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What is the future of cities, and how can we develop new solutions for them?

The Rhode Island School of Design and Hyundai Motor Group have collaborated on a research project that explores new relationships between advanced technologies and public environments

The opening exhibit for "Adaptive Ecologies: Building on Nature's Blueprint," which is a RISD and Hyundai research collaborative. (Rhode Island School of Design)Rhode Island School of Design

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.

For a second year, the Rhode Island School of Design and Hyundai Motor Group have collaborated on a research project that explores new relationships between advanced technologies, public environments, and personal experiences. The interactions, explained Sarah Cunningham, vice provost for strategic partnerships, are defined as “adaptive ecologies,” which could be the technology between living organisms and machines and their surroundings, such as material structures of nature.


The study, paid for by a grant from Hyundai (Cunningham declined to specify the amount), gave artists across disciplines at RISD an opportunity to use technology to help build solutions for community and city designs, natural resource systems, and infrastructure.

For Hyundai, the collaboration helps realize the company’s vision of “becoming a future-shaping innovator via open innovation,” said Youngcho Chi, president and chief innovation officer.

Chi said the company collaborated with RISD in 2020 to apply the school’s biomimicry solutions to the question of future mobility. This year, he said the company has expanded their scope to the future of cities with RISD and Kia’s global design centers.

“Our plan is to explore solutions developed from the outcomes of this partnership and apply them to tangible opportunities such as innovative vehicle design and smart city development,” he said.

Graduate student Mooa Seongah Kang developed recyclable structures based on silkworms as part of a research team led by architecture faculty member Ryan McCaffrey.Rhode Island School of Design

Q: How did this partnership between RISD and Hyundai begin?

Cunningham: Around 2018, we began a shared exploration around questions of nature as they relate to mobility. Hyundai, of course, is known for its cars, but it’s a global conglomerate that does construction, banking, and creates many other products in other industries, such as other textile innovations. Hyundai had seen our nature lab, where we provide artists with biological studies and can explore and draw insects, and was interested in how the natural world is efficient. And we wanted explore how we could create sustainable cars or mobility that doesn’t pollute or damage the world. We weren’t just exploring the vehicle itself, but the infrastructure that would be required.


Q: Why are RISD and Hyundai thinking about the future of ecologies now?

Cunningham: Hyundai knows the amount of waste that cars introduce into the environment, both when they are on the move and when the automobiles are thrown away. I think there’s been this idea that we need to remake this business using what we know from nature. [Hyundai also acquired robotics innovation company Boston Dynamics last year.]

A cicada-inspired blanket that uses a woven MIDI divide, which reproduces various cicada calls when touched.Rhode Island School of Design

Q: What’s an example from the exhibit (many of the designs are now in Seoul) that shows the work that RISD designers conducted for the company?

Cunningham: The students looked at the texture of butterfly wings and there was a great interest in the fact that they are hydrophobic. They studied them, and then created prototypes (using a 3D printer) to examine and test different textured materials and how they would resist water. Ultimately, they chose one of the samples to use as a potential material for awnings that can both collect water to recycle it and repurpose it, while also protecting vendors and others underneath.


But Hyundai left it very open for the students. The students started with the butterfly and came to their own conclusion [the potential awning material]. To be clear, we do not do work for hire. Someone can’t come to us and say they want to create an awning. We work backwards. It’s more about the process.

Q: How have students redesigned or rethought the infrastructure of cities?

Cunningham: Students examined how bacteria shares resources in micro-colonies. So they thought about: How do we share resources across a city? So they looked at ways to mobilize health, medical, and educational services that can move around the city by replanning how cities are actually designed. They moved away from rigid structures and developed more fluidity for key social services. In a video, the students show exactly how services could be provided “below” the city where you never really see the services that are so essential. The whole point is it creates more robust communities, which will be transformative when you add in climate change and think about how our city maps are radically changing all the time.

So the whole idea is to show that a city is inherently mobile itself, it’s not just the future of car mobility, but that its flexible systems in the world around us that could change too.

Q: Why do you think are the designers at RISD are the right fit to explore new ecologies?

Cunningham: Sometimes people who are not in the arts and design would think of research and picture a physicist, mathematician, or engineer. But in our world, when we’re working with materials and trying to develop new approaches, we are very much in a research mode. It’s an interrogation of an issue through material exploration.


What RISD is known for is having a creative mindset. We are known for approaching questions in new ways. We look at the assumptions around a particular issue and try to break free of them. For example, why do we have certain assumptions about the natural world? Why do we have certain assumptions about cars and vehicles? What are ways we can reexamine both of those issues in order to come up with new solutions?

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.