Sustainable Prototyping Practices — Spotlight 2: Resilient Futures Group

Jasmine Lu
ACM SIGCHI
Published in
19 min readFeb 7, 2024

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In the past year, sustainability has been a huge topic of discussion for the SIGCHI community. Increasingly, scholars have pledged to reduce flying to conferences, opting for trains or biking if possible. Also, our community has discussed how conferences can be restructured towards more sustainable ends (CHI2023 panel and Equity Talks). But what about how we build the future of technology toward more sustainable directions? For example, how might this happen within our community’s research labs?

To cultivate discussion about this in our community, the SIGCHI Sustainability Committee started a blog post series interviewing various labs in the global HCI community about how they approach prototyping with sustainability in mind (see our first interview’s part 1 & 2).

This time, we talked to the Resilient Futures Group, a research group led by Marc Teyssier at the De Vinci Innovation Center of Pôle Léonard de Vinci in Paris, France. The group explores ways to build electronic devices with biomaterials while emphasizing usefulness, accessibility, and durability. In this blog, we focus on the experiences of Marc Teyssier (MT), Vivien Roussel (VR), and Madalina Nicolae (MN) in how sustainability drives their research practices and pedagogical strategies within class communities.

Research project from the Resilient Futures Group exploring how electronics could be embedded in growing, living material (in this case, bacterial cellulose of kombucha). A kombucha culture is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that can easily be grown at home, generating byproducts that can be used for prototyping interactive devices for instance.

Jasmine Lu (JL): First, could you give a short introduction about your lab and your research?

MT: I can give a brief introduction on how I came to build this lab to start. I started my PhD in 2015 and at first, I was heavily focused on virtual reality and then tangible interfaces. Then I went to the MIT Media Lab to work on that. And during my PhD, my work revolved around interfaces for touch and for affective touch. And so, I built like these creepy devices, the finger on smartphone (MobiLimb), the skin and smartphone (Skin-On Interfaces), the eye (Eyecam), and all of this panel of funky devices. All of these devices were built as a critical design piece to make people think about technology, how we use it, and how we interact with it. During this time, I personally developed a kind of hate relationship with technology and with high tech. And you know, it’s good to criticize, but it’s also good to actually make something. And so, I wanted to build a lab where I could experiment on low-tech, sustainable alternatives to traditional interfaces, or even sustainable interactions. Also, I wanted to explore the impact on society, economics, and what it means to reduce the technology and the human footprint.

I was lucky because Clement Duhart founded this new lab, DeVinci Innovation Center, in France and then I joined as a principal investigator, and I created the Resilient Futures research group. Resilience is the capacity of a system to function again after it breaks, and envisioning resilient futures to us means envisioning different ways the future can be more resilient, sustainable, and how we can overcome the crisis we are going to face. At first, I wanted to do low-tech, not necessarily biotech, then Madalina came in, and as she already did some work during her masters around biomaterials, and we continued pushing that work on bioplastics. For lectures, I needed a teacher on biomaterials and then I met Vivien. Vivien was the teacher actually for my master’s students on biomaterials, working on kombucha and then, I brought him in on to the PhD, so now he’s working on those materials.

What does it mean if my electronic devices could be grown?

What we are trying to do with our project is really to take a process that is DIY — so something that is easily understandable, easily doable by everybody, and we try to add technology to this process. Meaning, for example, when we are working on interactive bioplastics, that is something you can do in the kitchen. And now, more recently, we worked on interactive kombucha. So how can we add electronics to the growing material? What are the strategies? What are the opportunities for that? And the outcomes of that project, obviously, it’s a research paper, it’s a bit of science, but then that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the vision and the opportunities it can trigger in people’s minds. What does it mean if I can build my own interface in my kitchen? What does it mean if my electronic devices like my remote control can be grown? What does it mean if I do have to take care of the fabrication process of the electronics? And that’s all those questions that are fusing into the production that I’m doing.

On the other side, I was also exploring new traditional fabrication methods, with tools like welding. What can we do with making energy out of cooking tools and all those other low-tech things? We are also working a lot on inflatables. So inflatables for what? That’s the question. You have all these inflatable technologies in HCI. What if we can create large architectural scalar buildings that can be used in the craziest environments, like to rescue people, or when there is a climate crisis or something like that.

In every project we do, we are trained to make everything Open source and to make everything something that we can easily produce. Because sometimes it’s good that it’s Open source, but it’s too complicated. There is no point in making Open source. That’s also how we tackle sustainability by making projects accessible to the public in need.

Sustainability, Accessibility, and Interdisciplinarity

MN: I think it’s important to mention that currently in the lab it is not just us three, but we also have about 20 Masters students involved in this group, specifically working on those technologies. As Marc mentioned, the main values that we asked them to keep in mind when imagining their projects is that it has to be useful, accessible, and also durable. But each approaches these values differently, depending on their background. You might have noticed this in my research and Vivien’s research — although our subject is quite close, I’m doing a PhD in computer science while he’s doing a PhD in design, so our points of view complete each other. And then there is Marc, who is one foot in each area.

VR: So far, you have made more design artifacts than I have and I have made more computer artifacts.

MN: At the core, sustainability is one of our main values. But sometimes it’s difficult to put it as the main value in our papers because people are usually like, ‘Hey, you want to save the world with that thing?’ But to save the world, you need to make small steps, one in front of each other and what I’m doing is not proposing a marathon but just a step into achieving that [by] making it more realistic.

So to do that, one of the main dimensions that we have in our projects is technological accessibility. Additionally, I think other researchers in the blog series also talked about the importance of the materials that we use in our research. e are trying to use only bio-based products, obviously, electronics and everything else are not included. For example, when working with bioplastics, the main products or materials we use are market-available food additives. So it’s something that we do eat every day. Then for bacterial cellulose, Vivien is bringing it from a kombucha factory. It’s their byproducts that we are getting and making use of them for our research or for classes with students. And finally, the tools and processes that we use are based on crafting techniques, DIY stuff as Marc mentioned, making everything accessible in the end.

So our work is based on a lot of interdisciplinarity (electronics, design, biology etc.). Every time we build a project, we have sustainability in mind, but we also wonder how we can bring knowledge from different communities together to make this sustainable alternative possible. There is a lot of intuition that we put into it which is very uncommon for most projects, where you have only technology. In this case, you’re working with other living beings or biological stuff that doesn’t always act as it’s supposed to, so it’s mostly your intuition telling you how to adjust things. There’s no equation telling me that this is the right answer. But, by observing the evolution of the material, I can develop a sense of, “Okay, this is not working, this is working”, and so on.

Biomaterials sensitivity informing design

We are doing critical design, but we also always question every single process that we are doing. For every prototype that we are doing, we always question: Are we doing it the right way? How can we do it in a different way? Or, whenever people think that it’s impossible to make it because the material is not robust enough because the material has a lot of, let’s say, sensitivity to environmental factors. We’d take the approach of like, “Okay, this is sensitive, for example, to humidity for bioplastics, but isn’t that also something that I can use as a feature? Can I transform the limits that the material has to something that is involved directly in my design process? Can I take it into account and actually design with it?” I think we approach sustainability, not exactly heads-on by saying it is sustainable, but through engaging with all of those small details that contribute to our goal of proposing a sustainable alternative.

VR: I started my PhD later so I have a lot of experience in fabrication, digital fabrication, and programming electronics in various environments. I think my background from arts is really important. With art, you make things to try to solve a problem, but the problem is not exactly rational, it’s more abstract and complex. It’s like an indication of somebody’s representation of what you think things are. People may take many different points of view on something, so art can help you see things from very different perspectives. I think I tried to use my research to explore things from a really different point of view, from outside of me. ​​For instance, the position I take when working with biomaterials, it’s partially because of my personal background. I try to solve the questions around topics from cybernetics to biology and combine my own background with DIY things and science. I actually am really passionate about biotechnology and bioreactors because I think there are yet a lot of ambiguous questions to answer. For example, sometimes, the machine, or what we hope we made with science, is presented as solving the climate problem, but in practice, because we invent new techniques, we also invent new waste and new problems.

I think there is something really interesting to try to explore with new types of artifacts. What would happen if we try to make a system less complex, but more around how we think about life and organism usage? Or can we grow artifacts directly to make something… like directly grow them as shoes or as a bag or as whatever you want? We can already do so. But, I try to find a less complicated way to do it, so that we can do that with really basic stuff. For instance, I build bioreactors with storage boxes that everybody has that in the house and basic Arduino things.

I like to read many philosophy of science and philosophy of techniques texts. For example, Simondon talks a lot about milieu. But it’s not only for humans, it’s about how the milieu changes our relationship with interfaces, with the environment, and dealing with the environment. We are human, so we build tools to compensate for our incapacity to adapt to the quick changes of the environment, but microorganisms transform by mutations. They create an enzymatic pathway, they create many different strategies for survival and transformation. These are really interesting things for me to think about that, because I’m really interested in these boundaries between the human and organism. There is also this concept of holobiont: we can think of ourselves as an assemblage of many bacteria who, in the end make something we call Vivien, or you, Jasmine, or Madalina but in fact, we are just bacteria. I like these sorts of interesting angles and I try to think about how we can make design with these points in mind. I see biology as a technique. Because organisms are technical, in fact, we just have to cross the boundaries and to change techniques. Maybe we don’t need to make an artificial object from minerals if we can make an artifact directly from organisms or bacteria, and maybe we can live in sort of symbiosis with that.

Going beyond greenwashing

JL: So first question, what approaches does your lab take to try and operate as sustainably as possible?

MN: Well, being situated in a big city doesn’t really help to be sustainable. So we are trying to do our best but sometimes it’s difficult.

VR: We also don’t always have time.

MT: As the Madalina said, we are in La Défense, which is a highly dense neighborhood in Paris, Europe’s largest purpose-built business district. And there is something in the mentality of people working here, and even students living here. When you don’t see nature around, I think it’s more difficult to have a drive towards sustainability. And I see that especially in the case of a lab, the question of, for instance, sorting the trash — sorting paper from other things. Does it make much sense when you are located in this area? That’s something really questionable. And that’s something that as a lab or as a community, is not pushing us towards doing things sustainably. However, we still try to do so in our practice.

MN: I think we don’t always do it intentionally. But we are lucky to have creative and very curious students. So every piece of electronic component, for example, left on the table, it will disappear in the next couple of hours, it will be recycled and reused for some other projects. Projects that we build in the lab or across the university in general, either become a permanent demo, or it is torn apart. And every single piece is reused by a student who is hungry to get that Arduino piece or whatever resistor is in there.

MT: There are even better practices. We have a staff member Fabien who goes in the IT trash every single day, collecting trash and then fixing the trash and sharing that with a student.

VR: I built my computer from the trash. I have just changed the structure of the computer from materials found in the trash.

MT: For example, most of the demo displays students use are trash from other departments that were fixed. While it’s an individual practice, it is adding a new dimension to the lab. Now, the students take a bit more care. They are conscious that they’re actually using trash material that is working.

MN: They are sometimes the ones who are like, Hey, have you been to the trash? Can you go to the IT trash can to see if there is anything new? I need a new screen for my computer at home mine is broken. Can we like retrieve one from there? It’s something that they do by themselves. We don’t need to push them to do that kind of stuff.

As Marc said, it’s kind of weird when sorting the trash, plastic and paper is much more difficult. But when it comes to electronic stuff, or bits of technology involved in, they are here to reuse everything. Every single piece is reused or passed down from those students who are graduating or who have graduated, they’ll pass things down to the new master’s students.

This is also something that we are doing in our classes. We have it so that they don’t just stop at the greenwashing that is usually done, but they’re diving a lot deeper into, for example, lifecycle assessment. For example, there are workshops where students have to build a product and market it for the final presentation. However, for the second part of the presentation, I ask them to destroy your own product — tell me all the faults, all the things you omitted or brushed off in the first part. Destroy it yourself by telling me what are the critiques you have of your own product. While selling me the product, obviously they’re only going to tell me the good points, but when asking them to destroy it themselves, they’re going deeper, looking for the limits of those materials. They’re forced to ask about things like, what if you want to produce it or mass manufacture it, what is missing? What are the challenges? And so on.

By themselves, they’re going deeper into these questions and being a little bit more critical about what they’re seeing on TV or all the commercials. There is a kind of raising awareness on the greenwashing that we’re seeing every day.

MT: On the other side, related to sustainability, I’m also committed not to fly anymore, ever, which is something I cannot impose on PhD students, because I know it’s very important, especially for early career students to meet people in the community. But that’s also, you know, leading by example. We do know flying is harmful, and you have to work on something. Personally, I prefer that kind of action, rather than just sorting paper in the proper trash container, which has no impact. I mean, it’s also just one guy that doesn’t fly.

MN: Overall, like for CHI this year, we all took the train to go there. Even though it was a 10-hour ride on the train, we still took the train. It takes longer and it was more expensive, actually than taking the flight to go there. But most of French people prefer to do that.

Tensions between reproducibility and sustainability

JL: How does sustainability factor into your research or prototyping practice?

VR: Everything is related.

MN: Yeah. Well, let’s start with the lab practices. I think you can link this question to the next one, which is, what can we not do? Even in our research, we are trying our best to be sustainable, but there are some things that we cannot control. For example, if we want a resource to be replicable, we are still obliged to buy products online, that are accessible to everyone just to ensure the reproducibility of our work. As Marc said, it doesn’t make any sense to make it open source if people have to do the same work again and again.

For example, for our bioplastics paper, we use food additives that are easily accessible, that are bio based. Even though food additives are biodegradable in the end, I still get those products as processed powders on the internet, which kind of bothered me. I don’t have any control over what is happening before those powders arrive to me, like when it is transformed from algae to the powder that I’m using. There is still a huge industrial chain that I cannot control.

This is why in our research, we tried to see what happens when you’re growing your own materials. For our work on Biohybrid devices grown with kombucha, we approached the kombucha factory and we got their byproducts that they were anyways throwing away. We got that and used it as class material. Vivien came back with like 20 kilograms of SCOBY. Maybe even more.

For what’s happening to our prototypes, if you understand the material well enough, you can take care of it by making it either dissolve in one glass of water or making it last for a couple of years. The bioplastics that we used for our paper on prototyping interactive devices, most of it can be dissolved in a glass of water. But also, we conserved some of them just in an airtight container with some essential oils. They are still in my office after two and a half years. The same goes for bacterial cellulose, actually, it can take up to two weeks to decompose it completely, to have mold on it and decompose completely.

VR: Or you can feed it to mycelium.

MN: Or you can just apply some treatments like simple wax on it, but it will make it last for years. Vivien has some of his creations like a bracelet and others that he kept for 4–7 years now. It’s really interesting to see actually how variable it can be. Then for the prototypes that contain electronics inside, when we don’t need the prototype anymore, we just tear it apart, getting the electronics back from it. It’s very easy to actually tear apart, given the right conditions.

VR: The problem is sustainability is not always possible for the research, because when you are doing the PhD, you have to prove some process of thinking and for proof, you can’t use sustainable things all the time. Sometimes, you need to use stronger materials just to prove that it works and because you need to consistently replicate the model.

This is important to me, because I would like to add in the process to have access to sugar from say a (local) beetroot factory, some factory in Paris and in the north of France, we have this capacity. But keeping these logistics in mind with our prediction for how others can do this in their own capacities is difficult.

And at the same time, doing so within the timeframe of a PhD program is difficult. It’s really important to think about the processing of materials we use to grow something. I would like to really think and work on machines for upcycling, involving thermodynamics and other resources in my PhD, but you know, the PhD is meant to solve one question. It’s not to solve 10 questions. So maybe I’ll continue that after because it’s what I want to do, but the amount of time for research in the lab is not all the time compatible with being fully sustainable in all things.

New materials, new constraints

JL: What other challenges exist to operating as sustainably as possible in research?

MN: We did miss deadlines because the environment did not agree with our research question, for example for the Biohybrid devices paper. It was too hot outside and because we wanted to stick to DIY practices, but the material did not want to grow. In our lab, we don’t have that much pressure on having results right away and needing to publish. But yet, that’s something that the community needs to understand: for these materials, you’re not fully in control all the time. It’s not the same as launching a 3D printer where if you parameterize it well, you will obtain the results that you want. For example, with bacteria cellulose, if it doesn’t want to grow, you cannot do anything. The environment is much more important than it is when working with classic materials, which adds some complexity. There are other questions that you need to answer before thinking about your prototype. You never think if it’s raining or not outside when you are prototyping with classic materials, but when you’re working with bioplastics, you need to think if the window was open or not in the lab before you get there. It’s just small details but it makes it more complex to work with those materials.

I think for labs that have pressure to put up results very quickly or papers very quickly, waiting for this or solving these problems might be too much for them. And this is why they’re not engaging with this kind of more sustainable materials. In our practice, we really like to try to mention every single detail that makes our work very predictable in our research papers, from the temperature that was in the room, the humidity, and so on. We try to put all the details together so that the next person wastes the least time possible if trying to reproduce it. But overall, it is very hard to to keep it sustainable and keep up with deadline pressure all time.

Adopting new perspectives to address sustainability

JL: More generally, what advice would you give to people who want to be more sustainable?

MN: I would say it takes more trials to achieve success, but it is possible. People shouldn’t give up on the idea because just because it takes a little bit more time. Also, it’s something that we are not used to yet. Those materials or the practices that we are doing — it takes more time to make them efficient or to make them work. For example, with bacterial cellulose, it took us like 200 samples to actually manage to build something that was working. But once we figured out how we were supposed to do it, then we built our prototypes in one trial, all of them. We didn’t actually stress that much about whether the prototype going to work or not, we knew it was going to work because we tried it so many times. But it takes time to understand how it works. It’s not as fast as a machine, as we are used to, like high internet speed, getting services as fast as possible. I think we forget that nature actually takes time to build everything that we see around us. We just forget this kind of thing because we are used to having everything ready, right away. And I think this step, taking this step back is very important, actually, if you want to contribute to sustainability, and so on to understand how it works.

MT: I think researchers should always question the externalities of their works. Life Cycle Analysis is a good starting point. Another trick I use is to think radically differently: I try to avoid researching problems that the industry could (and will) solve. Critical design is a good starting point.

JL: How do you want HCI to move forward more sustainably?

MN: Currently, I’m not sure how many labs are actually trying to make things more sustainable. There are a few of them doing sustainable HCI. But I think, as we discussed, this really depends on the pressure that each lab is submitted to. Sometimes it’s not that easy to wait until you have the results. I do think that, based on my experience with the feedback that we get, people usually misunderstand and think that we are trying to replace the classic materials. We are not. This is something that people struggle to understand or accept. We are not proposing something to replace what we are doing now, but it’s just an alternative to complement the materials that we are currently using and the processes that we are currently using. Also, we know that they are not as performant as classic materials.

Also in the processes that we use, sometimes I have a hard time looking at my own work as something that is very innovative because I’m using crafting techniques and kitchen tools. Honestly when I see my colleagues working with computational models and all this stuff, coding all day, and here I am with my spoon and my bowl, I have a hard time seeing the innovation in what I’m doing. But I know deep down that all those things put side by side can make something and can prove a concept. I think the concept of innovation or significant contribution kind of changes a bit. I don’t make any contribution in the materials that I use. I don’t make any contribution in the way that I synthesize them. I’m just importing knowledge from material science or so on. But it’s the overall concept where we are looking at things in a different way. And I think that is not yet that well acknowledged. I’ll say it is starting to rise. People are getting interested in it which is really amazing. I’m very curious to see that, but at the same time we do struggle, we fight much more than other people to figure out how to frame those papers.

MT: HCI has been built around technological progress; Technolo-solutionism is still a core value. I do not see a path to make HCI more sustainable. One promising direction will be to create a new community, that shares value around saving resources, reusing hardware, and reducing the use of technological artifacts.

This conversation was part of a series of interviews with the broader HCI community on sustainable prototyping practices and how values of sustainability can be incorporated into research. Check out the other posts on sustainable prototyping with the Living Matter Lab (part 1 & 2). If you or someone you know would like to be featured in this series, please contact jasminelu@uchicago.edu. We would love to hear about your approaches and provide a platform to share your methods! Additionally, you can learn more about the SIGCHI Sustainability Committee’s work to further how our community addresses sustainability issues in our activities on the SIGCHI website.

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Jasmine Lu
ACM SIGCHI

PhD Student in Human Computer Interaction at UChicago. Designing alternative futures via wearable devices. read more at: http://jasminelu.site