Imagine a present where buildings work like trees, with living walls that perpetually cleaned the air across our cities. The idea seems laudable, because if buildings currently contribute to 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., then retrofitting their facades with photobioreactors that can clean the air would certainly help solve the problem. This is where we are today: using biological intelligence to fix our mistakes from the past (and present) and work towards a cleaner, more resilient future.
In 2018, an installation called Photo.Synth.Etica was exhibited in Dublin, Ireland on the principal facade of Dublin Castle’s Printworks building. It was created by London-based architecture and urban design firm ecoLogicStudio in collaboration with Climate-KIC, a European initiative set on expediting climate change-resilient design. Every day, the living wall captured 2.2 pounds of carbon dioxide and stored it in cells, effectively doing the work of 20 trees. Comprised of 16 photobioreactor modules, the installation uses daylight to cultivate microorganisms that trap passing carbon dioxide molecules. The reactors themselves then turn the pollutants into oxygen. And that’s just one of ecoLogicStudio’s many innovations.
The concept of using technology to perform the same work as a tree is something that feels both exciting and defeatist. While the science behind it is certainly impressive, biological intelligence like Photo.Synth.Etica can also be viewed as overt evidence of our own desperation and inability to protect our environment.
If biological intelligence is going to be one of those technologies that helps the world fight and adapt to climate change, then we are in a truly terrible position. We arrived here not because the climate is rapidly becoming uninhabitable, but because too many of us value our personal conveniences over the planet’s well-being. We live as though the Earth is a lightbulb, soon to be spent until a dutiful servant replaces it with a new one.
We always have reasons why we cannot take the necessary measures to protect our future from climate calamity. We would rather settle for quarter measures or piecemeal changes so as to disturb as little of the status quo as possible. Designers and inventors provide solutions and get paid regardless of whether they actually work or not. If we saw the amount of time, energy, money, and hope that have been wasted greenwashing our way to sustainability, we would be ashamed of ourselves. As the science rings true in our daily forecasts and we continue to experience climatic shifts that the world has not seen in more than a century, we must do better to do more. Seriously this time.
It’s great that new air-cleaning technologies exist, because they give us ideas for what we can achieve when we really put our minds to it. If biological intelligence is an effective solution at our disposal, then we should absolutely invest in more of it. Still, Photo.Synth.Etica is ultimately a solution born from our past failures. Facing the realities of what’s predicted to come in desperation may be inspirational because of new technologies, but it will not be fun.