Research and collaboration is front and center at the GSD and these days, it’s moving design forward into areas never before ventured. The Design Robotics Group (DRG), a research unit which looks at the role of material processes and systems in the built environment, and the Responsive Environments and Artifacts Lab (REAL), have delved into the world of science through their innovative partnership with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Led by Martin Bechthold, Professor of Architectural Technology and Director of GSD’s Technology Platform, and Allen Sayegh, Associate Professor in Practice and Director of REAL, the group works jointly with Wyss’ material scientists and chemists to take their existing technologies that are on the nano to micro scale and develop them into applications primarily for buildings as well as develop new technologies, some of which are being patented as we speak.

“The Wyss research is a technology push model. They develop technologies on a very small scale, responding to perceived problems. They’re very far away from the end user and from industry. Our work is to identify building related problems and opportunities, and translate work on a very small scale into the meso-scale. We bridge the gap, to some degree, by using methods of design,” says Bechthold. It’s a partnership that has led to an archetype for interdisciplinary collaboration between designers and scientists, and while the effort has proven to be extremely successful thus far, it wasn’t one that came naturally to either side. “We just had different views of the world and we had different ways of working, we had different terms for things, so I wasn’t very surprised. It took a while until we found a way to engage the issues we were both interested in. Over time we grew together as a team. It would have been easy enough to get discouraged and stop, so it needed a desire from both sides to really make this happen. And you have to somehow sense that there’s something interesting at the end of that initial phase,” explains Bechthold.

Luckily both parties remained committed and after two years of working side-by-side and finding a common ground, Bechthold felt it was finally time to take the collaboration to the classroom, something he was not ready to do during the early stages of the project. He decided to try out a class where students work with scientists conducting experiments and developing ideas, and the ideal meeting place seemed to be the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) for entrepreneurship and innovation, where he taught a class called “Life Cycle Design” last year. Located next door to the Harvard Business School on Western Avenue in Allston, the i-lab proved to be a good fit for its physically remoteness from both the GSD and Wyss, making it neutral territory for everyone.

This fall Bechthold introduced the class at the i-lab called “Nano|Micro|Macro: Adaptive Material Laboratory” with 33 students enrolled from across all programs, including MDdeS, architecture, MAUD, landscape architecture, DDes, and from Harvard College and MIT. Students explore design research methods and techniques through the microcosm of newly emerging biologically inspired material systems and their applications in building, focusing on the technologies and systems developed by researchers at Wyss. The course introduces them to ideas-to-innovation processes in a hands-on, project and product focused manner. “The class has a slightly different mindset from what we tend to do here (at the GSD). There is a studio part to it, exploration discovery. It’s very much material focused, but in the end the second half of the class is really about product development, and developing an idea into an opportunity. The entrepreneurial aspect is very important, figuring out compelling product ideas, identifying a market, understanding what users need, doing some analysis, doing financial modeling. The i-lab is a great place for this because they want to promote student entrepreneurship,” says Bechthold. The course also serves as an interdisciplinary platform for students to interact with material scientists and chemists from Wyss. For the final review, Bechthold plans on involving Wyss by bringing faculty as well as staff who are more familiar with the business and market side to participate in the process alongside designers.

For Bechtold, who looks at questions of technology across all areas to identify strategically how the GSD can add value, the joint effort with Wyss has already paid off with both sides recognizing the advanced results achieved through collaboration. It’s a relationship they will continue, and drawing on its success, he has plans to pursue other industry partners to engage in more research projects. Elaborating further on partnerships and the effort that’s involved in nurturing it from the ground up, Bechthold reflects, “If we take ‘One Harvard’ seriously, we need to find new ways for the university to grow together. I find that everybody is interested in collaboration and it’s just a question of how much time can you invest into it, but it’s been quite rewarding.”