Designers must “equip nature with the diversity of waste it needs to work its magic faster,” says Jalila Essaïdi


Sustainable design only transmits environmental problems to the next generation, argues designer Jalila Essaïdi in her manifesto Dezeen 15. Instead, we have to accept that nature finds inventive ways to deal with our waste.


“Sustainable design strategies may seem logical in our current capitalist system,” she writes. “Yet they only pass the problem on to the next generation”, postponing the inevitable “assimilation of anthropogenic effects, processes, objects and materials by nature.”

Instead, designers should “equip nature with the diversity of trash it needs to work its magic faster,” she argues. Left to her own devices, nature will transform “poisons into exotic engine pistons”, writes the Dutch designer in her manifesto.

Dezeen 15 is a digital festival celebrating Dezeen’s 15th anniversary. From November 1 to 19, 15 different designers from around the world will come up with ideas to make the world a better place for the next 15 years. See the program here.


Consumerism, materialism and waste

A strange disturbance in ecological thinking has taken hold of our thought processes: the ecological view of the apocalypse. This is a vision fueled by the current environmental threats that have made recent headlines.

Beginning in the 1960s, eco-communities predicted a new phase for this planet, moving people from an era of plenty to an era of scarcity. The most radical thinkers among them advocate depopulation and degrowth, warning us to make voluntary adjustments now in order to avoid making unintentional changes later.

This apocalyptic distortion of ecology treats nature in an unnatural way, like a foster mother, a protector of the Garden of Eden; a garden that our consumerism, our materialism and our waste have destroyed; a garden that she will bring back if only we get rid of man-made waste and pollutants.

Driven by solastalgia, this thought form may make sense, but if you look at the whole, this idea couldn’t be further from the truth. Nothing is more indifferent to the sanctity of its environment than nature, especially life. It is the essence of life, due to our life sustaining metabolism, consuming and producing waste.

Nothing is more indifferent to the sanctity of its environment than nature

For billions of years, countless waste-producing and scattering bacteria, with their environmental indifference and reckless irresponsibility, have tainted this once pristine landscape. This soil, this layer of garbage, this increasingly complex layer of waste, is what gives this planet its very name: earth.

Life has littered this place with its tubes, its shells and its countless pollutants and poisons. Yet one’s poison can be another’s paradise, like what happened with the deadly byproduct of ancient cyanobacteria: oxygen.

Driven by an inventiveness that pales in comparison to anything humans have ever accomplished, it’s nature that turns these poisons into exotic engine pistons that never should have been. Thanks to this inventiveness, the outrageous and irresponsible garbage of the first generation turns into a treasure upon which a second generation thrives.

In light of all this, one would think that adding self-aware life would act as a catalyst for inventiveness. Yet it is clear in our design approaches that we still lack an understanding of this resource.

We design products with increased longevity; less polluting processes; repairable products; reusable products; recyclable processes and products using less packaging. All of these sustainable design strategies may seem logical in our current capitalist system.

Yet they only pass the problem on to the next generation, accomplishing nothing more than postponing the inevitable: the total assimilation of anthropogenic effects, processes, objects and materials by nature.

We should design for the maximum probability that nature will do something outrageous

The only way to achieve the above, while humanity is still here, is to harness the unknown potential of this resource called inventiveness. Much like the “black box” of artificial neural networks, which is ruled by the presence of chaos with high degrees of freedom, we are beginning to understand that inventiveness is not motivated purely by logic and reason. , but also by a factor that cannot be interpreted.

To incorporate this knowledge into design, we need a whole different mindset and a new approach to design: we need to design for the maximum likelihood that nature will do something outrageous.

And nature is already behaving badly, producing fungi that break down radioactive material and bacteria that can eat plastics. This mindset shouldn’t have to offer straightforward solutions. However, this should pave the way for an increased likelihood of nature’s interaction in new ways: accelerating nature through design.

Just like in the biomedical field, the surface topographies of materials are optimized for cell adhesion using evolutionary algorithms, we need to design in such a way as to optimally allow chaos to form potential symbiotic relationships with our waste. .

This is a design not only with the human end user in mind, but rather a design that is mutually dependent on and beneficial to the health of all ecosystems. It is a design through which consumerism, materialism and waste equip nature with the diversity of waste it needs to work its magic faster and give birth to the new era of the Symbiocene.

Jalila Essaidi headshot for the Dezeen 15 festival
Above: portrait of Jalila Essaïdi photographed by Mike Roelofs. Above: Nature can already turn the planet’s waste into mushrooms

Jalila Essaïdi is a Dutch artist and inventor based in Eindhoven. She specializes in designing with bio-based materials such as recycled cow dung, which she used to create a fashion collection that explored how to turn waste into valuable products.

She is CEO of the biotechnology company Inspidere BV and founder of the arts foundation BioArt Laboratories in Eindhoven which offers entrepreneurs access to a biotechnology laboratory.

Find out more about Jalila Essaïdi ›

The illustration is by Dehlia McCarthy.


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