Meanings of Design for a Circular Bio Economy

BIODESIGN was a project co-funded by the Portuguese General Arts Directorate from the Ministry of Culture, which aimed to explore and experiment with renewable biological materials and technologies in product design towards a circular bio economy. The resulting product prototypes were displayed in a touring exhibition in Lisbon, Aveiro and London.


BIODESIGN was a project co-funded by the Portuguese General Arts Directorate from the Ministry of Culture, which aimed to explore and experiment with renewable biological materials and technologies in product design towards a circular bio economy. The resulting product prototypes were displayed in a touring exhibition in Lisbon, Aveiro and London.

The intrinsic theme, BIODESIGN, is the world of biological materials and the state-of-the-art of innovation in this field, which utilize materials and ingredients of plant or animal origin as basis for the development of renewable and sustainable composites with reduced environmental impact. The project considered geographical ecosystems from which materials are derived as a conceptual metaphor and reflection of design’s role in the global challenge to minimize climate change: calcium carbonate seashells and jellyfish leather from the oceans; cork from the Mediterranean forests; wine leather (made from the waste stream of the wine industry) from temperate valleys, and rubber from tropical rain forest, are some examples.

The aforementioned examples bear excellent physical and environmental characteristics, traditionally maintain important socio-economic contexts, and have high potential for technological innovation within the context of the circular bio economy, safely returning to the biosphere.

BIODESIGN was conducted within the context and scope of design experimentation, and aimed to portray the role of natural materials in product design from several points of view:

1. The environmental impacts, based on the problems of the dominant consumer society, its impacts on the ecological balance and quality of life on earth, and, in particular, climate change;

2. The social, artistic, and cultural identity aspects, and their intangible presence in human design;

3. The economic aspect, and its importance in the management of wealth and resources - from extraction (local) to consumption (global);

4. The scientific aspects of the subject, within the context of a constantly changing society and technological paradigm; and,

5. The creativity aspect, embodied in the product prototypes, and the ways in which it relates to the practice of design.​


Shoreditch Design Triangle, London Design Week 2018

As part of the effort to increase awareness on bio-based materials, a curated exhibition was presented to the public during two days of the 2018 Shoreditch Design Triangle event in London. The exhibition comprised a selection of bio-based products including, cork wallpaper, candlesticks, and ice buckets; bamboo straws and bowls; coconut fiber and shell bowls; coffee-bean bioplastic coffee cups; straw bioplastic cups; 3D printed polylactic acid (a plant-based bioplastic - PLA) and composite materials (including PLA and cork and PLA and wood); seagrass; mycelium lamp; natural rubber and seed jewelry; and several mineral (terracotta, salt, and volcanic rock) products. The exhibition was supported by an overhead projector with a slide show comprising explanations and case studies of products that were not acquirable (due to exclusivity deals, commercial unavailability and pricing).


Biodesign curated exhibition at TheCube London during the 2018 Shoreditch Design Triangle event


Lisbon Exhibition, December 2018

A second exhibition was organized during December 2018 in Lisbon, next to the Centro de Inovaçao da Mouraria's pop-up store event, bringing together more examples of biomaterials and their uses. The exhibition involved an opening cocktail night, as well as a next-day visit from the Mayor of Lisbon, reaching in excess of 5.000 visitors over one month. In addition to the general public, contacts were made with academics from around the world, including Brazil, the UK, the USA, and Germany.


Biodesign curated exhibition in Lisbon, December 2018


The project concluded in February 2019, and included a total of 6 workshops: Centro de Inovaçao da Mouraria in Lisbon, University of Oporto, Aveiro Design Factory, Centro de Inovaçao da Mouraria in Lisbon, Oporto Design Factory, and Loulé Design Factory. The workshops varied from 3 days to 1 day, and comprised a lecture on circular products design, as well as some case study examples in biomaterials. After the lecture, the students were split into groups for brainstorming sessions, using post its to gather materials, production technologies, and products, before choosing a combination from the three categories for five possible products. In the case of the three and two-day workshops (Lisbon and Loulé, respectively), the groups further developed their ideas into a product proposal, and presented their cases.

Additionally, the project also included two exhibitions: one in London, during the 2018 Design Week, and another in Lisbon, during December 2019. Both exhibitions comprised a combination of materials and products from different biomes, and were open to the public. Discussions were held during these events with visitors about the potential of biomaterials in the future of design.

Overall, the project was deemed a successful effort in raising awareness of the potentials of bio-materials in product design. While most of the products were crafts-level, some interesting examples of more industrial solutions were observed - especially in the case of wine leather from Vegea, and the rubber flip-flops from the association of serenguerias in Brazil. Although a sample of the former was unobtainable (due to exclusivity contracts), the former producer was very open with their products, as well as their processes, and how they actually improved upon the eco-value of the material.

Though hydrocarbon polymers cannot be completely discarded (as their material properties remain too versatile), these examples show that there is indeed potential in pursuing eco-friendly, natural materials, where possible. Of note, however, is that such materials must still be sourced responsibly, and the utilization of biomaterials in most cases should be conducted with slow the loops strategies, as high demand for such materials may still cause environmental devastation and destruction of biodiversity, while also creating a financial risk for material suppliers - as in the case of the rubber blight of the 1900s.

The project will be followed up upon by a second project that involves the inhouse development of Susdesign branded products, as well as the launch of an e-store that consists of a curation of low-impact and biomaterial products from around the world.

Local: Lisbon, Portugal; London, UK; Loulé, Portugal; Porto, Portugal; Aveiro, Portugal
Year: 2016
Team: Ana Mestre
Rasim Can Savaskan