Member Stories

Bio-engineering the Smart City One Cell at a Time

Featuring Terreform ONE

Terreform ONE’s portfolio of ecological design projects is an expanding exhibition of the provocative being made practical. An emergency shelter that integrates crickets into its food supply (they can be ground up for protein); a house made of meat (extruded pig cells, really); and a chair made of mushroom spores (patented mycelium from Ecovative) are just a few of their recent undertakings. While all of these initiatives address very different urban design problems, what they share is a kind of innovative pruning of living things and materials to disrupt thinking and dislodge rigid assumptions about the built environment.

Over the last decade Terreform ONE has garnered a global reputation as being pioneers in provocative thinking: corporations like BASF are hiring them for research and development; graduate students from leading institutions all over the world compete to work with them; they’ve even been featured in the Venice Biennale.

Terraform has looked at urban environments through the building blocks of nature. It’s what lead Terraform’s founders Mitch Joachim and Maria Aiolova to start a DIY Biolab in collaboration with biologist Oliver Medvedik in 200___. The lab grew into Genspace, perhaps one of the first New York non-profits focused on bio hacking, with the belief that the next important breakthrough in biotech would come from a tinkerer, someone in the general public or an expert not having to work beholden to a corporation. In a sense, Genspace has created a garage for that to happen.

In fact, it was Nina Tandon’s tinkering and experimenting in this biolab that ultimately led her to start Epibone, a company focused on growing bone from stem cells. The firm’s proprietary tissue regrowth technology offers a means for patients to grow their own replacement bone tissue. By extracting a patient’s stem cells, EpiBone’s technology allows for “anatomically precise, patient-specific bone tissue replacements.” They use “bioreactors” to precondition and maturate bone tissue before integration back into the patient’s body. Their method provides a number of benefits: drastic reduction in the possibility of immune rejection (it’s the patient’s own tissue); less invasive surgery; and a more stable, long-term, organic repair solution.

We’re attempting to see the city and nature as one kind of super organism. What the future would be if architecture and biology became one.

In 2014, Joachim and Tandon collaborated on a book for TED’s publishing arm titled Super Cells: Building with Biology. Revealing a plethora of mind-blowing, but pragmatic applications for “nature’s elemental building block: the cell,” the book serves as a primer for the revolutionary biosynthetic technology work happening in and around the companies the authors helped found. Replacement bones grown in the lab; chairs and packaging made from mushroom spores; 3D printed organ and tissue scaffolds for generating everything from organs to houses—these are just a few of the awe inspiring and very real technologies being developed.

“We’re attempting to see the city and nature as one kind of super organism,” says Joachim, “what the future would be if architecture and biology became one.” Almost certainly, many of the ripples of innovation radiating out from Terreform ONE over the last decade, the new technologies, educational initiatives, and even entire enterprises spun off from them, are all traceable back to this unique firm’s MIT roots.

The collaborative atmosphere Terreform ONE brought from MIT is how they’ve been able to merge experts from a variety of disciplines and do paradigm changing work. The “Bio City Map of 11 Billion” project exemplifies this collaborative spirit. The project used cartographers, urban planners, biologists, and architects to come up with a unique way for people to visualize the socio-ecological dilemma of population growth.

“We’re very much interested in thinking what the future city could look like because we want to give people an idea of potentialities. We do this by visualizing what some of these ideas could be and getting everyone on board believing in one mission of pushing ecology in our cities,” says Melanie Fassel, Co- Founder & Director of Design. The Cricket House project is a case in point. It’s an emergency shelter design that addresses the issue of food supply systems in an emergency. There are a lot of shelter designs out there, but what’s not taken into account by these designs is the issue of accessible, clean food. A UN report that came out a couple of years ago concluded bugs like crickets are a feasible means for solving the world’s hunger crisis. Terreform ONE adopted this idea and came up with a design that includes a cache of crickets. These can be ground into flour to make protein-rich food.

Terreform ONE, the only non-profit taking up residence at New Lab, thinks about ways biotechnology can answer the most pressing problems of urban design because of its own internal motivations, but also because that’s what companies like BASF hire them to do. Vivian Kuan, Terreform ONE’s Executive Director, explains that people approach them when “they’re looking for a way to visualize or come up with an idea to address a certain issue.” To this end, Terreform ONE is essentially an adaptive hybrid. It’s a non-profit think tank with a working laboratory. Terreform ONE’s body of work has become a rich inventory of the technologies that already exist in nature and the many ways we will reintegrate the city into the natural world.