaissance, perhaps, of the Renaissance figure?

Melissa: I think the future lies with they that build bridges, not walls. Disciplinary divides are yet another form of culturally defined boundary, the outline of which shift over time and geography. I think the qualities inherent in Bionic City and my wider research activities, namely interdisciplinary research that combines the sciences, arts and humanities, is manifest in a great many other projects, both in the field of biodesign and far beyond.

Darran: Given that many of the problems we face have resulted from the side-effects of technological innovations and developments (mostly from the industrial age), how conscious are you of side-effects when formulating ideas and proposals?

Melissa: When formulating ideas and proposals I feel acutely conscious of the fact that some of our greatest current and future challenges stem, and in many instances directly, from the unintended consequences of technological innovations. To that end, I feel the utmost need for due diligence when considering the merits of both my own work, and that which I am called upon to assess, be it my capacity as a peer-reviewer, awards jury member, or mentor to young researchers and creatives.

Darran: One of the problems with cities facing climate change is that it’s taking place so incrementally and over a period of time beyond election cycles and our tendency for short-term solutions so it’s rendered somewhat intangible. It appears perpetually delayed (even as it’s inexorably happening) and so too do the responses to it. Do you think we’ve gone past the stage of solely preventative measures and, if so, will this require the development of much more adaptive cities than we currently inhabit?

Melissa: The motto “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” applies to my research and development approach. My head tells me that the sum of our best data points to a future incomparably more environmentally, economically, and politically volatile than at present. My heart tells me that many tens of thousands of years illustrate that Homo sapiens possess an extraordinary capacity to adapt. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that historically another saying “necessity is the mother of invention” holds true. My guess is as good as yours as to whether or not humanity’s past is indicative of its future. But, I find it greatly reassuring that there are some 7 billion plus people as can potentially participate in building a more resilient society, of which I think radically more adaptive cities need be part.

Darran: I see a lot of plans where cities have clearly gone beyond learning from other cities (Copenhagen, London, Dubai, Songdo etc) and enter the territory of mimicry; very often in forms ill-suited to local conditions and needs. How important is a diversity of models when considering future cities? Should we be thinking in terms of futures, in the plural?

Melissa: Many future city proposals appear to be slapdash and lazy, and in all regards, not merely that of copycat tendencies. However, most often it appears the causation is not born of any lack of good will, but is the result of projects being too consumed by profit, the consequence of which is inappropriately small research and development timeframes, budgets and teams as might produce the caliber of work befitting of such an important task. However, I think things are generally changing for the better, and notably so since 2009.

Darran: A great deal of our approaches to future design seem to be in response to mitigating problems (waste for example). Your approach seems much more proactive, positive, advancing ideas and creating rather than fighting in retreat. Do you think we start off on a reactive or even negative footing and are you optimistic about the future?

Melissa: In my experience, it is not the foremost optimistic as tend produce the most interesting and robust ideas. On the contrary, I find it tends be the inherently cautious, or more specifically, they as are inclined to dig deep into the details, and that remain grounded in regard of the size of the possible contribution they might make. For this reason, be it in regard of future cities, or anything else, I tend be a little wary of anyone that thinks they have all the answers and everything is going to pan out to their exact specifications! That said, given the fact that the more innovative an idea, the harder its creators generally need work to research, develop and distribute it, a reasonable quota of confidence is beneficial!

Darran: Which developments interest and excite you most in your own work or that of others?

Melissa: The thing that excites me most about my work, and that of many peers, is a clear convergence of values, ideas, and ethics. The reason for this is that the life and works of the individual whom has inspired me most – Leonardo da Vinci – make it much evident that no matter how great an individual’s capacity for invention and innovation, they alone will not bring about change at scale. Communities at the local, national, and global scale do make change, which is just one of the reasons why I align myself with respected others whose research seeks to meet similar aims to my own.


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