Soft robots and/or sustainability

By | Judit Boros

After two years of online Zoom calls, the ABRA team gathered in real life-real time. Finally, we held the first educational course designed by ABRA with the theme of Robots and Sustainability. The three-day-long workshops included lectures, facilitated discussions, ideation sessions, and hands-on robot building. The planning, management, and deployment of the workshop was a transdisciplinary effort in itself, with outcomes manifesting in the student’s project work and engaging conversations. 

We focused on producing and designing soft robots, discussed their complicated relation to sustainability, and their potential for emergent and future applications. Soft robots are built from flexible, soft, and compliant materials in contrast to rigid robots' metal or hard plastic components. This materiality provides them, for example, enhanced movements and changes in size and ensures safety when working with humans or delicate objects. The design challenge was to create soft robots integrating aspects of sustainability, either in the design concept, the choice or use of materials, production aspects, or the intended use. In the realized projects, the sustainability dimension  was considered from the environmental angle as well as social or personal sustainability (in relation to well-being). The group projects included soft robots which can act as a mediating object between patients and caregivers, providing a tactile experience while transmitting sensory data or exerting a calming, soothing effect by a soft grip for self-calming. Other groups experimented with repurposing discarded silicone (used to make soft robots) by applying the concept of downsizing or designing collectible wearables, synchronized to be co-present with humans, thus acting as a soft reminder for body awareness.

A table with 3, round soft robot actuators tied to an Arduino contraption

The importance of sustainability as a key theme in robotics development was explored through the workshop activities. However, the most intriguing parts were the after-the-work and World Café discussions. These were designed and facilitated to generate collaborative dialogue and meaningful discussions to develop a deeper line of inquiry progressively. Since the ABRA project’s core aim is to develop transdisciplinary methods for higher education, the team itself is composed of teachers and learners from various backgrounds (artificial biology, robotics, design, art, philosophy, and environmental sciences) who engage with the concept of sustainability in different ways. One question seemed to enlarge the plurality of viewpoints: should sustainability be prioritized in the design of soft robots, or is only one aspect next to the other, social and technological purposes and requirements? 

On the one hand, it seems like an easy question, as one can argue it depends on the context. For example, an object designed as a medical aid might respond to sustainability criteria, but it is not its main' job.' It may still be composed of non-recyclable materials or materials that pose environmental harm due to extraction, processing, and production. (And there are many more dimensions to the unsustainability of the production, use, maintenance, and discard of robots, machines, or any other designed object). But why should a medical aid object do more than help people heal? Why should all designs be directed in all their aspects to sustainability? 

On the other hand, this question points to a larger conflict that, in practice, sustainability and design are still a contested pairing similar to the concept of sustainable development. Today, the sustainability paradigm is integrated within design studies, addressing industrial product or service-related issues to system innovation and large-scale socio-technical transformations. ‘Sustainable design’ became a diverse arena describing design tools and frameworks in all sub-disciplines (for example, green design, cradle-to-cradle, bio-inspired design, ecological design, and regenerative design). However, sustainability measures are often suppressed to improve production processes and products, services, or infrastructures or positioned below the functional, ergonomic, or economic features, without considering consumption and behaviour patterns (Manzini 1999).

Whereas the relationship between people and the planet is explicit. It is a nested dependence between the ecological, socio-cultural, and economic dimensions of the value of nature. In 1973 Herman Daly presented his ‘ultimate ends – ultimate means’ framework, demonstrating that it is the natural capital (i.e., the ultimate means) that provides the basis for all human life and activity (for example, the design of soft robots) to achieve the ultimate ends, the improvement of human well-being. Daly’s work has been an inspiration source for various research endeavours, which further developed the original concept to counterbalance the human-focused representation and linearity in systems thinking and sustainability science (see Meadows 1998 or Pinter et al. 2013). Applying Daly’s framework to design shows that sustainability should be the core attribute of all design endeavours, and there should be only this kind of design (Sanders 2015). In theory, all the rest falls into the unsustainable category, making ‘sustainable design’ an oxymoron. As Cameron Tonkiwise argues, “this means that every design and every aspect of a design must be judged in terms of its sustainability…There is only: design for the marketability of sustainability, design for sustainable manufacturability, design for sustainable use, etc.” (Tonkinwise 2015, 294).

A group of ABRA students work on prototyping a new soft robot concept

However, the paradoxical nature of sustainable design seems to prevail. The global effects of human activity on the physical environment are unquestionable: it is estimated that in 2020 the collective human-made mass, or ‘anthropogenic mass,’ surpassed the overall living biomass on Earth for the first time in history (Elhacham et al. 2020). Meanwhile, the Sixth Mass Extinction in the history of Earth’s biodiversity is underway, and it is caused entirely by humans (Cowie, Bouchet, and Fontaine 2022).

From a design perspective, these outcomes indicate the dominance of human-centred design (HCD) and the oversight of the natural world in design questions. Embracing (HCD) means understanding the people’s diverse, context-specific needs and translating these into design solutions. However, approaching the world by centring each problem around  the human perspective indicates that impacts and trade-offs are assessed based on distinct outcomes for ourselves, with less attention to (or ignorance) given to the broader impacts on non-human life. Meanwhile, any change in the ‘nested dependence’ inherently concerns the already existing ecology by sustaining or altering it.

Even though the design profession has the knowledge and capacity to work with ecological terms, a reductionist, human-centred lens can only show human desires and needs. A human perspective in design is (epistemologically) inescapable, but it must be re-oriented to reconsider what is at the centre of the design intent. Does the design embrace the complexity of socio-ecological systems, or is it limited to the development and short-term prosperity of human society?

An emergent concept, the ‘more-than-human,’ helps expand and challenge traditional binaries of human and nature and prompts design actions consistent with the social-ecological conditions. Beyond acknowledging that all designs must be ecological, it shifts the centre of attention and challenges design solutions to follow up with inclusion and participation, consequently altering standards and principles. Various scholarly fields started to engage with this concept through cross-disciplinary investigations in science-technology-and-society studies (Franklin 2017), environmental humanities (Kohn 2007, 2013), geography (Philo 1995), or urban planning and design (Houston et al. 2018; Forlano 2016). 

Interestingly, the more-than-human concept applies not only to actions that work within the entanglements between humans and non-humans. The same term also refers to human-machine or human-computer interaction (see, for example, Coulton and Lindley 2019), where design intends to include the needs and requirements of technological entities. Positioned between the next frontiers in robotics and aggravating environmental concerns, the design of soft robots could engage with both sides to address joint considerations of human and the more-than-human biophysical and technological systems on the conceptual and practical levels. This shift could expand and open the ‘play space’ of design: the scope of issues, how they are addressed, and the identification of desired or required outcomes. Within ABRA, we will continue this exploration by including life forms other than humans to address the larger questions with which design can work. In the end, transdisciplinarity is not (only) about crossing disciplinary boundaries but working towards a common goal holistically.

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