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Reclaiming the bio-universe

Bio-economy and bio-materials are not new concepts. If we look back at the history of human development, almost everything was ‘bio’, evolving around natural local resources. Bio-materials always formed part of local economies and material culture. Geography, the climate zones of the world and their regional characteristics hold clues for the bio-universe not only from the environmental and ecosystems perspective, but also from our engagement with the ‘bio-world’.

Bio-universe of the past 

Arid desert climates are good examples of the mutual equilibrium we once had. In the extreme environment of scarce resources, the agricultural cultivation of date palm had a multifunctional role from nutrition to income for framers. Date palm oases offered a wide range of ecosystem services from biodiversity and climate regulation to cultural services. Date palm production generated waste too: a bio-material in the form of dry palm leaf that needed to be cut-off annually from the tree for the next year’s harvest. The ingenuity of indigenous peoples and the Arab tribes led to the construction of cities and entire neighbourhoods from this unprocessed bio-material and some Arabian Gulf cities, such as Dubai in 1950, had 4,000 date palm leaf houses inhabited by around 12,000 people. The circular economy city model was also replicated on the smaller scale of villages, individual houses and products such as beds, chairs and small-scale domestic furniture.

This bio-universe ended in the 1970s with the discovery of oil and modernisation. Today, date palm is cultivated in 46 countries , generating in total, approximately 10.3 million tonnes of waste that is, in fact, unprocessed bio-material which is predominately landfilled. Climate emergencies, the pursuit of sustainable development goals, self-sufficiency, social cohesion, geopolitics and security might be sufficient reasons for re-engaging with the bio-universe we once had.

Adaptation. Technology Development and Transfer 

Looking back at the various technological revolutions starting from the First Industrial Revolution (1760), the Second (1870) and the more recent Third IT-Data Industrial Revolution (1996) and the Fourth AI-Robotic Industrial Revolution (2016), we can say that some bio-materials, in particular indigenous bio-materials, did not undergo industrialisation. They also did not undergo a manufacturing and processing evolution that can fit within today’s industry standards.

Technology development and transfer, adaptation , research and development leading to innovation remain pivotal in bio-materials for the development story from the perspective of small to medium size enterprises, women and youth empowerment, particularly in desert regions.

Nature, like climate change, does not have political boundaries.

Bio-Regional Collaboration

To address the unresolved issue of indigenous and endogenies technologies of bio-science and bio-materials, bio-regional collaboration is imperative for a new form of sustainable industrialisation that can be achieved through the diversified use of processed bio-materials.

This can be achieved through building upon existing partnerships and frameworks of North-South collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagement by governments, higher education and research laboratories, business, civil society and indigenous peoples.  Accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and for promoting economic growth and sustainable development.

Human and Social Capital

Bio-materials for development are inevitably related to human capital and the bottom – up approach to development. Recognising the social aspirations of people, especially the younger generation, trapped at times between two worlds of the bio-universe of the past and the captivating potential of the fourth industrial revolution is crucial. What kind of aesthetics will this new bio-materials create? How will this fit within the traditional cultural framework of the past captured in museums and in the stories of their grandparents? We have to wait and see when societies will be ready to take on this challenge, and to some extent they are doing so at their own pace. Individual civil society and NGO activities are a promising start for long-term sustainable transformation.

Transformation Capital

True transformation capital can only be delivered with the support of national and local governments and changes in policy frameworks that will enable the just transition of bio-science and at the same time bio-materials. Extending the scope of adaption to the adaptation of existing technologies related to material science may open the door for sustainable industrialisation. These are long-term processes that can only be achieved through multilateral bio-regional collaboration within the frameworks of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, the implementation of which holds critical clues for regaining the bio-universe we once had.

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Written By

Dr. Sandra Piesik is an architect, researcher, innovator, designer, artist, curator and a writer specialising in technology development and transfer of natural materials and the implementation of global sustainable legislation. Sandra is currently working towards the programmes of UNFCCC, UNCCD, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and The New Urban Agenda on implementation and adaptation of indigenous and endogenous technologies.


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