Shifting from Sustainable to Symbiotic



Royal Philips Electronics is a healthcare, lifestyle and lighting company located in the Netherlands. While working in the above industries, Philips also delves into sustainable design concepts, such as the Microbial Home Probe, the winning concept at the Red Dot Design Award 2011. The Microbial Home Probe features a collection of home appliances that work together to form a domestic ecosystem. Each part’s input is another part’s output, thus creating a closed-loop system while providing all the necessities of living. Things we traditionally think of waste are used as fuel, a trait that characterizes many biological processes. The Microbial Home features seven different parts, each with a unique function:

  • Bio-digester Island: A kitchen island that contains a methane digester which converts human and vegetable waste into usable gas.
  • Larder: A substitute for the refrigerator, the larder keeps food fresh by using evaporative cooling.
  • Urban Beehive: A beehive allows honey and wax harvesting while the bees enjoy a vast environment for pollinating.
  • Bio-light: A light fueled by methane/compost-fed bioluminescent bacteria.
  • Apothecary: A technology that monitors the health of the occupant to prevent, diagnose and remediate possible illnesses. Sensors are placed all over the house for easy data collection.
  • Filtering Toilet: A squatting toilet that filters the waste and uses minimum water and energy.
  • Paternoster Plastic Waste Up-Cycler: An apparuts that decomposes plastic packaging waste by using fungi. The broken down material can be used to grow food.

The concept was Philip’s effort in showing the world that they believed the future of design and technology was in biological processes. The electro-mechanical age brought huge advancements in technology, but it also created problems for the environment and people, problems that could be mitigated and fixed with the coming of a biological age. The Microbial Home mimics a natural ecosystem, but placed indoors, exemplifying the principles of Biomimicry (design based upon the processes of nature). While the Microbial Home Probe remains simply a concept and not a future Philips product, the ideas it brings forth could easily be implemented by others. Perhaps the cyclical ecosystem approach can be applied to Cities, as urban designers and planners consider how parts of a city can benefit each other and create a closed-loop.

An important thing to note is that while the Probe functions in a closed loop, it also provides a positive benefit through the system: enabling a human to function and live indoors. Not only do the parts of the system help each other, they also help the user, whose actions also benefit the system. While the current trend is Sustainability, I think the new trend should be towards Symbiosis. The most common definition (as written by the UN in 1987…wow that was a long time ago) for Sustainable Development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While it is a noble (and indeed challenging) goal, the concept of Sustainability implies a net-zero impact on the environment and those around us. We strive for net-zero energy or net-zero carbon buildings and technologies, and hope to grow in a way as to not harm those in less fortunate circumstances. But “to sustain” is defined as to maintain, to support or to endure. These are words that seem reactionary and passive, instead of catalytic and active. Symbiosis is “any interdependent or mutually beneficial relationship between two persons, groups, etc.” (Thanks, Instead of not negatively affecting our surroundings,  let’s try to positively affect our surroundings. As Tim McGee put it in this article, “What if, in New York City, when it rained, the water that went into the East River was cleaner than when it fell?” We get drinkable water, and the river has less contaminants. Nature creates systems that provide positive benefits to its surroundings, why can’t we?


“One person’s waste is another person’s treasure” as the saying goes, and I believe this to be an accurate description of Symbiotic principles. I’m always excited to see new waste-to-energy plants, or phytoremediation techniques, and I know there’s so much more we could be doing. I also commonly hear, “leave it nicer than when you found it” in relation to using another’s kitchen, or camping, or even borrowing items from friends. If we follow the current definition of Sustainable Development, are we not borrowing the resources of today from the generations of tomorrow? We shouldn’t just stop pollution, let’s clean it up. This idea isn’t a new one, I see it around in articles I read and there are definitely buildings that exist that strive to be carbon-negative.  But what if we applied this principle universally, not only to our future designs and technologies, but in how we live our lives and interact with people. What if we left every person better off than when we met them? Of course things brings up issues of what defines “better,” but just like with current environmental issues, the trick isn’t to fix the problem, it’s to create a framework and system in which the environment (or in this case, the person) can fix it themselves. I think if we create symbiotic designs, forge symbiotic relationships with others (I mean, isn’t the whole idea of the U.S. Government based on the concept of checks and balances? One can’t do anything without the other two) and live symbiotic lives, we’ll have a greater appreciation for everything around us knowing that what we do keeps everything around us alive, and what everything around us does keeps us alive. We should be thinking: “Nature gives us a lot of things, what are we doing to give back to nature?”

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