E05 - Design at The Edge Of Evolution and Environment

Explore Speculative Design and BioDesign with Ollie Cotsaftis, RMIT University School of Design Industry Fellow and Lecturer.
May 26, 2020 | 01:11:42
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Today, you’ll meet DR Ollie Cotsaftis, a Speculative Designer and RMIT University School of Design Industry Fellow and Lecturer.

Ollie's work sits at the intersection of human evolution, the built environment, and creative biotechnologies. His research addresses climate resilience and social innovation in speculative urban futures and has most recently started a column on speculative and critical design for the This is HCD network.

In this episode, we cover

  • How Speculative Design works and why it matters
  • Why the question "what if" is so important to our future
  • Why BioDesigners grow materials instead of mining them
  • Why bacteria, algae and moss are so exciting
  • And, the potential impact of CRISPR

Some questions I ask

  • What is the main goal of a Speculative Design?
  • Why is it crucial that we talk about the impact of technology on everyday life?
  • Why should we be considering our "preferred" alternatives for the future?
  • What is BioDesign?
  • What does a BioDesigner work with as material?

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There are many ways to talk about design. An emerging area to explore is Speculative Design — a concept that goes beyond the intersection of design and functionality.


In this episode of The Goods, I speak with Dr. Ollie Cotsaftis, a speculative designer and RMIT University School of Design Industry Fellow and Lecturer, and explore the concept of Speculative Design. Here, we touch on its significance and how it works.


Ollie first talks about Speculative Design holistically. It’s a process of imagining a number of possibilities or alternate realities that can prompt conversation. It also gives us another way of navigating and evaluating the world at large. On this he says:


In Speculative Design, the object of the design is also there as a conversation starter. It can provide a critique of the world we live in. But it can also show us what the world could be.


But there’s more to it than that. Speculative Design means bringing up questions we sometimes don’t think about when we’re at the creation stage of making. We can’t predict the future, but these questions are oriented towards trying to paint a picture of what that might look like.


We don't know anything. But we can imagine it and we can design around this. Here you can see that more than designing for what could be, Speculative Design is also there to to make us understand what these possible futures are made of and what they mean for us. Not only for us, actually, but also for all the other living species around us.


Which begs the question, almost always, with this concept: What if?


Ollie mentions that it’s a favorite question among speculative designers. Why? Because it opens up a number of possibilities. That’s in comparison to asking about a certain idea by targeting the question or orienting it specifically so that the querent leans towards responding a certain way. An example of why suggesting what if is often beneficial:


But if I ask you, "Hey, Mike, what if we were to design the best holiday for you? What does it look like?" You can see straight away that it's a more open-ended question. There's endless possibilities to answer. Asking "what if" questions is basically a great way to get creative.


It breathes creativity into the thought process, where you could otherwise ask a question a certain way and narrow down the kind of answers you get (in some instances, without meaning to do so).


Speculative Design also raises plenty of questions on ethical practices, some of which could stand to be applied to creating technology. It also takes into account world views and political leanings of people in power—and how those can influence design.


Because when you think about it, the world we live in today is basically the product of the dreams of the powerfuls of the past. It is important to not let other people decide what these futures are.


Ollie also discusses, in the same vein, that right now, the world we live in is designed with a “whitewashed future” in mind, when there should be movement towards crafting and designing a future where all voices are heard. A future, he says, which is preferential to all.


This dovetails into the topic of design fictions, or other forms of design, representing alternatives to the norm. There’s a lot to consider here, and about that Ollie says:


These voices and other elements of research are used to create various scenarios, each representing a different future. From probable futures to possible futures or even preposterous futures.


In similar cases, Speculative Design can also inform our decisions about how we want to live our lives. It’s encompassing in a sense that it stretches an idea and takes it more than one direction. That there is more to think about than surface issues of a particular design or system.  


It doesn’t stop there either. There’s a practice in design that goes beyond just conceptualizing any and all possibilities, but it’s also trying to move into a ‘preferred state’ – where we try to create what we want to see for our futures.


Yeah. The practice of design, called transition design, is how do you move from the current state to preferred future states. It's just syntactic practice, as well.


Aside from that, Ollie also talks about BioDesign, which can be complementary to speculative design. In that, biological systems are integrated into this type of design. Though he does caution that there are yet ethical questions to raise regarding applying and executing this, and again, the question: what if comes into play.


I think it's a really good starting point to start with. That "why" question though, "Why do we think we actually need these things? There's probably a deeper question there that people that are exploring these ideas are already connected to.


The push towards design that’s probing is also indicative that the world is changing and that people are more inclined to re-evaluate how they’re living currently versus how they want things to be, or how things should be.


This is based on many factors like, how the global health crisis has impacted how we interact with each other (and the rest of the world at large) or how politically, it has also become clear that a lot of how we’ve designed structures or systems means inadvertently silencing minority voices. Especially, when we know this shouldn’t be the case at all.


There is great significance in tapping into design, especially in this day and age where we’re prompted to consider the trajectory of our futures. We want to think, and more than that, be critical—really question the ways things are and how they’re serving us and what the overarching purpose is for that particular piece to exist.

With that in mind, we build to inform our futures, and build them for the better.

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Mike Rowe: Hey all you makers out there. Welcome to another episode of “The Goods,” the only podcast where you’ll discover how people are designing everything from products and services, everyday objects, our environment, and tomorrow’s technology. Each episode you’ll met someone new who’s a part of something cool, and you’ll also get new insights that you can use to bring your ideas to life.


This week, that person is Dr. Ollie Cotsaftis, a speculative designer and RMIT University School of Design industry fellow and lecturer. In this conversation you’ll hear how speculative design works and why it matters, why the question “what if” is so important to our future, what’s missing from architecture today, why bio design is growing materials instead of mining them, the reasons bacteria, and algae, and moss are so exciting, and the potential impact of CRISPR technology.


If this episode inspires you, please pass it on. If donating’s your jam, you can support the show by leaving a tip at thgds.com/support. All tips will be reinvested back into making “The Goods” better. But now that’s said and done, let’s get into it. Thank you for listening.


Hey, Ollie, welcome to “The Goods.”


Ollie Cotsaftis: Hello, Mike. Thanks for having me here.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, no worries. So, typically designers are seen as problem solvers or creative, but speculative design zooms out a bit beyond the present and asks us what futures might look like. Can you expand on this and give us an understanding of what this practice is really about?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, sure, my pleasure. Well, I guess like first of all, I’m super happy that the practice is being talked about more often at the moment. In a nutshell, and put it very simply, you could define it as the practice that tries to imagine what futures or alternate realities could look like. But it’s much more than that, actually.


So if we look at the world around us, everything has been designed. So the chair we’re sitting on, the spaces we’re living in, the tech devices we’re using to listen to this podcast, and I’d say, even the service you’re providing at the moment to your audience, Mike. But what’s common between all of these things is that they are tangible responses to the world we’re currently living in. So you could say that these designs provide an answer to a need or a behavior.


But design does not exist just to provide these answers. So in speculative design the object of the design is also there as a conversation starter. It can provide a critique of the world we live in, but it can also show us what the world could be. So all this is maybe a bit theoretical, I don’t know what you think, but happy to give you a more tangible response if you want.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. I’m curious then like given what you’ve just kind of described, what would be the main goal of speculative design?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I’m going to answer that by giving you an example, all right?


Mike Rowe: Awesome.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So let’s pretend it’s 2050. What does the world look like? It’s a pretty hard question to answer, isn’t it? So 2050 is in like 30 years time, and most likely the world is going to be very, very different from what it is now. So if you remember even like 2010, ten years ago, we’re just getting started with smart phones, and social media, and even like artificial intelligence for example was something you maybe heard of in pop culture and science fiction. But all of this is accelerating really fast, right? So there’s new discoveries and decisions made every day that are influencing how we are. We develop as a society.


So you can imagine that there’s not just one possible future ahead of us, but that there’s many. So what does this future look like? Are we going to be able to control the climate, for example, and avoid the societal collapse? Are we going to find a vaccine against COVID-19? Or, on the other hand, is there going to be another disease that’s going to be even worse? We don’t know. Are we all going to eat insects? And, if yes, what does an insect-serving restaurant look like, for example? Do you know, we don’t know anything, but we can imagine it and we can design around this.


So, here, you can see that more than designing for what could be, speculative design is also there to make us understand what these possible futures are made of and what they mean for us. And not only for us, actually, but also for all the other living species around us.


Mike Rowe: Mm. And why is the question “what if” so important to speculative design?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Ah… that’s a good question. That’s actually one of my favorite questions as a speculative designer. So, once again, I’m just going to give you an example to answer that. So if I ask you, “Hey, Mike, where do you want to go on holiday next?” So you can see straight away that I’m framing this question toward geographical places that you already know about. But also more importantly, you’re going to answer based on all the preconceived ideas that you have about these places, right? So it’s going to influence your decisions.


But if I ask you, “Hey, Mike, what if we were to design the best holiday for you, what does it look like?” So you can see straight away that it’s a more open-ended question, and there’s endless possibilities to your answer. So asking “what if” questions is basically a great way to get creative.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. So it opens up other possibilities, whereas other questions might perhaps like turn you down a very narrow path in terms of an outcome.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, yeah. And because the future is uncertain, we don’t want to be guided towards just one answer.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. I’m really curious then why is it crucial that we talk about the impact of like technology on our everyday lives in the context of like this greater speculation?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh, that’s such a good question. So technology is all around us, we can’t avoid it. It’s becoming more and more present in our everyday life. Like we’re all aware of that. As I said earlier, like ten years ago, we could definitely live without a smartphone, now it’s unlikely that most people will give up their smartphone just for even a day or two, right?


Mike Rowe: A couple of hours even.


Ollie Cotsaftis: A couple hours even maybe. So like then when you start thinking about futures and the role of technology is in our daily life, then that speculative design becomes very interesting because it raises like all these ethical questions about… the need that we have to connect through technology and the role of technology, how it assists us to live all our lives. So, yeah, there’s a massive connection between speculative design and questioning the role of technology. It’s used a lot in that regards.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. There’s something I’ve been looking into as part of this podcast research, and it’s the idea of like preferred outcomes, or preferred alternatives of the future, and I’m really curious if you can kind of describe why we should be considering our preferred alternatives for the future.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Again, like such a valid question, because when you think about it the world we live in today is basically the product of the dreams of the powerfuls of the past, right?


Mike Rowe: That’s intense.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So it is important to not let other people decide what these futures are. And I don’t shy away from a political comment, so like if you look around us at the moment, there’s a lot of a return to populist politics, right? And if we let this person decide what the future is, well, are we going to be happy with it? So the speculative design is there to define like a preferred future or alternative futures for all.


And what’s important to remember is like my preferred future might be different than yours or somebody else. And at the moment, we live in a world where a white-washed version of the future is being designed for us, and like there’s obviously all the minorities’ voices that are not being taken into account, and we need to really listen outside of the mainstream voices in order to design a future, which is preferential for all.


Mike Rowe: For like for all people, yeah. How do we start to open that discussion so that there are those voices accounted for? Is there some kind of format, or forum, or way that these conversations occur to start to draw these conversations to the forefront of our awareness?


Ollie Cotsaftis: So these conversations happen everyday without any of us paying attention, right? So every time a human story is told, or every time somebody tweets, or publishes a photo on social media about the identities or the kind of future they want, this content becomes part of the collective consciousness. And when the same message is repeated many times over, it becomes a movement, and ideology, a vision.


But obviously there’s a difference between telling stories or being a visionary person, and the practice of speculative design, right? So there’s a logic to the madness. Speculative design is a rigorous and highly creative process of designing research and ideation. With outcome is a set of designed artifacts. So the voices heard—going back to the research—the voices heard by speculative designers during the design research phase—and obviously, there’s a legitimacy as to what topics should be addressed by designers, so the makeup of the design teams are very important as to what they can or cannot talk about.


So these voices, and other elements of research, are used to create various scenarios, each representing a different future. From probable futures, to possible futures, or even preposterous futures. And through these scenarios, which can be utopic or dystopic, and anything in between, we can start thinking about what these futures mean and what consequences they would generate if they were to be implemented.


So in speculative design, these scenarios are often called design fictions. And if you think of it, a lot of the movies we’re actually very familiar with are design fictions. So here I’m thinking of “Black Panther,” which is a movie that I’ve recently rewatched, and it’s a movie that is proposing a vision for an African superpower. And the amount of details that went in the design of this film—from architecture, to fashion, to the objects within the film, and even the culture for that matter—it’s just fascinating to me. Like it’s way more than a movie, like when you look at it, it’s actually a conversation starter. It’s a conversation starter on African culture and the role of Africa in today’s society.


So long, and so sorry for that just to wrap it up, these designs, design fictions, or other forms of designs, other artifacts, they can then be presented through all sorts of formats and channels. From museum exhibitions, to conferences, there’s actually a very good one in the U.S. called Primer, which is also in Europe, and highly recommended. I went to the New York City one last year, and I really enjoyed it. But you could also make books, and websites, and podcasts, and films obviously, as we just talked about.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. That makes me think about film and films like “Blade Runners,” and “Total Recalls,” and like all these like sci-fi films that have existed in the past. And they tend to like present a possibility for what the future looks like. And thinking about “Blade Runner,” for an example, it created a vision for the future that did not exist before it came out, and then suddenly, like a lot of sci-fi films replicated that aesthetic, that feeling, that overall world. And it just made me present to how we can restrict our thinking based on what we’ve seen before.


Like suddenly “Blade runner” became the new normal for what the future could look like, and thinking about other shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for example, which is a speculative fiction piece by Margaret Atwood that really presents an alternate kind of reality or an alternate future I’m not really sure if I’m going anywhere with a question here, but it just started to open my mind to how these different possibilities could look, or play out, or be and the role of fiction, and fantasy, and science fiction in cinema and how that plays out for us.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, that’s such a like chicken and an egg question. Like are we shaping our visions of the future based on the films we see and the book we read? Or are we better off shaping a different version of the future through speculative design? I think like it’s really nice to have all these films and books out there because they kind of project different scenarios of the future of the world to everybody, which I think is fantastic. But I think we shouldn’t be framed by them as well, because they sometimes like repeat the same kinds of narrative, which are highly dystopian, and maybe we don’t want to go there, right?


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So like the role of speculative design is also like to branch out from like the mainstream vision of what the future is and propose different alternatives to that.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. Because those visions that have come before might not be really what we want.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Exactly.


Mike Rowe: As a human species for the future, right?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yup.


Mike Rowe: What’s one way that people might be able to apply speculative design in their everyday life? Is there an example, is there a way that that could happen?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I think a better question might be like do they want to? Because you could imagine like…


Mike Rowe: Yeah, okay.


Ollie Cotsaftis: It’s all like a future-focused practice, right? And I think there’s a need for us to live in the now and to enjoy the present moment. So I wouldn’t encourage to use speculative design like everyday in your everyday life, but in a way, it’s also like potentially like a good way to reflect on like what life we want and make decisions. Is it better to move to Canada and marry Jack? Or is it better to stay here and study geography, for example? Two different scenarios that needs to be investigates for a person if this is the case they’re facing.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting point then. Maybe people are applying speculative design to their everyday life without even realizing it when they talk about their futures, their dreams, you know, their wants, needs, and desires that they don’t quite have. Like you know, just talking through that example, like I’ve previously lived in Canada and I fantasized about what life might look like if I did move to Canada. And then at that moment in my life I decided to make it happen.


So it was very much like considering a possible future or speculating on the future of what my life might be like, and then kind of trying to bring that into reality or bring that into existence once I decided that that would be the positive or preferred option.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like almost like the next step after speculation is like how do we transition to the preferred state?


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Ollie Cotsaftis: And that’s a very fascinating question as well.


Mike Rowe: Well, I think that’s a really elegant follow-up, right? Like you had that “what if” defining that maybe trying to figure out what the preferred state is, but then like the “how” would be the natural follow-up to bring it into reality.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Mm. yeah. There’s actually another practice of design called transition design. It’s like how do you move from like the current state to preferred future state?


Mike Rowe: Interesting.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Tactic practice as well.


Mike Rowe: Can you describe a little bit more about that and what that looks like?


Ollie Cotsaftis: It’s actually coming from Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S., and it’s mainly focused on like how do we get out of the climate crisis? So transition design towards like carbon neutral futures. And the guy who started that is actually Australian, Cameron Tonkinwise, so he developed the theory and the practice in the U.S., and returned a few years ago to Australia where he teaches in Sydney. I find the practice very fascinating as well, especially because I’m very interested in getting out of the climate crisis and work out design solution in order to do so in my daily practice.


Mike Rowe: I think there’s a key word that I’m hearing there too, and it’s transitions. Like it’s not like, you know, suddenly you’re in this predicament, this negative state, and then tomorrow there’s the positive state or the preferred state. Like it does take effort, and time, and discipline, and practice, and perseverance to get there, I imagine, as well.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s not a linear path, that’s for sure.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, it might be a little bit like two steps forward, three steps back, one step to the side, then maybe a future forward step.


Ollie Cotsaftis: It’s a little dense.


Mike Rowe: So I’m wondering if you can take me back then. You’ve had a really amazing career journey so far, but where did it all begin for you?


Ollie Cotsaftis: So I’m sure like some people will have picked up on my French accent already, but so I’m from France, and when I was a teenager at 17, I actually started to study architecture. And found it fascinating, I was obsessed with it for a long, long time. But quickly realized—and again, like you’ll see that during our conversation the climate crisis is going to come up a lot. I saw already that the practice was highly unsustainable, and basically like architects in today’s world have basically two options. Either you design like for the very wealthy, and it’s beautiful, but like is it meaningful? Or you’re left with like a low cost budget that are highly unsustainable.


I didn’t want to go to either of these practices, so I actually decided, took a god look at like what I wanted to do with my life, and speculated about the future, and decided I want to learn more about biology, and genetics, and how could architecture and design in general could be more sustainable as a practice by working better with a natural system around us?


So I left architecture, I did a Masters of biotech, did a Ph.D. of genetics, did five years of post-doc, like in Japan and Australia, but after that I was missing design, I’m not gonna lie. So around like 2009 I went back to design. I worked a lot in system design, service design spaces. Ended up being like a design lead at Fjord, which is like an international design innovation company. And then also realized while I was doing this that I could actually open my own business, so I did.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Wow.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So I opened my studio, which is called Future Ensemble, and as I was I doing this, I started to teach at RMIT as well. And last year I kind of put my studio on the backburner, and now I’m a full-time lecturer at RMIT’s University School of Design here in Melbourne.


Mike Rowe: Wow. You mentioned that you were really missing design. I think you said it was like 2008 was it?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, the end of 2009, yeah.


Mike Rowe: What was it that you were really missing from design that you weren’t quite getting?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Well… Try to put like a creative person within like a scientific environment for ten years, and you’ll understand, right? It’s like I was always dreaming of these “what if” questions. What if we were to do this? What could we do with this? And the scientific methodology is highly different than the design process. It’s all about proving hypothesis and testing them all before we can move on to make things. And I was more in the making things, and theory, and being more creative about like the route to follow in order to design something, which potentially could be very different than a typical scientific outcome. So I was really missing design. Like I really wanted to go back in it, yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, fantastic. What you mentioned there is really interesting too because the scientific method, in say, the user experience design practice have a lot of similarities like hypothesis testing. It’s all kind of part of the like a greater consistent practice I think. Like I would say the UX practice is definitely extracted a lot of the scientific methodologies and applied them or expressed them in a very different way.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, that’s true. I think like there’s some similarity in the processes. I think like it was mainly with like this big question that I was looking for, like to get back into like, yeah. What if we were to change the world?


Mike Rowe: Yeah, like more visionary thinking, I guess.


Ollie Cotsaftis: That’s it. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. And you mentioned you did a Ph.D., you mentioned genetics, which I would definitely we’re going to dig into later in this episode. But I’m curious if you can tell me about what originally drew you into architecture? Like you mentioned that these low-cost developments and this creating unique one-off spaces or wealthy didn’t really quite appeal to you. But what was the core of architecture that really spoke to you?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. It’s a hard one… It’s a hard question to answer. It’s always like it’s about reflection on like your own practice, right? But I would say like if you ask my parents, I’ve been designing like houses since I’m a kid. And obviously at the start it was like pretty basic drawings, but even as a teenager I was starting to like really get into like designing like spaces for people. And I think that was really the key. I really saw very early on the connection between people and spaces and that’s my drive in architecture. How do we make like a human centered architecture?


And if we look at around us at the moment, like as we talked about before, it’s mainly like small places, low-cost, unsustainable material, which I don’t think is conducive to like a healthy development of society, or is like this like luxurious abundant mega mansions, which I think are completely out of touch with reality.


Mike Rowe: Mm. Out of reach most everyday people as well.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, definitely, yeah.


Mike Rowe: You mentioned just now like human centered design or human centered spaces. And this might be a really odd question, but what is the problem with our bathroom doors opening into our living rooms?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yes, so I think you read that in one of my articles from “Medium” blog, which is an article I wrote just a few months ago on the speculation on the future of design, basically. And yeah, so when we look at these small spaces, or this like low-cost buildings that are being popping up everywhere at the moment. Like there’s not a huge consideration for like how people are going to live in them.


And like I remember just a few years ago before living in the space that I’m in now, I went to visit a few apartments in the city center and, you know, suburbs of Melbourne and I was really shocked by the layouts of all these new places where there’s very few considerations for human experience in the living spaces. And a lot of the doors from the bathroom were opening directly on the living rooms. And that was one of my observations and I’m sure you can imagine like all sorts of things like come out of this.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, like you’ve got guests over and you’ve taken a shower, and you’ve walked out, and you’ve just come face to face with the people that are in your house.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Exactly. Yeah. That’s not very human friendly.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, and riffing on that a little bit, what’s really missing in architecture today?


Ollie Cotsaftis: What’s really missing? Well, I think it’s like this consideration for natural systems and the environment. Like architecture practices, as they stand today, are highly, highly unsustainable. We clearly need to change the way we build our houses, or our homes, and our cities. And like do you know like at this stage I think like we’re already consuming like half of the resources. Each year we consume the resources that earth… I’m going to rephrase that. Each year we consume in six months what the planet can regenerate in one year.


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Ollie Cotsaftis: And so if we continue at this rate, we’re obviously gonna face more and more problems in terms of sustainability and where we source our materials.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, because we can’t… if we’re outpacing regeneration there’s a point where it just doesn’t work anymore.


Ollie Cotsaftis: It’s mathematic, isn’t it?


Mike Rowe: Yeah. It becomes pretty obviously mathematical. And where do you speculate given that, given what we’ve just spoken about, we’re all actually right now this moment living through COVID-19, we’re all in isolation, where do you speculate architecture might be beyond 2020?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I think there’s like a really interesting space which is developing at the moment, which is like how do we come up with like new materiality and new materials in the way we build our spaces? And there’s actually a field of design which is like getting a lot of traction as well, which is called biodesign. So designing for life or designing with life as well. And I think it’s showing a lot of promises in the way we’re going to build houses and cities going forward.


Mike Rowe: Mm, great. And that, I think, is a beautiful segue. Let’s move into biodesign and talk a little bit about genetics. What motivated you to do a Ph.D.?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Cause like even like when I left architecture, like there was only like fringe thinking about how are we going to be able to design with the living in order to be more sustainable. And this is something that was like I found really intriguing. I was still pretty young and I thought there were potentially like a lot of opportunities in the future about this and I really wanted to understand what that meant. So, yeah, that’s why I switched my practice and my studies to the field of biotech, an genetics, and all of this.


Mike Rowe: Hm. And would you recommend doing a Ph.D. to most other designers or any other types of designers?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I don’t think it’s a necessity. It really depends on like how thorough you want to be in your practice. Like maybe it’s a bad thing, but actually I love learning, and also when the fields of study is like highly complex such as genetics, and biology, and biotech, like I just didn’t want to be scratching the surface of things and I really wanted to understand better to be a better practitioner basically. So that’s why I decided to pursue all these degrees.


Mike Rowe: And I think the big question I’ve got is—and maybe other people have got the question as well—is like what is biodesign? It’s probably an unfamiliar term that most people haven’t heard about before, so I’m really curious about how you might describe it.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Oh, so biodesign is a passion of mine, right? It’s part of my practice as well, such as speculative design, and they go really well hand in hand together. But if you think about it, biodesign, designing with the living, is not a new practice at all because we’ve been making clothes out of linen and cotton for like centuries and centuries, right? This is using a living organism in order to make things and design things.


There’s even some parts of India, for example, there’s an example that comes to mind where farmers and the internal population are weaving tree branches in order to create bridges made out of the tree. So as the tree grows, the bridge strengthens, and it’s a living bridge.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So that’s bioarchitecture by itself. So it’s definitely not a new practice. But what’s interesting is because we have all this progress in genetics in the last 50, 60 years, we’re getting into a space now where we can actually manipulate the genomes of these living species and really get creative about what they could do for this or how we can live in symbiosis with them. So biodesign is evolving quite rapidly as we have a better understanding of all these natural systems around us.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. I think that example you just spoke about with the bridge that only strengthens as it grows is a perfect example of, you know, working with a natural material and using its natural properties as a benefit for the design outcome.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Definitely. Yeah. And really the practice is getting bonkers at the moment. So you have people like Neri Oxman at M.I.T. University in the U.S., which is like a pioneer in the field doing amazing work. For example, creating glass which is embedded with a bacteria that produces melanin. So the glass can like change color and filter UV in buildings.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So like really, really like out there thinking. But you would imagine like potentially in ten to 15 years time that’ll be common practice, we don’t know. There’s also this amazing practitioner in the UK at University of Newcastle called Rachel Armstrong, which is talking about living architecture. How can we grow and decay buildings in the future, for example, on a [inaudible][30:41] basis because they are made of living things.


Mike Rowe: You mentioned decay. Is decay a condition that they’re thinking about in that context?


Ollie Cotsaftis: So it doesn’t have to be because obviously we can extract material from the living and it becomes like an inert material that doesn’t change too much with time. But if you design with the living, with living cells that like grow, multiple, obviously at one point they will die. And potentially we can plan the obsolescence of a building.


Mike Rowe: Mm. That’s actually quite a heavy concept to think about because planned obsolescence is something that maybe people aren’t aware of, but it’s typically factored into our technology, our garments, and things like that. There is a moment or a point in which these things are designed to fail to break so it encourages people to purchase more and buy again. And it’s really fascinating to hear about that through the lens of an actual space that people might actually live inside of.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And like with every technology and every concept and design principle, you can make them work for you, or you can make them work against you, right? So in the context of what you’re talking about with technology, planned obsolescence obviously like not a good thing for consumers. But potentially in other aspects of design it is a good thing to consider.


Mike Rowe: Mm-hmm. In the case of technology and garments it’s probably not a good thing for the planet either really.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Definitely.


Mike Rowe: This might be a question you’ve already answered, but what does a biodesigner work with as a material? And you’ve mentioned just now living cells as one potential possibility, but how does this process work as a designer? You know, in my mind I’m picturing people inside labs, you know, conducting experiments to understand how things atomically work so that they can design accordingly. Can you elaborate a little bit more about what the process actually looks like?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Maybe I’m gonna start by deferring the fact that you don’t need to be a scientist to be a biodesigner, right? So it’s not always about the atomic level. Like for example, trees produce cork, you don’t need to be a scientist in order to use cork, right?


Mike Rowe: You could put it in the top of your wine bottle.


Ollie Cotsaftis: There’s many levels to it. So like at the moment, like designers are investigating like what’s around us. It basically doesn’t change much from any design process. You start by doing research about like what kind of material you could use and then instead of looking into a material library that we already know. And in architecture, or example, it would be like glass, concrete, clay, timber.


Then we can look at different forms of materials such as like can we make a brick out of a fungus and some people are already working on this. Or can we make a… For example, there’s so many things made of plastic nowadays. Can we make bioplastics thanks to algae, for example, will be another one to look into. So the design process doesn’t change much, it’s just the question of like the materiality is coming from a different place, that’s all. So instead of mining the world, we grow our own material.


Mike Rowe: That’s really interesting. How do you specifically as a designer work with biological material? Because you mentioned like biodesign is a big part, a big passion of yours, it’s part of your practice. How have you worked with it in the past as a tangible example for people?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. So at the moment I’m designing like a room, a new urban space, which I call The Refrigerium. So literally, it means the place to cool off. And it’s like the way I think about it’s like a place where people come in to have a bit of a respite for the changing climate. So as temperatures are going to get higher and higher, and we’re going to have a lot more heat waves, and potentially a lot more bushfire smokes as well, and obviously air pollution is a massive thing in every city, I’m thinking of this as an indoor space, which is like secluded, which is covered in plants. So I work a lot with mosses at the moment, and lichen, and the reason for this is like first of all they’re really beautiful to look at, they’re very peaceful, but also they’re tremendously effective at capturing carbon and sequestering carbon.


Mike Rowe: Interesting.


Ollie Cotsaftis: And so in one way it’s a way to improve air qualities in cities, but in another way from an experiential perspective the space is there to soothe people and calm people about the effect of the climate crisis.


Mike Rowe: Mm. So it almost has dual purposes in a way where it sequesters carbon out of the immediate atmosphere and converts it, but also it’s peaceful and calming. And the third benefit would be that it’s cooling as well.


Ollie Cotsaftis: As well, yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. That’s really interesting to think about like biological materials through that lens and apply it into physical spaces. Cause suddenly you can see how almost obvious that it is to consider using these natural materials in hindsight. Like it sounds like it’s absolutely an obvious thing to use a moss that grows in, I imagine, forests or something like that that people have encountered throughout our human existence that has those natural kind of properties to work with. And just apply it into the design spaces that we all habitat or we all inhabit, I should say.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And the beauty of the natural system around us is like there are literally thousands and thousands of species that live around us that we do not even pay attention to. So fungus, bacteria, mosses, all the slower organisms are actually fascinating to work with. Because they have amazing properties like we’ll definitely be using in order to be more sustainable in our daily lives.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, sometimes people I think perhaps get a little amazed by complex organisms, but sometimes the simpler organisms have just as much potential and possibility if we just do that little bit more digging and investigation.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like the cute factor of like a mammal like a dog or a giraffe, like we’re all obsessed with.


Mike Rowe: But not the algae.


Ollie Cotsaftis: But yeah, the slower organisms they’re actually really fascinating and they grow really fast. So like the biomass is increasing really fast so like in terms of like making material it’s pretty easy, they’re easily genetically manipulateable as well, so we could easily transform them in order to give them other properties, obviously within reason. Yeah, it’s just fantastic the potential, which is ahead of us.


Mike Rowe: You mentioned just now like within reason. Is there some kind of process or considerations that you should or do make when considering modifying organic material to work with?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh, well, I mean like I think everybody would agree on that, but yeah, there’s definitely ethical concerns around like the biodesign practice is like, first of all, like even like from let’s say a circular economic perspective. If you can make bioplastic out of a crop is it a good thing to do? If you can make biofuel out of a crop, is it a good thing to do? Because let’s say you want to produce like cheap electricity in an area where the main crop source or food source is that crop. If you take away that food, then like you’re creating other problems as well, right? So that’s like, yeah, concerns like that are obviously needs to be investigated.


But also like now if we talk about like genetic manipulations of genomes, obviously like we don’t want to release GMO everywhere in nature. So all of this needs to be highly controlled and discussed before it is implemented, obviously.


Mike Rowe: And I guess that’s where the importance of the question “what if” comes back to things.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. That’s why speculation and biodesign really go really well together.


Mike Rowe: Almost like complementary disciplines.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Definitely. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: And why do you think biodesign’s so important to us right now?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Because like if you look at the UN report from like two years ago, basically mentioning we have about 12 years in order to get out of the climate crisis that we created for ourselves. Unless we’re gonna basically go down a path that we don’t want to where we will not be able to control climate, and biodiversity loss is going to be very important. And we all know, like for example, if bees disappear that it has a lot of impact for us.


So I think we’re really at a turning point here in society and history of mankind where we really should change our practices, design practices, in order to be more sustainable. Because there’s not much time left in order to reverse things.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, totally.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah.


Mike Rowe: You spoke us through some of your work—that indoor space that you designed with moss before—but are there other ways that you experiment with these different ideas and different organic materials through your art practice?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. So I like to be experimental in what I do. So like before designing this Refrigerium, for example, we build like this like two meter high, one and a half meter diameter kind of pod that we exhibited in a gallery during Melbourne Design Week just a few weeks ago. When I say we, it’s like myself and my team, it’s like four amazing students from RMIT that are working closely with me.


And yeah, we designed that little pod that just basically gave us an understanding of how would people react to this space. And so on one end it was really nice because we could see that the people really feeling like the coolness of the moss and the freshness of being in that space, but also like it was really interesting to observe how playful they were with the environment. So like for me, art is almost like a research tool. It’s like you design little experiences and you see how people react to it, and I really liked this kind of approach in my practice.


Mike Rowe: And how did it make you feel seeing how people reacted to the art that you produced?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh, super interesting. Like it gives me confidence that potentially it’ll be nice to do this on a bigger scale. So now I’m looking for funders.


Mike Rowe: Low key drop there.


Ollie Cotsaftis: That’s it.


Mike Rowe: In some of my research, I also read a lot of the blogs that you’ve written, and you made a point for genetics and biology basics being taught in design tools. Can you describe a little bit about why you think that is?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah ,yeah, definitely. And I’m not saying like every designing should become a biodesigner. Obviously, like all design practices are valid in their own rights. But for somebody which is interested in resolving the climate crisis or addressing the climate crisis, well then biology and genetics is like a nice way, a nice segue into like more sustainable practices. And you can imagine that a lot of designers during like the tech boom started to learn how to code, right? And for me there’s not much difference between digital coding and genetic coding. It’s just a different source of code. So as designers learn to code digitally, I think potentially in the future there’s a lot of designers that will be interested in understanding how to code with genetics.


Mike Rowe: That’s a really interesting idea, actually, and it’s fascinating that you put it into those words because development or software development is such a natural and everyday thing that a lot of people do now, and it’s interesting to speculate on, you know, if people had the capacity to you know, develop with genetics like what might they do? It’d be really interesting.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Yeah. But before that, I think just biology basics is just like goes beyond genetic, right? So before going into like manipulating species in order to do things differently, I think there’s already like many, many years of like amazing work ahead of us just by using the species that we already have with us and around us.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Building on that conversation as well, what are the implications of DNA coding that we might need to be aware of it becomes a tool that more and more people start to use?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh, that’s a good question. I think it just goes back to basic ethics. Until we fully understand like the future implications of like changing and changing genomes, maybe we shouldn’t do anything with it, and like we’ll be seeing stuff in the wild. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: What’s one thing that you think an everyday person should know about biodesign right now, today, and how it might impact them?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I think it’s like it’s gonna become like a huge field. I think there was an article just like I kind of remember on the top of my head that the field is going to expand to like a trillion dollar industry in the next five to ten years. There’s huge interest everywhere in every single practice and industry in using more sustainable material obviously. And I reckon the field is just going to go crazy in the next few years.


Mike Rowe: Is it from what you’ve read most of the interest is about the cost saving or sustainability benefits, or is there some other considerations that are being made?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I would say like with everything I think cost saving and sustainability are the mains. But also like in a more philosophical way, it kind of help us reconsider our connection with nature. So when I talk about the Refrigerium as well, I often talk about it as a [inaudible][45:19] church of nature. And I think it’s only by appreciating the living environments and the living systems around us that we’ll be able to use them harmoniously to help us live like more sustainable lives.


Mike Rowe: That’s a really interesting segue moment talking about how the living systems impact the every day. And I’m hoping that you might be able to walk us through a little bit about how biodesign and bionic design are different.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Okay, so biodesign and bionic design. So biodesign is designing with the living and bionic designing is how do merge technology with the living? So like the classic example in science fiction is a cyborg culture. That’s bionic design. I remember there was this like really old show as well in France, it’s called like “L’Homme qui valait trois milliards,” but I think in English it’s the guy which cost like $3 million, and it was like this Steve Austin…


Mike Rowe: Oh, the Million Dollar Man.


Ollie Cotsaftis: The Million Dollar Man, there we go, yeah. So he’s a classic example of what bionic design is. But today like it’s already being used a lot in the health industry, for example, so people with disabilities or that are paralyzed for example, some researchers and designers are working out ways—exoskeleton for example—that are brain-controlled that help people be more mobile and independent. So that also is bionic design.


And in the most simplest form, as well, we could say that all smartphones is the start of a massive bionic design wave. Because when we think about it, like the smartphones in our pockets are obviously not part of our bodies, but we already outsource a lot of our connective processes to these machines. So nobody remembers a phone number anymore, so we outsource this cognitive process to our smartphones. So is that the start of like a bionic design wave? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting comment.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, it’s interesting thinking about how I use my smartphone, I actually can’t really read a map, I just rely on Google. So if Google Maps went down I’d probably not be able to navigate through space at all in any way.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, I’m with you with that.


Mike Rowe: Can you talk us through like the basics of bionic design? Are there are any like key kind of building blocks that go into it? Can you tell us a little bit more?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, so I just would say that this is going outside of my practice, right? So biodesign and speculative design is really what I do. Bionic design is, I think, something which is going to get bigger and bigger. And I don’t know why, it’s almost like a gut feel. Like when you see, for example, obsession with transforming our bodies even through tattoos and like all these kind of like new things that the world is adopting, what’s the next step? If we have the opportunity to run super fast will we take it? I don’t know. Yeah. What do you think about it?


Mike Rowe: Well, it’s interesting. I think about competitive sport and things like doping and performance enhancing drugs come to mind. And I’ve heard two different sides of the conversation. One is just let them do what they do and see what the hell they can do. And the other is, well, it’s not really true human potential if it’s artificially stimulated beyond what a normal person can do or what a person can do.


So part of me is very curious about what is possible to explore human performance and what our like extreme endpoint might be. But I also then worry about the costs of that at the same time because if you only focus on performance, you usually forget about something important as well.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then we see again the importance of a practice such as speculative design in order to understand the consequences of all these new technologies. So it’s all related, right?


Mike Rowe: Mm. What do you think might emerge as a result of more and more people having access to bionic design? Like you mentioned a smartphone as one example, and you know, for a lot of people that’s a productivity answer, others, it’s an absolute time waster. Is there anything that you think we might see for our futures as part of it?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh, yeah, there’s something that jumps to mind here. So obviously everybody knows Elon Musk, right? So supposedly he’s working on a new start-up, which is called Neuralink, which is the insertion of a neural network technology within our cortex that enables us to connect to the internet. And the way he frames it is that this is potentially our only chance to survive artificial intelligence to be on par with machines.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So this is one feature which is being designed in front of us, and maybe some people are gonna be aware of it, but there’s actually some people working on this already.


Mike Rowe: Wow. And this I’ve done a little bit of research into Neuralink. I’m by no means an expert. But from what I can tell it’s connected very closely to the concept of transhumanism and kind of fusing like almost like humans and technology together in a deeper way.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, that’s it. Bionic design is definitely related to transhumanism. So transhumanism is a very interesting field. It’s not my specialty neither, I’m just like interested in what it means for the future of mankind, which is basically what it means, right? Transhumanism is like what’s the next stage of human evolution potentially? Human 2.0. And when you look in the past this is a term that was coined in the ‘50s by a game named Julian Huxley, which is actually the brother of Aldous Huxley, who wrote “Brave New World.”


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So these two brothers were very fascinated by the evolution of society and humankind. But yeah, like at the moment, it’s basically it’s a field of research, I guess, that’s investigating what is the future of mankind. And are we going to follow a route where we manipulate our genome in order to become something else, or are we going to potentially merge with machine in order to become cyborg, or maybe none, or maybe both, who knows, yeah.


Mike Rowe: That’s really interesting. It almost is an extension of biohacking culture in a lot of ways it seems. I know it’s a very technological expression of that, but there are a growing number of people that are looking at, you know, getting more from their bodies, getting more from their minds, trying to manipulate their own, you know, genetics to enhance themselves. And this sounds like it might be a natural extension of that in a lot of ways.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, definitely, it’s all related. It’s like a lot of people want to know. It’s almost like what if you could sleep better, would you be more performing? So if we modify like human species in order to sleep better, what is going to change? It’s like simple details like that that could have like huge repercussions.


Mike Rowe: And right now in terms of transhumanism there’s probably almost like a sociological acceptance of that. I’m curious if you think society should allow for more transhumanism exploration in terms of what humans might be able to produce to achieve and create?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Well, with this conversation we’re really entering like uncharted territories, right? Because we don’t know the consequences of doing such things. So if you think like if you think about the benefit that it could provide in human health—curing diseases, alleviating like disabilities—that seems like it could be a good idea. But obviously might not be, like there’s all these like ethical questions which are potentially too hard to answer for like the time that we have here on this podcast. It’s like such a huge field, right? And, yeah, I don’t have the answer to that. I think like society doesn’t have the answers to that. We just need to see how it unfolds and maybe we shouldn’t touch it until we’re ready. Such as genetic manipulation and biodesign.


Mike Rowe: I think its something worth exploring, but we definitely have to have a question in the back of our minds about how it might affect our bodies, our thoughts, our behaviors, and how that might change over the next ten, to 15, to 20 years as well.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, and why do we want this to start with? What’s the purpose behind it? Like yeah, all these questions need to be asked, for sure.


Mike Rowe: I think it’s a really good starting point to start with that why question as well. It’s like why do we think we actually need these things? Like there’s probably a deeper kind of question there that people that are exploring these ideas are already connected to, but yeah, I think you’re right in that perhaps asking first that what if question and then exploring that preferred future is perhaps step one before we just, you know, decide that we should do it.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Yeah. I know like from a fact from research that I’ve made just like just being interested in the field that there’s actually a lot of money being invested at the moment in curing aging, for example.


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Seeing aging as a disease and trying to stop that by genetic manipulations or just like drug enhancement. It’s like fascinating territories like we’re entering in the next few years. As science developed and our knowledge is expanding and there’s all these new opportunities that are coming up on a daily basis. And we’re going back to the start of this conversation just like a half an hour ago, right? So like what does that mean for humankind and society? Where are we heading?


Mike Rowe: Yeah. It’s possibly a scary, and it’s like you said just before, a very much uncharted territory.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: Something else I wanted to discuss with you a little bit about is CRISPR. Obviously you’ve got your background in biodesign and genetics, and I’m hoping you can like tell people a little bit more about it an what CRISPR really is.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Okay. So this is going to get maybe a bit technical, but that’s okay. So CRISPR is a genetic tool that basically helps anybody that has a knowledge to use it to manipulate genome and do what [inaudible][56:56] potentially microsurgery of genomes in order to change the traits of an organism. So it’s very, very fascinating tools because since the discovery of DNA in the ‘50s, I think people have been thinking about it. How can we manipulate genomes so that we can make organisms do things differently? And for humankind, how can we cure diseases literally?


And so for a long, long time like there was no solution to this or the solutions were really messy. They were like creating more problems than solving the original question or the original intent. And in 2012, this group of researchers from California identified this tool, which has been around us all along. I think at the start it’s basically an immune system from bacterias. And we finally understood its purpose and how it works and discovered possibility to use it in biotechnology in order to manipulate genomes around us.


It’s a fascinating, fascinating field of research. We’re just at the start of its journey. I think like the original CRISPR Cas9 technology is already outdated and there’s papers every year coming up with a better, and smarter, and cleaner solutions. And we’ll reach a point where we’ll pretty much be able to manipulate genomes in a very safe way. But once again, the real question is like why do we want to do this and what are the consequences of that?


Mike Rowe: Yeah, what is the impact of these actions that we may take?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But the potential is huge, it’s crazy.


Mike Rowe: Can you tell us a little bit about that potential then and what that looks like?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. So like in human health, for example, you could cure diseases, like you could rid cancer, you could cure HIV. Actually, like I think there’s a research group that already managed to make cells—not the whole organism—but human cells resistant to HIV.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Ollie Cotsaftis: By transforming like the receptor of the virus from what I remember, but don’t quote me on this.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, we won’t hold you to the specifics of the research.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, please, please, don’t. So yeah, there’s any question that you can ask potentially has a solution through CRISPR. When it comes to dealing with like living organisms, and creating materials, and all of that.


Mike Rowe: Mm. And is there a way to describe how it works in as simple a way as possible?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh, okay, so that’s super technical. I think really briefly it’s basically a protein which is called Cas9, which recognized little fragments of nucleic acid. I’m getting really technical on you here. And when it recognizes the specific nucleic acid element, which is DNA or RNA, it just cuts it. And so it creates like a break into a genome, which then can be used to change the genetic makeup of this living organism at this point of rupture, of breaking. So it’s a basically a mechanism that cuts really precisely at a specific space the genome so that the genetic engineer can change the DNA at the specific point that just broke.


Mike Rowe: Mm. It’s sounding to me like microsurgery at a very, very, very small scale.


Ollie Cotsaftis: That’s microsurgery at the atomic level. That’s exactly that. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: That’s amazing.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, and the funny thing is like lower organisms, which we talked about earlier, like have huge potential. They actually do it quite naturally that they develop this mechanism called homologous recombination and have all the genetic tools within their own cells in order to make this happen. But some have for higher organisms—so mammals, higher plants—that don’t do that really efficiently. So we lost this ability to repair and modify our genomes accordingly to what we need. And we’re going to learn from like the lower organism again. CRISPR Cas9 is actually coming from bacteria.


Mike Rowe: Those simple organisms come through again as the big difference makers in a lot of ways.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. 100%.


Mike Rowe: And where is it in development right now? You mentioned that it’s pretty early. We’re only kind of just starting to scratch the surface.


Ollie Cotsaftis: So applications like human applications are obviously at the very early stages. There’s a Chinese scientist that have been playing with it a couple years ago, now he’s in prison because didn’t fully consider the implication of his research. But as a research tool in labs, it’s used all over the world, like a lot of my friends in labs and science are actually using CRISPR for their research nowadays. It’s a really common tool, which is cheap and quite efficient.


Mike Rowe: Actually, I believe there’s even a Netflix documentary series that explores genetic modification that—excuse me—has recently appeared and come out. I can’t recall what the name is, but I do remember seeing that come up in my recommendations list.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah, yeah, and there’s also like a very good documentary that just got released last year. It’s called “Human Nature,” and the director is Adam Bolt, and I highly recommend this documentary if you want to know more about this.


Mike Rowe: I’ll link that into the show notes for sure. So we’ve spoken about a lot, Ollie, and I know we got super technical just now with CRISPR and it’s probably like blown some people’s minds, it’s gone a bit too deep in the weeds. I’m kind of curious that in the era of COVID-19, what are some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves right now?


Ollie Cotsaftis: In terms of like biodesign, or speculative design, or…?


Mike Rowe: Probably more speculative because I think that we’re in this inflection or reflection point at the moment. You know, the lives that we have previously had have maybe had a bit of a… we’ve hit pause, and I’m curious if there’s some questions that we should be taking a moment to think about right now.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Yeah. Such a good question as well. Yeah, as you said, like we’re on pause. And I think every time we’re on pause it is a unique opportunity to really look around and observe how we live and the consequences of that. And I think it’s fascinating to see people already talking about the post-COVID-19 world and what it could look like. Are we just going to go back to what it used to be just a few weeks ago? Or do we have an opportunity to change things and make things different and be more sustainable with life practice, for example?


I read already that some governments, in Europe specifically, are taking very bold steps in order to change society. So we saw Spain, the government of Spain, proposing the implementation of a universal basic income. And I think it’s just fantastic that in just a matter of few weeks we change our minds from like, “Oh yeah, this is just like not feasible, and it doesn’t fit within the way we live,” to like, “Ah, actually, maybe we need this, and it’s going to be great for a post-COVID-19 world.” So like it’s just so fascinating to see what’s happening at the moment.


I read as well that the city government of Amsterdam in the Netherlands is starting to change the way they’re going to manage the city. So there is an amazing scholar and economist in the UK called Kate Raworth, and she developed a whole new economic model called “The Donut Economy,” which is basically an application of the triple bottom line to economy, economy of financial viability, but also a consideration for the environment in society.


And the city of Amsterdam is actually going to switch their whole model to this “Donut Economy,” and to try to make things more sustainable and better for all their residents. So like, yeah, times like this are just like fantastic because I think in times of crisis we’re more receptive to change. We see the need for change and we can seize it. And I really hope that it’s gonna happen as well in Australia and all across the world.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, I think you’re right, and it’s possibly only when we have these moments to pause and reflect that these ideas start coming up and we can start having conversations about possibilities for the future and what it might look like. Because what I’ve noticed like in myself, and a lot of people that I know, we’re all in a rush to get from A to B, to get from home to work, from work to gym, from gym to home, from home to sleep. Like there’s never a moment to sit back and go, “You know, is this really the thing that you know I want?”


Because we’re constantly rushing through things, so I think you’re very right, and it’s really exciting to hear about future possibilities like this donut economy that is going to potentially massively impact Amsterdam. And, you know, I’m really exciting to learn more about that and what they might become because of it.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Mm, yeah. It’s really nice like you’re talking about slowing down. I think like we already saw and heard of the slow cooking movement, the slow food movement, and obviously like things like fast fashion on the other hand needs to slow down as well. What does slow fashion look like? What does slow architecture look like? It’s really an interesting time to think about what that means the benefit it could bring to our society.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. And given that, what’s your message for everyone right now?


Ollie Cotsaftis: I think like take care of yourselves. Take care of your loved ones. As I said, like yeah, it’s really nice to take a breather from like the fast-paced living we’re all in, and I really hope that we’re going to take this time to reconsider our ways of living.


Mike Rowe: Mm, me too. Just finally, to wrap up, where can people learn more about you and your work?


Ollie Cotsaftis: Okay, cool. So I’m on Twitter, although I tweet maybe like once every six months. I can send you all the links if you want. I have a blog on Medium, which I semi-regularly update, maybe like let’s say  three to five articles a year. I have a website, futureensemble.co, which is at the moment, mainly my portfolio. I clearly need to update it, I think I haven’t updated that in like a year and a half, but it’s my intent during this time of post to actually take the time and write a few more pieces of content.


Mike Rowe: Excellent.


Ollie Cotsaftis: What else is there? Oh yeah, so I run this group called Melbourne Speculative Futures with a friend of mine. So we opened this group about a year and a half ago, and it’s actually the Melbourne chapter of an international consortium of speculative designers, which is called the Design Future Initiatives. So we organize a few events every year and I hope you can maybe join us at the next one when the time is right and we are allowed to get back to society.


And also like I actually teach at university, so like there’s the Master of Design Innovation and Technology where I teach all these new practices of speculative design, and critical design, and biodesign. And if you feel this is the time to go back to university, well we’re more than happy to have you with us and come with us to talk about all of this and see how we can benefit the world.


Mike Rowe: That’d be great. Well, Ollie, it’s been an absolute massive conversation. I’ve loved learning all about your practice inside of speculative design, going deep inside of biodesign, and touching the surface of bionic design and transhumanism. These are topics that I’ve been, you know, at the fringe of not really explored myself. And I just wanted to say thank you for, you know, sharing your time and your enthusiasm for design and energy with me. It’s been such a lush and really enjoyable conversation, so thank you so much.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Oh no, thank you, thanks to you like to organize this like fantastic like podcast. Cause like there’s not a lot of platforms at the moment that are where we can spread the message about this new practice of design, and the evolution of design, and I think you’re doing a fantastic work, so thanks for that. Looking forward to actually get down and listen to all the other episodes of “The Goods.”


Mike Rowe: Ah, thank you, man I’d really appreciate that. Well, again Ollie, thank you so much. I think we’ll wrap the show with that.


Ollie Cotsaftis: Great. Thanks for having me again.


Mike Rowe: Hey there, it’s Mike again. I wanted to say thank you for your time, attention, and listening this far. So what’d you think? If you liked this episode and want to hear more, you can subscribe to “The Goods” on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts, Spotify, or get “The Goods” on your favorite podcast network or listening apps. This podcast only exists with the support of people like you. If you got valuable advice, a great insight, or see potential in the show, I’d really appreciate it if you’d consider leaving a rating and review. Thank you and practice good design.

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