Welcome to the Slightly Alien Future World of Terreform ONE

The Brooklyn-based non-profit research and design group is trying to prepare humanity for whatever comes next, as founding co-president Mitchell Joachim tells Motherboard.

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Jun 1 2017, 2:00pm

Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm Image: Terreform One

A pinkish glow comes from within one of the offices in New Lab, located in Brooklyn's Navy Yard. Inside, there's a giant, bumpy sphere that towers over the desks. A sleek habitat for crickets sits alongside. The sound of water splashing and spraying is triggered every few minutes.

It's the slightly alien future-world of Terreform ONE, where Mitchell Joachim is founding co-president. Architecture has been a passion of his since he was a child, leading him to work with greats like Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei. Around 2006, he and a few friends started Terreform ONE as a way to get together and work on the hard problems humanity will face in the near future—such as food supplies and constructing new, more efficient buildings.

Here, Joachim shares how the non-profit architecture group is trying to change how we view the modern world through smart cities.

Terreform ONE cofounder Mitchell Joachim

Terreform ONE cofounder Mitchell Joachim Image: Mitchell Joachim

Motherboard: What, exactly, is Terraform ONE?
Mitchell Joachim: We're a nonprofit research and design group in architecture in the smart city spaces that involves all scales of interest. So we'll design stuff thinking of clothing, or furniture, all the way to regional patterns of how cities operate on a mega scale.

So you come up with the concepts, and then contract it out?
No, we do it all here... That's more of a question, because it hasn't been invented yet. Even the methodology isn't understood yet. So we actually do that here.

For instance, one of the things we're doing is a really complex shelter for eating bugs. The question here was, we're working on big challenges, we don't have private clients but we do have really important sponsors, like BASF. But here we're looking at, can we have alternative forms of protein other than meat? Terraform ONE took on the challenge of how to we possible introduce eating bugs into the US. That's this cricket shelter project, which is this super sanitary way of breeding insects to be turned into a flour. In most of the world they eat bugs; we don't. Crickets became our client.

We often try to make this research accessible to someone like Homer Simpson. If Homer Simpson doesn't get what we're doing, we didn't succeed.

Throughout your career, what's been your favorite project? Or your most meaningful work?
I think all of it's meaningful. Like this project here, the Fab Tree Hab. Growing ficus more or less at an accelerated rate, and the idea is to make homes that are 100 percent living, that fit within their ecosystems. [Read more about the Fab Tree Hab project, here]

This is one of my more favorite projects, because when I started it 15 years ago, I didn't realize how hard it was to solve a lot of the problems. It's easier to do computational renderings and predict through biomimicry what something will behave like, but a lot harder to actually put it into reality. Even Tesla spent 20 years making things happen. This doesn't happen overnight.

Why are we talking about putting internet everywhere and not talking about treating our fellow humans the way we should be treating them?

To the outside, it might seem like these things just spring up out of nowhere.
Yeah, we're going about our daily business, and have no idea someone's been working on rockets for 15 years, for example. Rockets are hard. So we also function in these scales of economy, so something like a new thing for telecommunications, that's only about a five-year plan... car design, that's more like a 15-year plan. Architecture is a 40 year plan. You can come up with new concepts for windows or roofs, but no one bothers until they break. Even if it'll save you a ton of energy, you're not gonna bother until it breaks down. So architecture is a much longer venture, and changing cities could take a hundred years, plus.

People call it futurology, but that feels so 70s, so ugh. It's actually thinking about what's the next thing that's gonna happen, and what's a pattern or logic that we can tease out of it and explain to other groups and companies. Intel, GE, BASF, these are big partners that we're very much interested in sharing these concepts with so they can move on their side of things to make some of them happen.

What's an example of a challenge that came up in a project, that you didn't expect?
We fail all the time. We make epic failures all day long. That's part of research, making mistakes. Like I was saying with the crickets: We wiped out a thousand crickets to find out what their ideal environment is. That was a pretty epic mistake. It didn't happen all at once, but we'd come into the studio and find that they weren't in the right environment, so the biggest crickets would start killing the others and eating them. The others turned into cannibals and they all died off.

What's next for you, and Terreform ONE?
We want to combine insects and 3D printing. We'll use caddisfly swarms, which use silk in their mouths to make cocoons. Those cocoons are made out of parts in their environment, so we're going to give them an environment that's completely computational. It'll be nothing but pre-determined 3D printed parts. The bugs will take those parts and make their cocoons. Some will be totally ridiculous—in fact, most will be totally useless—but we're looking for the one bug that does something we don't expect. That bug becomes the genetic algorithm, an evolutionary algorithm that doesn't something we didn't predict.

In terms of progress in smart cities, what's going to hold us back in the next 10-20 years?Pretty much everything. Cities are actors and agents. The city itself defines slow changes. So it's the opposite, what are the strong catalysts to create change? The city is moving together almost as one—it's an environment that needs to hopefully meet the condition of the greater good, but it's still a long-standing polemic between forces both seen and unseen.

Some of the things that hold us back is the fact that we don't treat people equally. Social justice is probably a bigger issue than smart cities. Social justice is Black Lives Matter; why are we talking about putting internet everywhere and not talking about treating our fellow humans the way we should be treating them? The city is kind of a culmination of those things: It's where a movement in social justice comes to fruition and is magnified and telegraphed to other cities. And that's where you see the tension and the problems.

We have a dream, which is utopia, an idea of a much better city, but the pathway there isn't always so clear. So part of that is, how do we get to a rainbow city, where we're respecting people from all different incomes and ethnic groups, religions, races, secual orientations.... Technology will help, so I think smart cities will help lubricate some of those things, to get the conversation flowing and create connections. But there will be points where it'll create tension, and problems. I don't think technology is this great catharsis. It's a part of it but it's not the only part. At Terreform, we're concentrating on the idea of technology and ecology, simultaneously, as being really important for a smart city.

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