27 May 2022
Dr. Olivier Cotsaftis on the benefits of biophilia

The world is already experiencing the effects of climate change and outcomes are predicted to worsen without significant intervention. As people seek meaningful ways to combat the threat of climate crisis, Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Olivier Cotsaftis about how the solutions we need probably already exist.


Dr. Olivier Cotsaftis is a lecturer and researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, School of Design and a post-disciplinary designer, navigating the spaces between presents, futures, fictions, and realities. His research addresses climate mitigation and social innovation in more-than-human and circular heterotopias. He is the founder and creative director of future ensemble studio, the co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures – the Melbourne chapter of The Design Futures Initiative – and ​​was formerly a design lead at Fjord Design and Innovation.

Nick is a Behavioural Analyst at Canvas8. With a degree in Human Geography from UCL, he is interested in the impact of differing cultural conditions on human behaviour. Outside of work he can be found meandering between cafes on his bike, testing his culinary skills and intermittently pottering around a rugby pitch.

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The world has not always looked the way it does now – with sprawling concrete jungles, vast networks of cables carrying enormous amounts of data and complex hunks of metal carrying people and things tens of thousands of miles overground, underground, across oceans, and over our heads. Indeed, in 1950 only 30% of the global population lived in urban areas and New York’s Empire State was the tallest building in the world. [1] Fast-forward 70 years and 56% of the world’s population live in cities, while the Empire State finds itself looking up at 48 other buildings worldwide. [2]

This expansion is not without consequence – the world is already seeing the ramifications of anthropogenic climate change, and the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the fragility of increasingly complex supply chains, which has precipitated cost of living crises in many countries around the world and prompted a realisation of the need for a transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels. [3] But, all hope is not lost. “I think we need to be really realistic about the state in which we’re in – we’re living in a human-made climate emergency and a social crisis, but there’s actually plenty of solutions out there,“ says Dr. Olivier Cotsaftis, lecturer at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology School of Design, founder of future ensemble studio, and co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures. [4]

With a diverse professional background extending from a PhD in functional genomics to working with start-ups, governments, blue-chip companies, and not-for-profits, Dr. Cotsaftis, who classifies himself as a post-disciplinary designer, leverages all of this experience in his work on socio-ecological design and innovation in bio-urban heterotopias. Canvas8 spoke to him about how biophilic design principles can answer the call of climate mitigation, how effective solutions to the ongoing climate crisis already exist, and what it will take to get people to behave more sustainably.

Bioeconomy 101

The emerging bioeconomy is garnering more mainstream attention, but it can be jargon-heavy, which could be a barrier to buy-in. The prefix ‘bio’ refers to life, that is all living things, which informs the meaning of the following with reference to design: biomimicry, the modelling of materials and systems on examples from the natural world; biodesign, incorporating living organisms, such as plants, bacteria and fungi into designs; biophilia, an innate instinct to connect and respect all forms of natural life; and biofabrication, which sees using organic materials to create objects and spaces as a collaborative process between human and non-human species.

More than twice as many Australians were ‘very concerned’ in 2021 than in 2015 that climate change might impinge on them personally at some point (16% to 34%), but Dr. Cotsaftis believes that people and businesses aren’t really aware of what living a sustainable existence looks like. [5] “Research is telling us, for example, that before colonisation, indigenous populations seemed to live in harmony with nature,” he says. “I do not believe the concept of waste was prominent and we kind of lost track of that. And so the challenge is in how we develop this contemporary notion of connecting with nature in a world where we’ve completely lost touch with it.” [4]

This is a recurring theme in Dr. Cotsaftis’ work and the questions he asks of the design industry. In a lecture given at Speculative Futures London in May 2021, he asks why it is that the notion ‘the more advanced a civilisation, the more energy it consumes’ is so common, when using more energy is not synonymous with being more advanced. [6] With just 3% of the world remaining ecologically intact at the time this lecture was given, Dr. Cotsaftis makes a salient point. [7]

This is where biophilic design – defined by Stephen Kellert and Judith Heerwagen as “an innovative approach that emphasises the necessity of maintaining, enhancing, and restoring the beneficial experience of nature in the built environment,” becomes so crucial. [8] While these principles ensure that environmental sustainability is an elemental part of any design, access to natural spaces also leads to increased productivity, reduced mental fatigue, and improved mental health. [9] One of Dr. Cotsaftis’ personal projects, The Other Space, is a speculative architectural concept that showcases the solutions we already have that would allow us to live sustainably while maintaining existing standards of living. It also embodies our collective “need to reconnect with the natural systems that support our experience,” and decentre humans from the design process to let nature take precedence again. [6][4]

The futuristic designs of projects like Backyard BI(h)OME or the Shi Ling Bridge, which take structural inspiration from the curvilinear geometry of seashells, combined with the ‘newness’ implied by the language of innovation, give the impression that biophilic solutions are completely novel. However, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, if not longer. Take, for example, Aboriginal fire management practices in Australia. The specifics of cultural burning vary by geography but an intricate knowledge of local ecosystems has allowed aboriginal populations to intentionally, but strategically, burn areas of the landscape at certain times of year to not only protect against larger fires but also protect biodiversity. [10] “Australia’s forests need fire, deployed by capable Indigenous hands. Without it, increased fuel loads, coupled with climate change, will create conditions for bushfires bigger and more ferocious than we’ve ever seen before,” say Michela Mariani, assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, and her colleagues. [11]

Is incorporating nature into architecture the future of urban design?Jw. (2021)

Why we need the bioeconomy

Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change, and climate change’s impacts have already been observed in Australasian ecosystems, species ranges, water scarcity, food production, health outcomes, as well as in cities, settlements, and infrastructure. [12] “I don’t talk about climate resilience, because I think we passed that point,” says Dr. Cotsaftis. “Now we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of what we’ve been doing and we should be talking about climate mitigation instead.” [4] Bioeconomy growth could be worth up to $4 trillion to the global economy between 2020 and 2040, and this potential upside will grab the attention of business leaders, but the disturbance of ecosystems combined with increasing average global surface temperatures are providing immediate impetus for the bioeconomy. [13]

The issue of climate mitigation has two main components: there is a requirement for symbiotic design that attends to the needs of the natural world as much as it does to the needs of humans, but Dr. Cotsaftis points out that all this biodesign innovation is effectively moot if there isn’t a shift in social consciousness towards a ‘more than human’ understanding of the world. There is a well-documented intention-action gap between people’s awareness and concern for sustainability, and the actions they take to ensure it. Indeed, 96% of Australians consider themselves familiar with the concept of sustainability and 61% say that the actions, or lack thereof, taken by a brand in the interests of sustainability would influence whether they buy a product. However, just 25% check a brand’s reputation on sustainability before making a purchase. [14]

Even for the fraction of people that do check a company’s reputation, and will be swayed by it, this behaviour still does not address a key barrier to sustainable futures – overconsumption. “Even if we are designing this new system, which is circular, regenerative, and bio-based, we cannot think that this allows us to keep our throw-away culture,” says Dr. Cotsaftis. “We’re still consuming resources and generating waste. We cannot then neglect the first five Rs of sustainability (refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle).” [4] Dr. Cotsaftis’ version of biodesign, exemplified by his work on The Other Space, takes up the challenge of social innovation’s intention-action gap by creating biophilic spaces that do not, within reason, impinge on current standards of living. [6]

There are positive signs of buy-in. In fact, 79% of Australians claim they would be willing to make at least some changes to how they live and work in order to reduce the effects of climate change, and the biofabrication that’s beginning to be explored in the fashion industry is a good indication that it will start appearing elsewhere soon too. [5][13] “I think it always starts with fashion,” says Dr. Cotsaftis. ”It’s about the different timescales of design. The lifespan of a garment is a lot shorter than the lifespan of a skyscraper or a house. So because of that, these shifts are often spearheaded by the fashion and textile industry, then it goes into product design, and then it goes into architecture and urban design.” [4]

Access to natural outdoor spaces improves employees’ productivity and wellbeingNico Marques (2021)

(Un)speculative futures

Despite cities covering just 2% of the planet’s surface, 56% of the world’s population currently live in urban environments and cities produce more than 70% of global carbon emissions. [15][1][16] In fact, just 25 of the world’s largest cities produce 52% of the total carbon emissions. [17] These figures are set to rise, with the proportion of people living in urban areas predicted to jump to 68.4% by 2050. [1] With population density set to increase, planners and architects will have to adopt biophilic design principles if we are to facilitate this growth without accelerating climate change. Fortunately, technological solutions already exist.

Dr. Cotsaftis sees biophilic design solutions as represented by bio-urban heterotopias. Brought to the world’s attention by the work of Michel Foucault, heterotopias are spaces that exist within the world but contradict it or somehow transform its conventions. The way that Dr. Cotsaftis maps this definition onto the world of biophilic design is best explained through examples such as the Eastgate Shopping Centre in Zimbabwe, the ventilation system in which is inspired by the construction of termite mounds, or Carvey Ehren Maigue’s AuReus neon solar panels that are made from crop waste. [18][19]

And this is why Dr. Cotsaftis uses the term heterotopia instead of utopia. While these technologies are infrequently applied, both already exist. They are not utopian speculative futures or “ideal places from an environmental perspective that are dystopian from a social perspective”. [4] Instead, they are real-life heterotopian examples of biophilic design that are already supporting climate mitigation, environmental sustainability, and human existence. The Eastgate Shopping Centre has been cooling patrons without the use of air-conditioning units since 1996. [18] “My goal is to design future cities from a speculative perspective that are very anchored in reality,” says Dr. Cotsaftis. “Working with heterotopias is about looking at alternative presents. This means working with (bio)technologies that we already have in a way that is completely different from what we do now. And if we were to do that, then potentially we would live completely differently, and more sustainably.” [4]

Biophilic design requires a symbiosis between humans and natureChuttersnap (2018)

Insights and opportunities

Leaning into biophilic design

Three-quarters (75%) of Australians are concerned about climate change and 82% support a phase-out of coal-fired power stations. [20] The latter statistic is all the more significant given the Australian economy’s heavy reliance on coal. [21] With such a large proportion of Aussies cognisant of the dire need for change, they are likely to be receptive to businesses that incorporate biophilic principles into their design. Choosing which organic matter to incorporate into design matters, however. “​​Broadly speaking, using a food source or a tree to create biomaterial seems completely illogical when there are more than two billion people that are malnourished in the world and deforestation is still happening at an alarming rate,” says Dr. Cotsaftis. [4] But the fashion industry has identified a material that can work without the ethical red flags. Hermès has introduced a handbag that is made from mushroom mycelium, an organic material that can be easily reproduced and readily decomposed. Mycelium was also used in Adidas and Stella McCartney’s collaboration on a Stan Smith sneaker.

New doesn’t always mean better

The notion of ‘progress’, informed by legacies of colonialism that are built on the erroneous logic of ‘civilising’ people and cultures that do not operate as the Global North does has devalued, and in some cases erased, valuable knowledge about coexisting with the natural environment, which now is increasingly valuable. Indigenous knowledge will not have all of the answers to the questions that currently face humanity, but there’s certainly something to be gained from exercising similar respect for the natural world. And rather than simply extracting indigenous knowledge and appropriating ideas, brands looking to meaningfully navigate the impending climate crisis can focus on solutions that respectfully retool existing ideas into a modern context. For example, when faced with the problem of unsustainable overconsumption but needing an obvious incentive to make sure that customers returned to their stores, Uniqlo introduced an on-site repairs service in their New York flagship where customers can have Uniqlo garments mended for $5.

A more-than-human worldview

Current understandings of the world position human life and all other organic life in a kind of binary opposition – a distinction of nature from culture that fails to acknowledge all of the ways that the two intersect and overlap, when in actual fact they can create a virtuous cycle. “I firmly believe that the futures of agriculture and manufacturing are actually the same, it’s just one industry,” says Dr. Cotsaftis. “On one end we grow organic life forms in order to sustain our livelihoods through food. But the waste from that industry can then be used to create beautiful, sustainable materials that we can use in our daily life.” [4] Thinking of the world like this, as an assemblage of intersecting touchpoints, could provide fertile ground for brand innovations that combine people’s desire for certain products with their needs for waste disposal. ChopValue, for example, rescues people’s discarded chopsticks and turns them into affordable homeware treasures.