City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

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What follows is a slightly different edit of my article for Artek’s new magazine, 'Annex', as part of their science and technology-themed issue. It explores some of the possibilities in and around advanced material research, based on a conversation between researcher Olli Ikkala, Artek design director Ville Kokkonen, and me, at Aalto University’s “Nanotalo” (nano-house).

Along the way it explores building at the molecular scale, how cellulose might resource tomorrow’s fast fashion and slow buildings; leaps from Lilliput to Finland; links electron microscopes to Thackara’s macroscopes; remains ambivalent about whether we really are on the brink of a the new industrial revolution or about to take another unsustainable misstep: connects MIT’s Building 20 and Aalto to reinforce the value of garages; sets up a prizefight of poetic qualities between Italo Calvino, Juhani Pallasmaa and biomimicry; and sketches out how research into organic polymers might inadvertently reveal a future of creative practices …

Suffice to say, it was not easy to write this article in a way that might engage a broad audience, whilst retaining the essence of these big issues about small things. I take my hat off to writers like Steven Johnson or David Brooks who do such a thing for a living.  For some years now, I’ve tried to use this site to explore a kind of communicable, almost conversational writing about (sometimes) complex matters—it’s far too easy to hide behind obfuscation, after all—but this was a particular challenge.

As ever, I’d be interested in your thoughts: Twitter, Facebook, or even the neglected old comments box below. The 'Annex' piece is accompanied by proper photos from proper photographer Tuomas Uusheimo; the ones below are mine (full set is here.)

You should know that this is known in the trade as one of those #longreads

The Garage of Small Things: from seashells to butterfly wings, how nanotechnology reveals nature’s true potential

Olli Ikkala walks quickly. We are almost chasing him down a spotless white corridor at Aalto University’s “Nanotalo” facility, trying to keep up. It’s like he’s trying to get to the future as quickly as possible, just to see how it turns out.

“We” are Ville Kokkonen and Anna Vartiainen, from Finnish design company Artek, photographer Tuomas Uusheimo, and me. 

Ikkala is Academy Professor at Aalto University’s Department of Applied Physics, and our host today at “Nanotalo”, the university’s nanotechnology and advanced materials research centre. Throughout the course of a morning’s conversation, and by letting us in on their experiments and equipment, Ikkala patiently yet imaginatively makes an invisible world come alive, a world which is fundamental to all of us and everything we know but whose meaningful comprehension is tantalisingly out of reach. You will need to reject, or at least thoroughly question, much of what you know—at least what you think you know—about the properties, scale and systems of the materials we live with.

We’re here for a conversation between Ikkala, Kokkonen and me, to see if we can sketch out some areas of shared interest, between a scientist and two designers. Ikkala’s team specialise in the self-assembling of material, based on increasingly deep understanding of the nacreous matter in seashells—mother of pearl, in plain English—or the structure of butterfly wings and beetle shells, or cellulose fibres in birch. Ville and I both have experience of different kinds of assembly, from objects to buildings to organisations. The conversation proves to be one of the most pleasurably challenging I’ve had for a while, and I’ll be picking over its remains for some time. This essay is one way of trying to make sense of it all.

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i Puulaboratorio to Nanotalo

Ikkala was striding from the main entrance to Nanotalo, off one of the more nondescript of many nondescript streets at Aalto University’s Otaniemi campus, through to the back of the building. He says we’re heading for “the garage”.

The building is hardly Alvar Aalto on top form, though it is a perfectly serviceable functional component of the 1965 campus, and had formerly been the state’s wood research centre, or “Puulaboratorio”.

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Alvar Aalto’s legacy of built projects is of course one of Finland’s great gifts, to itself and the world, but it is something of a poisoned chalice when the functions required of buildings change four decades on, and a heritage listing prevents you from even switching door handles.

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Ikkala’s team had discovered that they couldn’t really touch a thing in the building; until someone asked about the humble building out the back. 

“Could we, er, modify the garage?”

Four decades on, and the modification is so thorough that there is little sense of garageness here at all. It’s a nest of grey corridors and well-insulated rooms, peppered with the opaque markings, student posters and research paper abstracts common to university spaces.

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Ikkala leads us a room that is small in plan but tall in section. It’s utterly dominated by a large electron microscope, around which we shuffle, trying to understand where the front is. In describing what the electron microscope can do, Ikkala begins to reveal the mysterious qualities of their work. Just as when he’s walking, it’s a little difficult to keep up.

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What we’re all particularly interested in is their research concerning the structures of cellulose fibre, which are the basic construction element of the primary cell walls in green plants, into new forms of material—“nanocellulose”—which could be valuable across a dizzying variety of applications. 

Those applications emerge throughout the morning’s conversation, and have been ticking over in the back of our minds ever since, but at this point it’s almost impossible to connect that rich variety of creative possibilities with this awkward room, over-lit like a hospital, and just about containing this towering confection of different components, with a couple of PC towers untidily attached to it like intravenous drips on a patient. Like the “dark warehouses” designed by robots for robots, it feels like a space exclusively shaped for and by for the electron microscope itself, rather than for its users.

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As we’re talking a student comes in to run some tests, and after it boots, the electron microscope renders some incomprehensible (to us) images on its display and emits an ambient symphony of peculiar high-pitched sounds. It’s somehow a small sound; a sound of small things.

This particular microscope, probably one of five like it in the world, is sitting pretty in an environment that is stable both politically and geographically. The “modifications” included digging down 10 metres until they hit the 1.9 billion year-old gneiss, shists, and granite bedrock that underpins Helsinki. They then built up 2 metres of sand and 8 metres of concrete. The electron microscope sits on this platform, but is further separated from the rest of the building’s frame, somewhat like the way contemporary concert halls tend to “float” on dampers.

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This stability does lend a particular kind of research into particular kinds of materials, just as rather more controversially Finland is building nuclear waste disposal facilities at Onkalo, to the north. Yet there is little sense here of a high security environment.

In fact, the building still has some garage-like qualities.  

It’s full of original Artek furniture for instance, but no-one is precious about how to use them. An E60 stool is somewhat compromised by a tatty desk drawer laid on top of it, repurposed as a laser printer stand. Later, in a room full of instrumentation made by the researchers themselves, we find a 3D printer and electrospinner augmented with Lego Technic components. “Our researchers found it easier to just drive over to Tapiola Stockmann and pick some up!”, laughs Ikkala.

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Classic Artek stool, with drawer on top, with laser printer on top

There’s a long history to this kind of workshop space in science and technology research, as exemplified by the legendary Building 20 at MIT. Lovingly described in Stewart Brand’s book 'How Buildings Learn'—and counterpointed beautifully by the “other favourite building on the MIT campus”, the Baker House dormitory, another Alvar Aalto building ironically enough—Building 20 was a ramshackle, knockabout, leftover space which happened to produce decades of pioneering research. As Brand related, it was “the only building on campus you can cut with a saw” but it’s also where MIT’s first interdisciplinary lab emerged from. It’s where Noam Chomsky largely started the science of linguistics, and can also lay claim to groundbreaking work in nuclear science, digital computer technology, stroboscopic photography, cosmic rays, food technology and so on.

So in being a former garage Nanotalo is in good company. Although one wouldn’t want to approach it with a saw, it does feel like a workshop rather than a sterile “clean room”.

Having said that, we follow in Ikkala’s wake past a low temperature laboratory, “around one thousandth of a degree above absolute zero”. The thought of making a part of Finland even colder that it already is has a certain irony, not lost on an immigrant like me. 

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ii Powers of 1×10-9

Confounding physical expectations is what this place does. Our morning is punctuated by vertiginous drops and zooms in scale, rather like the Charles & Ray Eames film “Powers of Ten”, but veering from the scale of the cosmos to that of the molecule from one sentence to the next.

The electron microscopes here deploy electron waves; they are working at the scale of 1 angstrom, or 0.1 nanometres. A nanometre is 1×10-9 metres), or a billionth of a metre. Or, to put it another way, we are working at 0.000000001 metres. This, of course, is all impossible to imagine.

Most humans, Ikkala and his team presumably excepted, are not particularly good at understanding such scale. In John Lanchester’s book concerning the global financial crisis, 'IOU', he argues that the average person has no intuition for what large numbers actually mean, a form of everyday innumeracy that has become increasingly problematic.

He suggests we consider the following test, proposed by the mathematician John Allen Paulos:

"Without doing the calculation, guess how long a million seconds is. Now try to guess the same for a billion seconds. Ready? A million seconds is less than twelve days; a billion is almost thirty-two years."

It’s that sudden unlikely leap in scale that we are constantly being asked to confront today. Ikkala shifts gears easily from the molecular level to that of national infrastructures such as energy grids or logistics networks, and I ask him how he thinks about this. 

He says that this is “why you see so many names on contemporary research papers”. Most researchers specialise, but not so much in terms of discipline anymore, but in terms of positioning and viewpoint; some are good at the big picture, the vision, whereas some are technically strong, and happiest inside the microscope, conceptually speaking at least.

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So some of his collaborators at Aalto concentrate on the potential applications of nanotechnology, like photovoltaics for example, whereas others work more on the material itself. This is emblematic of a subtle shift in the orientation of research, Ikkala suggests, with even the latter group conducting thoroughly applied research.

Ikkala lifts the conversation into a geopolitical holding pattern, noting that this is partly why countries like China, Japan and Korea are increasingly leading this research, due to the strategic investments made by Samsung, LG and other industrial giants. That kind of funding tends to focus the mind, to keep your research applied.  (The composition of his team reflects this drift eastwards too, incidentally.) 

iii One word, Benjamin: nanocellulose

As a layperson, if you follow the various online sources on nanotechnology, you are frequently swimming in a thick soup of incomprehensible technical concepts and the inadvertent poetry of freshly-minted nomenclature found on a bleeding edge.

Thankfully, Ikkala navigates the journey from molecule to application with some ease, pulling focus onto some of the specific trajectories being pursued at Nanotalo.

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The key to much of this is cellulose. This partly reflects the provenance of Nanotalo, where wood is an abundant and renewable source of material, given Finland’s well-managed forestry industry.

Working with the cellulose fibres found in wood involves breaking them down into a pulp and then reconstructing them, working at an almost impossibly small scale, creating a lattice of structurally dense nanocellulose fibres. This is then becomes a gel-like “raw material” that could replace organic polymers derived from petrochemicals. 

Or, in other words, it might replace plastics.

So the research conducted here looks at how to work with nanocellulose from an intensely practical point-of-view, but Ikkala also knows he has to take a wider, more strategic view when facing an organisation of contemporary life predicated on oil. 

He describes why oil-based polymers became the default, based on decades of working with plastics and building planetary-scale logistics networks and industrial infrastructure, whose sheer weight—of both the physical and political kind— manifests itself as a kind of “path dependency” that holds back a disruptive innovation like nanocellulose.

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Tub of nanocellulose solution

Though the process of refining oil produces “attractive” products at each of its multiple stages of refinement, Ikkala states that, equally, other useful products can be extracted from plant cell wall materials by “biorefining”. Already, long polymers have been prepared by dissolving cellulose to solvents, for use in textiles, for example. The solvents involved are indeed “a little bit complicated”, says Ikkala with a rueful grin. You know when Ikkala says “a little bit complicated”, it’s a little bit complicated like the Eurozone crisis is “a little bit frustrating” or the Pacific’s Mariana Trench is “a little bit deep”.

Ikkala realises he’s talking about “a gradual change of whole society”, as he puts it, a reworking of an interconnected, opaque and impossibly complex tangle of systems that connects driving a car to the production of toothbrushes. But he sees clear advantages in a localised “bioeconomy” based on cellulose, with a fraction of the carbon-intensive production and consumption patterns of our oil-based economy, as well as the possibilities of new products with new properties.


iv Ikkala: “You never know what’s going to happen next”

The list of possibilities for nanotechnology is out of date as soon as you make it.

It veers from “smart” baby clothes that can “listen out” for sleep apnea in infants, to silver nanoparticle inks that enable the “printing” of touch screens, solar cells, and RFID sensors. Or graphene/polymer solar cell surfaces that can either be transparent windows for buildings or digital displays, whilst gathering energy from sunlight in either case.

(The last is based on a simple idea, says Ikkala; it is “an oversimplification, but light goes in and light comes out.” He allows himself a quick little smile at the agreeably circular nature of this.)

We might have rollable, thin, lightweight display technologies, with the good properties of a newspaper (familiar form factor, ability to fold it, roll it or crumple it into a bag or a pocket) without the bad ones (throwaway and wasteful, print-once, fragile, and requiring physical delivery.)

Then there is “cultured meat”, which is grown at home in an incubator and might be invaluable as we face up to water shortages that would otherwise mean the world has to become largely vegetarian in the next 40 years. In a similar vein, as it were, self-assembling nanohemostatic fabrics might prevent life-threatening blood loss in soldiers, spontaneously forming nanofibre dressings, building itself over the wound and actively resisting bacterial infection.

Besides the kind of fabric applications which occasionally make the headlines—like a bullet-proof or “stealth” shirt—there are the prospects of, say, sportswear that is composed of renewable material but lasts decades anyway, that accumulates and displays performance data as you’re wearing it, whilst gathering energy, repelling water, and shifting colour depending on context—all as part of the inherent properties of the lightweight, pliable fabrics themselves.

(imagine what Nike, say, must be thinking about active sportswear that accumulates and displays performance data as you’re wearing it, whilst gathering energy, repelling water, and shifting colour depending on context—all as part of the inherent properties of the fabrics themselves, rather than cumbersome devices sewn on top or strapped to the arm.)

Every now and then a smile slowly spreads across Kokkonen’s face during one of these exchanges with Ikkala. Our minds are racing with the possibilities of these materials, in terms of spaces, objects, environments, and networks.

Ikkala leads us through to a lab full of researchers conducting various experiments on self-assembling nano-structures, some based on using viruses as a material, investigating their emergent organisational properties, while others are testing particular material qualities.

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It's behind you

(This “self-assembly” briefly brings to mind the infamous end-of-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology research producing an all-encompassing “grey goo” of nano-robots that consume all the Earth’s matter in order to self-replicate. Standing in the lab, it is of some comfort that the concept’s creator, Eric Drexler, retracted the idea that grey goo was likely, or even possible, two decades on.)

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We watch a scientist experiment on plant virus in fascinated silence. Dr Mauri Kostiainen says the virus produces molecular spheres that are consistent in size and shape which, when modified, become a form of building block that they can create nanostructures with. He’s talking more like a structural engineer than a chemist, even though it’s hard to think of building at this scale as being building at all.

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Nearby, researchers are working on materials with superhydrophobic properties. It repels water with an utterly beguiling movement., making me realise I’ve previously misunderstood the word “waterproof”. Neither Kokkonen or I have ever seen water move like this. It slides off the silver plate with a lack of friction that feels like a material property from another world.


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Drops of solution, left

Dipped into a beaker of water, the metal has a startlingly beautiful silver sheen when it catches the light at a certain angle, due to a pristine layer of air bubbles on its surface, perfectly and uniformly refusing the idea of getting wet at some deeply molecular level.

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Silvery sheen of air bubbles in solution

Silvery sheen of air bubbles in solution

From the youngest age, we’re primed to recognise and understand material properties. 

“Don’t bend that, be careful with that, that’s sharp, that’s hot, watch this bounce, don’t step in the puddle, kick it like this, you can tear this …”

Walking through the live experiments at Nanotalo is like seeing that carefully constructed mental model of physics crumble before your eyes. You have the same dizzying sensation that we find in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, with its 30 feet-tall tables and four and a half inch horses.

“I have been much pleased with observing a cook pulling a lark, which was not so large as a common fly; and a young girl threading an invisible needle with an invisible silk.” (Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726)

Watching these researchers at work feels a little like observing an invisible needle being threaded with invisible silk.


v An exchange between Ville and Olli. 

Kokkonen asks articulate questions, half sketching out a possible requirement in response to Ikkala’s request for one—“tell me what you need.” 

Kokkonen describes an idea for work table for home, office, studio which takes advantage of what we’ve heard about these new properties for wood-based products. We wonder aloud as to whether the table could charge devices like phones or tablets, directly from its surface, or carry the signals of wireless networks. It might potentially provide heating, acoustic damping or amplification—which Ikkala says might be achieved using phononic crystals.

The table is the only thing you need in the office. The table is the office; a conduit for power, sound, energy, network, people.

Ville Kokkonen

Ville Kokkonen

Kokkonen tentatively asks whether the surface of the table could also be a display, a display in the wood itself. Ikkala pauses, silent for a while. This is not the infamous “Finnish silence” that can punctuate conversations here, but a considered set of silent calculations, which finally culminates in a simple, matter-of-fact output—“Yes. It is possible, using thin films of nanocellulose”—almost as if mental ticker-tape unfurling. What you don’t know—what he will say he doesn’t know—is when. The reality implied by his answers could be stretched over 5 years, 10 years, 50 years. But it’s possible, and not just in the sense of “Oh probably, it could be, I guess”, but in that he can see how it is technically possible based on current knowledge. It’s just … we don’t know when.

Ikkala mentions in passing that some butterfly wings do not “produce” colour through pigments, but through the intrinsic iridescent qualities of the wing’s structure itself (see also soap bubbles and beetle exoskeletons). This enables different colours to emerge from different angles. Then Ikkala rhapsodises about the “mother of pearl” (nacre) found inside sea shells. He has a small cardboard box of “props” with him, containing a large seashell with that beautifully polished interior coating. He quickly sketches on the board to indicate how the molecular sheets that nacre is composed of could produce a paper-thin material—actually thinner than paper—yet lightweight, as strong as steel, and with that iridescent sheen. 

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Kokkonen’s head looks like its spinning a bit, as he mentally rattles through the possibilities for materials where colour comes from structure rather than decoration or added chemicals, something like the way Bruno Munari’s head spins in his essay “Fancy Goods”, when he considers the impossibly diverse array of objects not designed by designers. Here, it’s the considerably vaster array of iterations derived from billions of years of evolution’s experimentation. You can see why “biomimicry” has become the organising principle for much nanotechnology research, including at Nanotalo.

Kokkonen describes a confidential project they’re working on, where he wants to support a “box” on a simple, thin, lightweight stand. Ikkala asks him how thin he’s thinking. Kokkonen responds that 4 millimetres is about the thinnest they can imagine. Ikkala smiles, and says he had been thinking fractions of a millimetre. They’re an order of magnitude out, and this is turning into an enjoyably absurd conversation, in which each participant is privately thinking at entirely different scales until forced to voice an actual dimension.

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Constructing a prototype with Ikkala’s team would lead to entirely different possibilities. Again, you can see it immediately challenges Kokkonen’s preconceptions about what to make—and this is an industrial designer who is more inquisitive and interested in “next generation” material properties than almost any I know. Entirely different product types begin to emerge from the conversation. (Of course, the impossibly-thin-yet-structurally-sound stand would have other issues, becoming almost like an invisible blade. Less than ideal for a family home.)

When Italo Calvino wrote 'Six Memos for the Next Millennium' in 1985,  he described a set of principles underpinning the values of literature, but whose evocative qualities—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency—have inspired many outside of literature. Indeed, many seem to apply to this conversation we’re having. 

The architect Juhani Pallasmaa later wrote an architectural counterpoint to Calvino’s ideas. His qualities included plasticity, sensuousness, and slowness amongst others. Pallasmaa’s work, like most distinctive Finnish architecture, from Jugendstijl to Saarinen and Aalto, is deliberately slow and heavy, preferring multi-sensory, especially tactile, experience, derived from a deep understanding of traditional material properties.

Yet entirely different material properties are emerging from this applied nanotechnology research, breaking down many of these “rules”. When Louis Khan craftily asked “What does a brick want to be” his answer was “an arch”, as our understanding of form is symbiotically tied to our understanding of material properties, as well as culture. So, in turn, Kokkonen’s understanding of typical forms—what could a table be?—is immediately challenged by these new properties. We don’t yet know what this will mean formally—what a brick will suggest in future—but it looks like we’ll be combining properties, forms and functions in ways that go well beyond even our most creative minds.

In other words, we can now achieve Pallasmaa’s slowness and plasticity but with Calvino’s lightness.

A further irony is that many of these new properties are derived from pre-human material innovation in natural processes. Nanotechnology is actually revealing the qualities of the deep past as much as the near future, with a biomimetic approach leading to a fresh understanding of everyday materials like wood or insect shells. The properties feel new and foreign, when viewed through the lenses of Nanotalo, but they are all around us every day and always have been.


vi Cellulose dreams

What is distinctly new is our ability to work with the material in new ways. For example, Ikkala is particularly excited by the potential of additive manufacturing networks. 

With small, affordable 3D printers located at hand we could find, purchase and ship the “recipes”—the digital files—by which we produce things, source the materials and fabrication locally, and then “logistics” need only be the last few hundred metres. If you smash a cup in your kitchen, you simply recycle it and print another off in the garage. If you need a replacement part for your bike, you send a file to the local newsagent’s 3D printer and walk down there to pick it up a few moments later. Need another stool for your drinks party later? “Fab” one in a matter of minutes. 

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3D printer in the lab

3D printer in the lab

This potentially changes almost everything, destabilising our current models of carbon-intensive industralised production, and its associated logistics and retail networks, to the extent that they could be no longer viable. The ability to produce locally kickstarts a repair culture born of aspiration rather than subsistence, as well as thriving local craft and manufacturing scenes. Studios return to streets. Cities are quieter and cleaner. Culture is localised and active. All have vastly smaller carbon footprints. 

The issues with this vision are very real, however—design quality, intellectual property rights, throwaway production and consumption, printers that necessitate a space that can store raw materials, handle plastic offcuts, and contain relatively noxious fumes…

Another stumbling block is the raw material for 3D printers, which is usually imported plastic. A few days later, visiting Aalto University’s Fab Lab and talking to its creator, Massimo Menichinelli, he points out how all the raw materials for the 3D printers—usually various forms of plastic—arrive from the East. We might simply shift from shipping fridges from Singapore to shipping oil-based polymers. Europe already imports 80% of all materials across its borders. 

Yet this is where nanocellulose fibres might come in: as a new raw material for 3D printers. Just as timber produced the paper for the desktop printers that squatted on our desks for the last 30 years, timber might produce the raw material for the 3D printers that may be found at home in the next 30 years. 

For Ikkala, this is a high-value exchange, reversing our exploitation of an advanced material (wood) to produce a low-value product (paper and pulp). Instead we use advanced material to produce advanced material. We take a “valuable natural resource and produce high tech, not toilet paper,” he laughs.

Wood is already “coming back” to the construction of tall buildings, through cross-laminated timber (CLT), which could replace carbon-intensive concrete and steel with a fire-safe, light and low-carbon alternative. In fact, it could well be that the new cities of the near-future are increasingly wooden cities—which is both a neat reversal of most sci-fi visions of the last century and a mise-en-scene still within Nordic cultural memories.

But if renewable nanocellulose fibres can find their way into distributed additive manufacturing networks, it might be that it’s not only the buildings of our future cities that are made of wood, but the objects, fabrics and products too. It’s an extraordinary thought, and Finland is well-placed to capitalise, being largely composed of the stuff. However, with one of the largest carbon footprints per capita in Europe, the country’s decision-makers—in parliament or on the streets—doesn’t show many signs of seriously and systemically engaging with sustainability any time soon.

There are fierce debates about sustainability implicit within the conversation here. For instance, do you build things using materials that might last 1000 years, or design for an additive culture of modification and repair?

Waste is largely a cultural problem. It’s not that we have to deploy nanocellulose to produce long-lasting products. It’s a science-based, rather than social science-based, approach in which technology comes to the rescue—and we must bear in mind that those previous decisions to build a unsustainable suburban lifestyle predicated on oil were also “sold” as a convincing technological solution at the time.

Yet Ikkala’s bigger picture is convincing. The design writer John Thackara has written of the need for “macroscopes” as well as microscopes. With a macroscope, we might look at the subject—a product, service, event—but then zoom out to the broader systemic impact of such subjects, from the humble transparent 3D printer on a cluttered desk in these labs to the scale of Finland’s patterns of living shifted by the accumulated effect of such devices.

The macroscope concept is relevant to flushing out the systemic implications of these developments, positive and negative. Interestingly, the research going on at Nanotalo might be unique as it genuinely requires both macroscopes and microscopes. 


vii Transdisciplinary

Macroscope and microscope could even be a competitive advantage, not just a methodological safeguard. If ever research work needed to be contextualised, conceptualised and challenged by a “transdisciplinary” environment it is this. Several times in our conversation, Ikkala asks for a statement of what we might want to know, or what we might want to achieve. Our problem is that we don’t know. We don’t know what is possible with these new materials any more than Ikkala knows what Kokkonen or I might want to do with it. It’s a creative Catch 22, requiring a new kind of research, as well as a new kind of design practice.

At one point, when I press him about this transdisciplinary mode, Ikkala says, “When you work on individual molecules, you are physics and chemistry, and sometimes also biology.” Nanotechnology largely eradicates our old disciplinary boundaries at a stroke. Were those separate sciences simply a by-product of the sensitivity of our instrumentation?

As well as a horizontal merger between what you might call silos of knowledge, there is a vertical convergence too, a creative collapse of process. Rolls Royce and GE, for example, have merged their design, materials research and manufacturing processes, largely as a result of the same general interdisciplinary advances. Instead of a sequential pipeline, they can now effectively progress from materials breakthrough to design sketch to manufacturing output, or vice versa, with huge benefits in terms of what they can produce and how they do it.

This does not just apply to industrial corporations, of course, but perhaps most naturally at the scale of the small firm with new tools. A design practice like London’s BERG, for instance, combines interaction design and communications design, filmmaking and software, industrial design and electronics, manufacturing and fabrication, and more besides.

Or look at Nicholas A Christakis, who is both a physicist and social scientist at Harvard, and his work at the intersection of the social and natural sciences, discussing sociological concepts like cooperation via research into how “sub-organismic biological entities” cooperate.

At Nanotalo, Ikkala says he’s “proud that they don’t educate any particular profession; we train people to solve problems.” But again, back to that Catch 22. To conduct applied research, which is where the funding is as well as the fun, the scientist needs to know a novel application for their work. Yet the designer needs to know what the material can do in order to conceive of a novel application, at least to some extent. The only way you can square this circle is through collaboration.

But, as I point out to Ikkala, it’s not as if you can wander down to the local coffee shop with your massive electron microscope and hang out there until good ideas emerge through osmosis.

Ikkala nods. “No-one is good in all things. We are good at some things, we are not good at others, but we don’t yet have a tradition of developing research with people with real needs. That’s why I take these kind of conversations very seriously.”

These conversations, judging by Kokkonen’s reaction alone, will generate new possibilities, but we all agree that they don’t happen enough.


viii The adjacent possible garage

The science writer Steven Johnson, in 'Where Good Ideas Come From', describes the idea of the “adjacent possible”, all the possible outcomes available from a given state, “a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself (where) its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries.” Rich and diverse environments, like dense cities and coral reefs, flourish in this respect, due to the number of ways in which “ideas” can be combined and recombined.

If Aalto University has its head screwed on right, it will be doing everything it can to get the kind of work that Ikkala is doing genuinely integrated with its other disciplines, to open up the lab and co-locate it with other practices and sensibilities. You want a designer like Kokkonen listening, learning and collaborating with Ikkala’s team, you want a sociologist there, an engineer, a writer, and so on. You want discipline boundaries to crumple upon impact with each other, and new maps to be formed, in order that we might generate the richest possible adjacent possibles.

This is a challenge for Finland, with its relatively hierarchical culture, but also an opportunity. Like many countries, Finland will not thrive simply via cultural legacy and traditional approaches to pure and applied research in this area—compared to Japan, China and Korea it doesn’t have the budgets, or the strategic ecosystems, or a large enough talent pool.

Yet Finland’s advantage could be in converging and synthesising disciplines, in building new kinds of transdisciplinary collaboration. It might build on its strong design and engineering heritage and integrate with facilities like Nanotalo.

This asks serious questions of the structure, culture and capacity of universities in the first instance. Certainly, in the immediate context of Nanotalo, this is something else that needs to be fabricated. Those other disciplines are located elsewhere and managed differently, and as the Otaniemi campus is basically a suburban incursion into a forest, there are no urban conditions that might better enable collaboration through propinquity.

Yet recall that “Nanotalo” had once been a garage. OK, a garage for a building designed by Alvar Aalto, but a garage nonetheless, a leftover space, a utilitarian space, a work space. The humble garage happens to be one the most productive types of environment around, and particularly for ideas on the edges of knowledge and practice, for boldly sketching out the adjacent possible.

When Steven Johnson discusses the origin of good ideas, he says “in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.” And remember Building 20 at MIT, and that “garage culture” provided the fertile terrain for Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Google and much of the digital revolution that has shaped the last three decades. 

What does this former garage outside Helsinki have in store for the next three decades? If we can begin to strategically spread the garage culture of Nanotalo such that this materials research emerges in genuinely productive transdisciplinary fashion, in unlikely and unforeseen creative collisions, how might we all benefit?

The work done by Ikkala’s team is genuinely extraordinary. In a world predisposed to hyperbole, it is worth dwelling on that word: it is extra-ordinary. You get the sense that this thinking and practice could genuinely change the world. 

Yet I’m left wondering how to make that happen. How might we derive a new kind of transdisciplinary practice that can nimbly sidestep the legacies of previous boundaries—across research, yes, but also policy, infrastructure, spatial organisation, culture, commerce—to realise the true potential of working with ancient materials in new ways.

As with most important work, we’re left with good hard questions rather than deceptively easy answers.

It’s the end of our conversation. We shake hands at the end of a fascinating morning. I turn to say something to Kokkonen, turn back, and Ikkala’s already disappeared. I see him scurrying away down a corridor, at speed, heading into the adjacent possible.

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One response to “Essay: The Garage of Small Things; nanotechnology, biomimicry and design practice (Annex)”

  1. Va011101 Avatar

    Excellent article. Thanks for the “longread.”


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