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Faculty Spotlight: Professor Jane Pirone Discusses Future of Biodesign

Three petri dishes

Biodesign has taken center stage in sustainability conversations around the world. In this Q&A, Associate Professor of Design Ecologies Jane Pirone discusses our newest Parsons certificate, the Biodesign for Creatives Certificate, that’s paving the way to sustainable change.

So what types of things can biodesign do? Researchers at Kent State University recently developed a biodegradable plastic from cornstarch capable of replacing traditional plastic. At Arizona State University, in interior design, biodesign has been used to create living walls and other natural features to purify the air and create healthy indoor environments.

In the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons, they’re creating and testing material alternatives for architecture and interior design like mycellium and hemp bricks.

Here’s what Professor Jane Pirone had to say about the other possibilities:

1. What will students achieve by taking this three-course program? What skills will they come away with?

Biodesign is an approach and practice that prioritizes environmental sustainability, ecological interdependence, and a shift in humanity’s relationship to the natural world, using living organisms and biological processes to create new materials, products, and systems. The field is critical to the creation of a circular economy. In this program, students will gain skills that can be applied to any industry sector. 

Understanding the diverse range of new bio-technologies, theory, and design methods will provide students exciting new ways of working more sustainably, ethically, and creatively. Students will explore how to design for humans while also supporting biodiversity, reducing our carbon footprint and energy consumption, eliminating chemical toxicity, and respecting ecological interdependence and planetary health. Designers have a major role to play across every level of a business or project–from conception to disassembly–and through the supply chain.

2. If applicable, how will students’ products be more eco-friendly after their study? 

The certificate will provide strategic methods for environmentally safe and beneficial outcomes within the design process. These methods can be applied to all world-building practices and projects–whether materially-based, service design-oriented, or speculatively-driven–via the principles and an understanding of the living systems and bio-based techniques that can inform their work.

Cross sections of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables in kitchen

This three-course program will take students beyond human-centered design—from screening for polluted water (bacteria-based arsenic detection sensors ), interior design (biofabricated mycelium lights), and the business strategy of a restaurant (Riverpark) to creating biodegradable straws (Loliware) and all the way to the fashion runway, where the textiles are as sustainable and regenerative as the event itself (TomTex).

3. How is biodesign applicable in the real world? What is biodesign’s impact on the environment, the world, and our lives? How will these new applications look and function?

According to ASU, our interactions with our environment themselves come with challenges, like energy production and toxic pollutants. “Biodesign is taking on these challenges by finding new, sustainable ways to generate energy, food, renewable plastics and other materials, as well as by studying how environmental factors affect human health and [how to remove] harmful plastics, chemicals, and other pollutants from our water and soil,” says the university.

Person in bunny man eating plant

This study and its applications have the power to transform our world–and the way we live our lives. “Using life in design also opens up new avenues to problem-solving through the enormous diversity represented by living systems, built upon billions of years of trial-and-error in the evolutionary history of life on Earth,” says Kent State University.

4. Can you speak to biodesign applications in areas such as fashion design, product design, or interior design, for example?

Today, designers are leading the way in natural dying practices as well as by using bacteria to create dyes, inks, and pigments for textiles and other printing uses. Many new design companies have commercialized new materials that provide alternatives to leather, lace, and concrete (biofabricate and modern meadow), like kombucha, mycelium, and hemp.

Weaving bio-based approaches into the largest design-driven companies and manufacturers has the potential to transform our material world toward a circular economy, reduce waste and toxicity, and limit our dependence on fossil fuels. One of the most common applications of biodesign is to develop, design, and use biomaterial-based products and textiles/fabrics to increase biodegradability–while limiting environmental impacts.

Want to take a dive into biodesign (and help your organization reach new and sustainable heights? Check out our new certificate, Biodesign for Creatives.

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