Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Eng: Luisa Bertolatti

With the definition of “hybrid design”, a project planning approach is intended so that it may borrow the complexities embedded in the logic, in the codes and the principles of the biological world and insert these into the culture of the project itself. In hybrid design the complex qualities drawn from the biological world are transferred to the design of products and innovative services as if it were a sort of “new genetic code”.

To obtain this objective the most recent achievements in biological science and their correlated theoretical speculations are taken as a reference point, with the will to overcome the common basis of aesthetical and formal metaphors and face a more difficult path of scientific substance, based on a specific methodology put into use and verified through theoretical and planned research.

The current biological knowledge has revealed that biological systems don't always function in an “exact” way, but rather it is their complexity that allows them to survive despite changes in external or internal conditions. These complexities are borrowed by Hybrid Design through the transferral of biological strategies into design itself, in order to “un-reveal” new fields of conceptual and operative experimentation

Cycles of Nature

To adopt codes, principles and logic drawn from biology into design means not only to be inspired by how nature creates its products, but most of all how it develops them, makes them grow and keeps them alive. In this way there is an evolution of the bio-inspired planned paradigm that is no longer based on the question: “how does nature develop biological systems” but adds: “how does nature make them grow and keep them alive?”.

From the answer to these questions the main principles targeted at the closure of the cycles of useful resources for the design and the development of artefacts compatible with biological cycles can be drawn, which regulate the lives of men and the natural environment in a zero emission or cradle to cradle view. The concept of a cycle is actually connected to that of a biological time cycle. Natural processes happen in cycles, the refusals of certain systems become resources for others. The durability of materials must be in proportion to the durability of the life of the products where they are used. To learn to design projects in nature also means to learn how to apply cycle patterns that are closed and belong to biological processes.

There is a substantial difference between the way man produces and the way nature produces. Man develops his own artefacts, takes primary materials from nature and transforms them in order to obtain products that, when their function has terminated, become waste, mostly unusable waste that accumulates in the environment and damages it.

Nature, on the other hand, takes primary materials, transforms them and creates its own products that grow, reproduce and at the end of their life return to biological cycles and are integrated into them. In nature everything is reused and recycled. According to the biological metaphors used by bio-inspired design, every product, or system of products, can be compared to an organism where every part, even if with different life cycles, is connected to each other through complex relationships. Often the different components of a product are characterised by their different durability and different obsolescence times. The choice of materials to be used and the eventual ad hoc design of some of these must, therefore, keep in mind the necessity to prepare for the different technical elements connected to different life cycles.

In prefiguring these cycles it is necessary to dedicate the utmost attention to their environmental impact and their durability, which must be compatible with the estimate, in relation to their specificity in their appliance. In particular, it is indispensable to pre-evaluate the environmental performance of all the materials and components in the phases that come straight after their dismissal, such as re-usage, recycling and new possible cycles of life.

The attention toward temporal cycles of material induces the use of recyclable materials, which come from renewable primary materials or biodegradable materials that can be composted, for products that have very short life cycles, like packaging systems or so-called “disposable” products, like the “moscardino” developed by Matteo Ragni and Giulio Iachetti for Pandora Design. In these cases the capacity that the material has in being disposed into the environment avoids increasing volumes of solid deposited waste.


In design the concept of autonomy can be interpreted and transferred as an autonomy from maintenance operations, from cleaning, restoration and substitution, which are precious qualities as they avoid the environmental impacts connected to them. Main principles targeted toward the autonomy of artefacts can be drawn from biological systems throughout their life cycle in energy terms, and at the end of the cycles and resources. Environmentally-friendly design can learn from nature: for example, the most adapt strategies in order to use renewable energy resources, or to recycle un-renewable energy resources, to reuse waste products, up until the most complex strategies such as those based on the capacity of self-monitoring or self-healing.

Many biological systems are capable of modifying their own characteristics in function of the change in external factors, so that they may survive despite such changes. This is what happens in the phenomenon of self-healing many plants and animals posses. In living organisms, for example, a wound generates a self-healing mechanism.

In the human body, when a wound is inflicted, there is an immediate flux of liquids corresponding to the direct area of the body involved, that activates a series of physical reactions capable of closing up the wound. By using analogous strategies, some researchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology from the University of Illinois, coordinated by Scott White, have developed "self-healing polymers", composite polymers capable of repairing themselves (1), that could be used, wherever there is a small rupture, in the design of various types or products in order to avoid the entire substitution or dismissal of the whole damaged object. Microcapsules are integrated into these composites that open and release a resin that instantly polymerises the rupture and closes the fracture in the matrix (2). The research in the field of new materials and the evolution of new production technologies offer increasing opportunities in terms of energy autonomy like photovoltaic technologies in very fine and flexible films, that allow for the autonomy of electrical appliances of all shapes and sizes.

Self-organization and adaptation.

The concept of self-organisation has crossed many disciplines and so has adopted various definitions. According to complexity theorists, self-organisation seems to be one of the most important principles in the capacity for evolution, as it is translated into a capacity to generate potentially successful structures in the natural selection. The systems capable of organising themselves spontaneously increase their own probability of further evolution. The self-organised characteristics are also more easily remodelled, and so are more flexible. In order to survive the change in external or internal conditions, organisms tend to modify themselves and evolve over time, so that they may use their own resources in the most efficient way possible. The concept of self-organisation has been transferred onto various disciplinary fields.

In design, the transferral of concepts of self-organisation and adaptability onto artefacts means to intervene and make the relationship between the essence of the material and its performance more complex. The adaptability of a product can be intended as the capacity to modify its own characteristics according to the mutation of external conditions, so it could be translated as a flexibility of performance or multi-functionality. The French designer Mathieu Lehanneur, who obtained the Carte Blanche VIA 2006 by designing the "Elements" collection, made up of elements for the home, capable of self-adapting dynamically to the variations of external conditions, in order to create comfortable conditions. Objects that modify their performance in relation to stimuli from their use or from the environment.

The concept of self-organisation is important from the point of view of being eco-friendly in terms of saving material and energy resources. A system is made to be adaptable by forecasting possible changes that it must adapt to, even if this regards a mere part of it. In this way it is possible to extend the useful life of a product considerably. Design products must therefore be adaptable and upgradable in relation to the variations of the technological scenarios, of the economical environment and the conditions and user requirements. The planned and developed objects must be flexible, modular and reconfigurable be it from a performance point of view to a dimensional and aesthetical point of view; these are more likely to last longer and therefore can be used for a longer period of time and so gain a considerable environmental advantage connected to saving material and energy resources necessary for its maintenance or substitution for the longest time possible.

The Holographic Principle

The holographic principle of complexity, which living organisms are based on, foresees that: not only is a part a fraction of the whole, but the whole is included in that part (3). The cell, for example, is part of the organism, which also contains the genetic information of the whole.

Based on the biological metaphor, the artefacts can be interpreted as organisms, where each part, each element, participates in a global planning strategy extended to infinite levels that go from nanometres to macro-metres.

Hybrid design adopts a bio-mimetic metaphor, where in the design of artefacts these are considered as organisms, where each element, according to the holographic principle, to all the scales, from those of the materials to the macroscopic ones, participate in a common global concept. In the design field for eco-friendly products, this approach can offer a methodological structure where eco-friendly and bio-inspired strategies are reflected in all the dimensions and all the phases of the life cycle of the product, as a sort of “genetic code” capable of creating a system coherence for the project which can be very useful in obtaining the best possible result in terms of minimisation of environmental impact.

Redundancy and Multi-functionality

Biological systems posses a quality defined as “redundancy”, which allows them to survive despite the most unpredictable and dangerous events, responding to these through the use of elements or characteristics that are apparently “superfluous”, whose existence proves vital only when there is a necessity for them. Often design strategies oriented toward environmentally friendly products tend toward a certain minimisation. The concept of redundancy seems therefore to be the antithesis of this kind of approach. But in some cases, redundancy constitutes an efficient solution in order to avoid wasting resources. For example, the use of protective films applied to highly perishable surfaces or surfaces that are in constant use, like flooring in places where there is the frequent passage of people or equipment, make the conservation of components or parts of buildings last longer, which would otherwise require continuous replacement with consequential environmental relapses.

Redundancy can also be functional. In nature the majority of elements are multifunctional because the environmental conditions change from moment to moment and the biological systems must be ready to respond with one of their possible functions. Some insects, for example, have different pairs of legs; each one has a different function. Multi-functionality is a consolidated tendency in contemporary design, life rhythms are increasingly frenetic and their constant changes require that products for daily use be transformable, mutable, capable of adapting to changes in necessities and external conditions.

Multi-functional or redundant objects and components can adapt more easily to different applications from the point of view of performance, and therefore are capable of “surviving” for longer.

Devices that incorporate different functions like electro-chromic glass, that combine glass and sun screen in one unique object, or electroluminescent and photo luminescent materials that combine different elements necessary to create a lamp such as a light source, electrical cables, switches, stand and diffusers in one material system.
To integrate functions into one unique product means to save, in economical terms as well as environmental terms, material and energy resources necessary to create the different products that are to e substituted


(1) S.R. White, N.R. Sottos, P.H. Geubelle, J.S. Moore, M.R. Kessler, S.R. Sriram, E.N. Brown, S. Viswanathan: "Autonomic healing of polymer composites", Nature. 2001 409, 794-797.

(2) Brown, E.N., White, S.R. and Sottos, N.R. "Retardation and repair of fatigue cracks in a microcapsule toughened epoxy composite-Part II: In situ self-healing". Composite Science and Technology, Special Anniversary Issue. 2005: 65, 2474-2480.

(3) Morin E., Le Moigne J.L. (1999). L'Intelligence de la Complexité . L'Harmattan. Paris.

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