About Rachel

Bio

I work with international scientists and architects to explore cutting-edge, sustainable technologies that take the form of new materials that possess some of the properties of living systems. By creating living materials such as, paint that can 'eat' carbon dioxide and change colour when it is 'full' cities will be able to participate in cleaning up the environment and even repairing some of the damage that we've already created. Collaborative work with architect Philip Beesley has been nominated for a Katerva Award in the field of Urban Design.

Languages

English

TED Conferences

TEDGlobal 2013, TEDGlobal 2012, TED2012, TEDGlobal 2011, TED2011, TEDGlobal 2010, TED2010, TEDGlobal 2009

Areas of Expertise

Synthetic Biology & Architecture

An idea worth spreading

I work with a new 'living' technology called the protocell. This is a chemically programmable agent based on the chemistry of oil and water which possesses some of the properties of living systems but is not truly 'alive'. Protocells can be chemically programmed using chemistry to create different kinds of responsive materials and may help us consider sustainable development in a new way that requires us to use more of materials that are good for the environment than less of technologies that cause pollution and climate change.

I'm passionate about

Using the creativity of science to address some of the world's biggest challenges!

Universities

Greenwich University

Talk to me about

Environmental science, Sustainability, Future Cities, 'Bottom-up' synthetic biology.

People don't know I'm good at

Identifying talented people and working with them!

My TED story

I was practicing Synthetic Biology - the rational design and engineering of biology - before it ever had a name!! The first experience that I had with this new science was as a medical student working on a leprosy colony in India. Working with a hand surgeon we were able to restore grip in hands that had lost the use of their thumbs and enable people to protect their eyesight by re-siting their chewing muscles. Although the surgery was carried out in the most simple setting - as the leprous body does not need expensive anaesthetics - it was a life-changing experience to witness the impact of how very simple interventions could radically change people's lives for the better. I vowed to use the lessons learned from this experience on a much larger scale to benefit everyone!

Comments & conversations

109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
Jonnie you might like to look at a lovely article I came across today on the Metabolic Cities of Venice & Japan :) Metabolic Venice blog: http://dprbcn.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/metabolic-venice/ and http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/out-there-metabolic-pathways/?scp=4&sq=urban%20planning&st=cse
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
The definition of a living technology is one that possess some but not all of the properties of living systems - in other words, it appears life-like but is not truly alive. These qualities can be found in living things like bacteria and algae which you've probably heard a lot about in sustainability forums but you may be less aware of the kinds of materials and chemistries that can be programmed to perform life-like jobs - like harvest sunlight and turn it into a biofuel, or paints that can 'eat' pollution, or artificial reefs that could be grown by cities on the inter coastal zone as a way of sustainably reclaiming them. Again, I go into more detail about some of these technologies and possible uses in my book http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks but I think it would be remiss not to raise the question of the ethics of designing with life-like systems. We are used to gardening and animal husbandry which we have found ways of dealing with culturally and I think that living technology provides an opportunity to think of ourselves as Ecological Humans and ask further questions about what this means for us and our role within our society and newfound partnership with nature and its systems - that is, of course, if you'd like to explore what this idea of being an Ecological Human might mean. I'd really recommend Jane Bennett's book on 'Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things' and Steve Fuller's provocative 'Humanity 2.0" - I've found these texts useful and stimulating.
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
What is the role of biology in our twenty first century cities? Will we have space for native biology if we're not only going to see one third again more people in urban environments, living more densely and with more people moving from rural to city lifestyles. Can biology be viewed as a technology that can help us generate more sustainable solutions for city living spaces? These kind of questions may be addressed best by the practice of a new kind of science called synthetic biology. Most of us will equate synthetic biology with genetic modification - which is something that I do not do myself. But is it more broad than this - certainly the way that I personally view synthetic biology. I consider this science as being the way that we design and engineer with nature and living systems. In other words using a set of tools and materials that are Ecological in their very nature. Machine based tools need to be checked and adapted for their ecological compatibility because they constitute a barrier between human design and the natural world - but biological systems share a common language with nature through the laws of physics and chemistry. In my TED Book Living Architecture http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks I describe the range of these kinds of interventions that range from agrarian techniques to biotechnology. They constitute a powerful portfolio of possible ways of shaping our living quarters. Because they are powerful they need to be considered carefully but they do offer us something new and different to machines. Modern architecture finds the biological system too slow for its liking. But if we really do find some of the properties such as, robustness flexibility, the ability to deal with the unexpected and the capacity for surprise valuable then there are a new range of opportunities (and challenges - which include ethical ones) available to us.
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
Future cities will need to have some qualitatively differences to modern cities but change does not mean tearing down what already exists. This is simply silly. In my book I refer to 'extreme recycling' of cities where structural elements such as concrete and steel that mature with age are kept in situ and new kinds of 'skins' that have more biological-like and dynamic materials in them can start to perform some of the kinds of functions that we'd normally attribute to plants. Most of us will not be able to live in Masdar and sustainable enclaves so one of the biggest challenges that I hope that living technologies can address is in our existing building stock. I think that we will firstly experience a series of incremental changes as some of these new technologies can increase the quality of the local environment in physical but also in terms of its psychological impact. We need to make room for nature in our cities. We can be inventive about what this actually means now that we are able to design and engineer with biological systems to the degree that we are currently able. But we also need to respect our environment and also the wishes of communities. Facilitating a transition towards a City 2.0 (as the TED Prize states) has really got to start with a change in mindset as to what is possible, education, addressing infrastructures, meeting the needs of populations and lastly changing the way that our architectures are made. In that order. Also this is just my opinion and I am very keen to hear your views as to how change may be possible - it is so vital for a humane future in cities - and so pressing upon us!
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
I'm going to try to quickly cover the couple of outstanding questions that I promised to address as I am running out of time! I have been reading all the comments and totally welcome them all. I think that the TED Prize City 2.0 is really raising an important question about a 'wish' - in other words trying to locate the point of action, the kind of organisation that we're lacking that may help us address some of these essential yet complex issues in addressing the future for our cities. There is a lot at stake ... I'd call it our humanity ... if we don't change where we're heading - we'll end up where we deserve.
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
Antoine - I agree that measures are being taken to address carbon counts but the big picture is that this kind of legislation is simply buying us time whilst we look for a real paradigm shift in ways of making - that invert the current situation from being damaging or neutral for the environment to being actually beneficial to it. I cover a few of these ideas in my book http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks ... which I am referring to for want of time :) However, the conundrum and constantly moving targets are twofold - the obsolescence of buildings - that once they are built are no longer ideally fit for purpose or have already outdated technology/solutions AND the ever changing nature of the public in terms of employment, the use of public space - dynamic things that aren't measurable in carbon credits that have an impact on the experience and design of cites. However, I do concede that making positive efforts to use energy more carefully efficiently and resourcefully is something to be actively celebrated and pursued. It's not not the whole picture of a thriving community or a successful city.
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
Mary, That is indeed totally heartbreaking to hear - there are some very deep issues about value that are so necessary to have when it comes to the nature of our cities. I agree with you in how topsy turvy our environments have become when inert surfaces are considered more desirable than living ones - mainly by property developers rather than civic communities I will also add. After all - we do not live 'in nature' but in architecture - this is our local environment and as Darwin observed, these intimate niches have a real effect on our well being. Again this raises issues about who is planning the long term for our cities. What is the long term vision for the places that we live in and how are we engaging our children and our grandchildren in helping us achieve these long term visions. I simply do not trust the 'market' to make any decisions that have any real impact more than a 3-5 year product cycle away. Leaving everything to the marketplace has simply productised the future - and it's not a real future - it's just a drawn out version of our present.
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
Those contexts are just some very simple rules that it was possible to examine using the living technology that I have been working with since 2009. It has been an amazing experience being able to work with a technology that really does look as if it is alive but since it has no DNA, it is not called 'alive'. However, that this technology breaks a lot of rules that machines obey helped me look again afresh at the way that world appeared to be organised around me and how it might be possible to use the powerful visualisation that the technology offered as a way of re-imagining what may be possible. Take a look for yourself - this is a series of films that were taken of the technology - they are not animation but real footage of simple droplets behaving in a remarkably lifelike way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFagK5Lshlg [credit Michael Simon Toon]
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
3) A system (or group of people) that work according to ecological and emergent principles also need an 'architecture' - in other words a strategy through which the participants can use to connect with and interact with each other. Without social codes, ethics and etiquette then the bonding or 'architecture' of the system breaks down. These forms of architecture do not have to be permanently fixed but they need to be present as they are vital for the participants to help them understand their role and limits within a group.
109891
Rachel Armstrong
Posted almost 3 years ago
THE CITY 2.0 – EVOLVED (NOT MADE) BY ECOLOGICAL HUMANS
2) A system that is ecological and emergent is dependent on its 'metabolism' - the energy that it possess to keep it away 'from equilibrium' - that's a term used by Shroedinger 1944 to describe a signature of life. In an everyday setting we can think of the 'metabolism' as motivation, stimulation, cultural motivation and belief systems (I am sure that you'll be able to think of many more ways of keeping energy flowing in a community or a workplace). Without an internal energy to stop everyone reaching a point of inertia - or unproductively - spontaneity and emergent behaviour will not occur.