nanotech utopias: designing the invisible

MA Material Futures students present us scenarios of a world where bodies store data and brain scans serve as self-medication.

Martina Rocca - Designing the Invisible

Martina Rocca - Designing the Invisible


Nanotechnology is a branch of technology that deals with the nanoscale and operates at an atomic and molecular level. From the 1980s, humans obtained the tools to see on a molecular scale and began venturing towards the manipulation and engineering of matter at nanoscale. It is almost hard to imagine how small a nanometre is: it is the billionth of a metre. On a comparative scale, if a marble were a nanometre, then one metre would be the size of the Earth. The potential is claimed to be tremendous but not free from controversies; from cancer detection and cure, to gene therapy, drug delivery and innovations in the food supply chain.

We are dealing with a technology that can be considered 'invisible', yet promises a dramatic impact on the future of humanity. This fascination is keeping scientists and futurists around the world busy and Central Saint Martins is not exempt. Earlier this year, we caught up with a few students from MA Material Futures to learn more by discussing their recently completed, nanotechnology brief ‘Designing the Invisible’ organised by former Year 1 Tutor, Nelly Ben Hayoun.

Material Futures is by far the most future-focused of all the Master Programmes at Central Saint Martins. Also a popular destination at the annual Degree Show, the course explores sustainable futures; from re-writing waste streams and material repurpose, to more extreme and cutting edge scenarios that look to the year 2050 and beyond. Within the context of the course, looking at future technologies means to look at the implications rather than the applications - and to question them. The course encourages a critical and speculative approach: when we conceive new technology, what should we do with it? How should we drive its development? How will that impact society and how, consequently, should designers respond? The students are pushed to investigate technological advances and address the central role of design within them. Through conceptualised scenarios, the projects initiate discussions and aim to help the audience navigate the complexities of tomorrow.

For the ‘Designing the Invisible’ brief, the students had to answer, "If you could create a material to do anything, what would that be? How do you make the invisible, visible?" We’ve presented a selection of five projects that explore nanotechnology inside out, ranging from insurance companies to new forms of entertainment generated by healthcare practices. The designers speculate on potential developments of nanotechnology and propose related design responses. Sitting at the intersection of science, crafts and technology, each of the projects offer a compelling scenario and facilitate conversations around the possible outcomes of tomorrow.

The point in these presentations is not to attempt to explain what nanotechnology is, but what impact it could have in the world, by presenting it in a manner that is familiar to the audience; their role as designers is as facilitators in this context. The projects all explore potential applications of their conceptual solutions in the form of research-based speculations; they generate scenarios that critically empower the audience, leaving them with the task of answering the tough question - if this is what nanotechnology could do, would you want it?

Something to consider when reading these projects: they all appear to suggest that human nature is immune to progress and ultimately, is the key shaper of the world we have built around us. Regardless of how revolutionary nanotechnology may become, it is the power of human decision that determines the world as we know it.

So with that said reader, over to you. Is this utopian or dystopian? That is for you to decide.


How Can We Preserve the Feeling of Sleep If Nanotechnology Makes It Redundant?

Martina Rocca: The Sleeping Brain


Martina Rocca became interested in the body’s need to sleep and the brain-focused benefits, looking particularly at recent research by Jeff Iliff at University of Rochester Medical Center. Rocca discovered that our body creates waste during the day which is taken care of by the lymphatic system; but the traffic across delicate brain tissue is regulated by the blood brain barrier, which does not allow the lymph to clean in the way it does elsewhere. The brain is regulated by another system, called glymphatic, "Essentially, sleeping represents a cleansing time for our brain. What is most surprising is that this detox can only happen while we are asleep. At the moment, we are not quite able to deliver targeted drugs to our brain. Yet, imagine if - thanks to nanotechnology - we could intervene at that scale, to make the brain perform specific tasks. Imagine if we could manipulate and interact with the glymphatic system, to perform the cleansing process 'on demand'. We could embrace a sleepless future."

Martina Rocca - The Sleeping Brain

Martina Rocca - The Sleeping Brain

Martina Rocca - The Sleeping Brain

Martina Rocca - The Sleeping Brain

Rocca wonders what would remain of that restorative and protective feeling of sleeping, if we can replace it with simply taking tablets. Her project consists of a material investigation aimed at reproducing the sleep feeling for sleepless humans. The conceptual scenario tackles sleep's main features; decreased ability to react to stimuli, virtual paralysis of the body and the subconscious is liberated. Therefore, her translation involves materials that absorb light and sound, that expand creating volume around the body and change from solid to liquid state.

Her staged interpretation of sleep is sensual and compelling, yet suggests a deeper question; if nanotechnology allowed for a sleepless future, would we want to embrace it?


What If a Brain Scan Check Becomes an Addictive Form of Entertainment?

Bolor Amgalan: Nanotherapy


Bolor Amgalan’s intention is to discuss a potential dark side to nanotechnologies which are currently viewed as a scientific saviour, "In an increasingly pressurised society, people will seek out new de-stressing experiences. Drug addictions are obviously unhealthy, yet provide a popular form of escapism - there is a human inclination towards pleasure, even if dangerous and addictive. So who says nanotechnology will be immune and not feed into that?"

Amgalan provided us with a brief summary of neuroscience:
"Neuroscience is a fairly recent discipline compared to medicine and essentially looks at how the brain works. The human brain is the most complex organism in the universe, there are some hundred-thousand papers per year published about it, supported by a form of 'international funding race' - yet knowledge is quite fragmented and specialised. So scientists themselves seem to hold little grasp on the bigger picture. Henry Markram is the director of the Human Brain Project and one of the researchers who have long encouraged a different, more forceful approach by looking at all of the brain. In particular, his goal is to visualise what goes on in the brain, by mapping neurons individually." Put generally, there are three main directions to brain research: firstly, stimulants are used to activate certain parts of the brain; secondly, imaging techniques are used along with tracers to visualise what is happening when stimulants are administered; lastly, from the data collected they try to understand the chemistry happening in the brain to understand how the brain works because it's very complex in order to come up with cures to diseases like Parkinson's. ' 

This project focusses on the combination of Nano-diamonds, which are used to track energy exchanges between neurones; neuropeptides which respond to skin stimulation (e.g. touch); and serotonin a hormone which - besides making you feel good - can be used to actively stimulate brain activity and increase clarity of visualisation.

Bolor Amgalan - The Therapy Room

Bolor Amgalan - The Therapy Room

Bolor Amgalan - The Therapy Room

Bolor Amgalan - The Therapy Room

Amgalan’s project suggests in its design, that of a therapists’ room, yet suggests a dark side to it, "Imagine a future where instant brain activity visualisation becomes commonplace, a regular practice in the healthcare system, able to provide key data for neurological diagnosis. Because certain visualisation techniques require an injection of chemically modified compounds, or radioactive tracers, it potentially could be made enjoyable for the patient to the point that it becomes a form of addiction and entertainment. The chemical tracers and haptic triggers used, combined with a sort of visible spectacle of what is going on in your brain in real time, might turn into a pastime that patients long for. Illegal therapy rooms could sprout everywhere, initiating a new kind of social practice."

The Therapy Room is designed as an experience, featuring objects aimed at enhancing it. As it involves haptics in addition to the body’s neural system, Amgalan suggests that once we are empowered with the chance to visualise a live experience of what happens in our brain, we might as well start to play with it! The action of brain scanning could be transformed into a heightened level and what began as a form of practised therapy, could instead be transformed into a new form of addiction.


Could You Be Insured Against an Invisible Threat?

Annya Suhardi: The Nano Protection Plan


Annya Suhardi’s concept originated from a feeling she experienced throughout the preparatory research of her project, "When reading about nanotechnology, it’s without a doubt that big players like NASA or MIT are deeply involved. Yet, there is little connection to your daily life. After all the research, I still feel like I know what nanotechnology is, but not exactly what it is. There are materials claimed to be made with nano carbons, but that has nothing to do with nanotechnology. I became interested in how this discrepancy relates to a phenomenon with the potential of revolutionising our daily lives - dramatic changes could occur with very few people aware of them. I started to think about how big corporations might take advantage of that scenario. The scale of nanotech is essentially invisibility - how do you manage that?"


Suhardi decided to stage an insurance promotional desk nearby her home in London and use that as an opportunity to interact with the general public. Her goal was to both gauge their reaction and observe their level of awareness surrounding the potential implications of nanotechnology. In this video, she pitches the Nano Protection Plan, illustrating various objects and devices as part of the prevention and protection pack. Her video uses satire, yet encourages a wider discourse, "I wanted to use a kind of Michel Gondry approach, where situations are made visible and ridiculous for the purpose of questioning them. The surprising part is that many of the people I interacted with thought they were knowledgeable about nanotechnology. When I explained the dangerous nature of many forms of nanotech, they said they would definitely sign up for insurance if that would be available. The fear of health damage is stronger than the trust in an insurance corporation." In the instance of nanotech, how can we possibly be protected from something invisible and how would we be certain that the danger and/ protection is actually there? As civilians, the likelihood that we will be equipped with tools that measure nanotech and its risks is low. Therefore, we could be buying into an insurance policy that is wholly redundant.



What Would a Trip Through the Nano World Look Like?

Marta Giralt: Artemis 2050


Marta Giralt was interested in the current fortune nanotechnology is enjoying in the aerospace industry. Many new materials are being developed, including materials that can adapt to extreme conditions or reassemble when broken. There seems to be speculation around a form of carbon fibre that is able to build an elevator in space.

As Giralt continued to research the mapping of current nanomaterials development, she, "[…] realised the jaw-dropping degree of complexity and started to become preoccupied with making all of this believable and understandable. So, my project started to gravitate towards building a show, a kind of IMAX Theatre experience for the viewers to actually travel into the materials and see how these mysterious nanoparticles actually work."


Artemis 2050 is the narrative Giralt created: the viewers walk through a reduction tunnel, reach a control board that provides access to the lift-off video. Although this project is about entering into a material, the storytelling heavily borrows its codes from the space age, "Seeing is believing. None of us have been to outer space but we all feel like we have, we kind of know what it is like. That is why I wanted to use the same narrative. But the mission does not end very well; we try to take control of this nanoworld but eventually it slips out of our hands. Like Annya, I wanted to capture that human element of fear of the unknown. When the scale gets so small, there is a problem of accessibility. I feel it makes it a very interesting area for designers - we almost have the responsibility of guiding the audience and facilitating their access to ever small, yet complex, innovations."


What If Data Storage Became a Biological Membrane?

Christine Lew: Data Membrane


This final project is placed in a future scenario of increased surveillance, where unknown data hacking occurs through the use of advanced nanotech. The US Military currently uses a technology known as Smart Dust, whereby micro-devices (or sensors) approximately 5mm in size, are placed in an environment to track information. 

Lew speculates that this might evolve into a situation where the invisible tracking and information-absorbing nanobots will be placed in the air we breathe and water we drink. As a result, people will seek new ways for data protection, eventually starting to store their data directly on their skin in the form of a biological membrane, "I wanted to go back to the notion that traditionally we feel that the safest place for precious goods is near our bodies, where we can feel it constantly."

Christine Lew - Data Membrane

Christine Lew - Data Membrane

Christine Lew - Data Membrane

Christine Lew - Data Membrane

If personal data storage becomes a second skin – with the intermixing of biological matter and hardware technology - how would it be designed? Lew's project illustrates this scenario, through the staging of Global Data Futures as a company that provides ‘data transplants’, alongside visuals that demonstrate how it works. Available is the standard package: a quick, outpatient, non-invasive procedure or the premium package - which requires surgery - but comes with a self-generating, anti-virus coating that is embedded with a nanoparticle firewall. In the project’s Lucy McRae-esque video, we watch a patient proceeding with an upgrade.

Is this potentially creating a future where body hacking is possible?