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Can we weave together 3.8 billion years of evolution?

Fibres, textiles and clothing are an everyday part of the human experience. If they were to dramatically evolve, society as a whole could transform. We believe that by understanding life’s ability to adapt to its environment over the course 3.8 billion years, we can discover new ways of making things to change the way we live.

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According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, in the past century average temperatures in Tokyo have increased by 3.2°C. Urbanization is reportedly a major factor behind this “heat island” phenomenon, but serious damage to ecosystems resulting from sudden climate change has become a worldwide problem. The fibers project team at the Think Human Exhibition was therefore tasked with exploring the possibility of future fibers for addressing the climate and environmental changes that may occur over the next century. Just what kind of fibers might we find indispensable 100 years from now?

Global warming, rising sea levels… What revolutionary fibers might help society in the future?

In its investigation of the future potential for fibers to address environmental change, the fibers project team looked for hints from biomimetics. The idea was that the engineering of the natural world, in other words, the history of biological evolution over the past 3.8 billion years, might provide hints for improving quality of life in the future. Teijin itself was founded as a manufacturer of rayon, a fiber developed in the pursuit of an artificial silk. Teijin’s history of observing nature to learn its ecology and thereby develop new fibers spans the past century, such as in our Morphotex® structurally colored fiber, which was based on hints obtained from morpho butterflies, and our ultra-hydrophobic fiber Super Microft®, which mimics lotus leaves. To investigate what kind of completely new fibers might be a part of our lives 100 years from now, at the Think Human Exhibition the project team brought together Takahiko Hariyama, a forerunner in this field and a research professor at the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine’s Institute for Medical Photonics Research, and Seitaro Taniguchi of the design innovation firm Takram, which specializes in future-oriented concept designs.

At the exhibition, the project team introduced Tamamushi jewel beetles as an example of self-organization in the natural world. Jewel beetles utilize self-organization to generate a durable outer shell with a special coloring mechanism called structural coloration. The material in this shell is called cuticula, and is related to the material in human cuticles and hair.

In this exhibition, the fibers project team described the future 100 years from now using possible scenarios, products, and illustrations. The project team’s presentation focused on “Selforg,” a future fiber technology imagined by Takram.

“Selforg is an idea that arose from self-organizational phenomena seen in nature,”

Taniguchi said. “We imagined a technology for producing synthetic fibers from particles placed under specific conditions. The way the fibers grow out of particles is similar to plant germination, so we call them ‘fiber seeds.’ Today’s industry hasn’t yet mastered methods for using self-organization in manufacturing, but we consider Selforg as a fiber technology for the future, where such manufacturing might be possible.”

Hariyama added, “In nature, we can see self-organizing phenomena that autonomously form complex patterns and structures, like in human fingernails and insect shells. We haven’t quite elucidated self-organization just yet, but some future generation of researchers likely will. If this Selforg technology is realized in the future, it will likely be invaluable to society 100 years from now.”

At the event, the project team exhibited illustrations and dioramas depicting products derived from Selforg technologies and some scenes in which they might be used. These illustrate how fiber technologies evolved through biomimetics might play a role in a future world changed through global warming.


Considering the next 100 years through “backcasting”

While touching on various ideas brought up for the exhibition, Hariyama and Taniguchi’s talk also debated the potential for fiber technologies of the future.

“We were asked to consider the theme of what society might look like in a future in which global warming has further advanced,” Taniguchi said, “and from this we imagined two worldviews: a ‘nighttime society’ and a ‘off-grid world.’ We came up with the nighttime society concept on the hypothesis that increasing daytime temperatures may force a shift to making nights the core time for human activity. Transitioning humanity from a diurnal to a nocturnal lifestyle will result in many changes. For example, we can imagine changes to the design of signs and billboards. To make signs more visible in nighttime than in daytime, the coloration of signs and billboards should be reversed from today’s designs.

The lightweight, off-grid world concept assumes a world experiencing massive migration following flooding of coastal cities due to rising sea levels. This would necessitate the development of new urban areas, possibly isolated from present infrastructure grids. We suspected that rather than undertaking the massive construction projects that would be required to connect new sewage, gas, and electric systems to existing grids, such new cities might instead take a high-mobility, off-grid approach in which they use locally sourced electricity, water, and food production. The experience of having to abandon a fully developed city will surely change views on urban planning.”

“In an isolated, off-grid city, water may become a precious resource. So it may be that clothing will be designed to be disposable, like tissue paper; that would be the logical result of the cost of repeated washing for reuse exceeding manufacturing costs. While this might sound wasteful, it can actually describe a sustainable product lifecycle if disposal has a low environmental impact and manufacturing processes can be performed without using enormous amounts of energy.”

Hariyama added, “Forecasting-based thought, in which we consider how we can keep on improving current technologies, is of course important. In terms of building a better society, however, what’s needed is ‘backcasting,’ imagining how society will change in the future and what we should do to accommodate that. Biomimetics places a high emphasis on backcasting, and I believe that new algorithms for manufacturing that we can learn from biological systems—things like off-grid cities and Selforg—are excellent examples of that. Most importantly, when designers come up with concrete images of next-generation societies and worldviews, that has a great deal of significance in terms of combining biomimetics with other fields.”

In the Think Human Exhibition, held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our founding, the project team depicted some ways in which our lives might evolve along with fibers that will improve quality of life 100 years from now through collaboration between the differing fields of biomimetics, design, and engineering. A major problem related to synthetic fibers in recent years is the accumulation of plastic waste in our oceans, showing how tightly interwoven our lives have become with these materials since the industrial revolution. If what we learn from biomimetics results in low-energy, sustainable fibers, this will help to realize a more fulfilling life 100 years from now. A society like this is exactly the kind of future quality of life that Teijin aims for when they say, “Life Evolves With Fibers.”

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