When Fungi Is Your Capex

A conversation between Massimo Portincaso and Maurizio Montalti

Maurizio Montalti is a designer and founder of the industrial bio-fabrication firm Mogu. With a background in engineering, a masters in Contextual Design from the famed Design Academy Eindhoven, and a fateful decision to explore an unexpected passion for microbiology, he has made chairs, tables, even slippers by combining mycelium with agricultural waste like flax and wheat. At his studio Officina Corpuscoli, scientists work alongside designers. Earlier this summer Massimo Portincaso, founder of Deepwave Ventures and chairman of Hello Tomorrow, sat down with him to discuss the convergence of experimental design, science, engineering, and social change.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MP: I deeply believe we are in the midst of a societal transformation, shifting from being hunters and gatherers of resources to being farmers at the atomic level. And this is a shift from an exploitative paradigm — that emerged from the first and second Industrial Revolutions — to a generative paradigm where you build things from the ground up.

So you go from smaller to bigger, instead of bigger to smaller and creating waste in the process. This is basically what you do with Mogu, where you use the power of mycelium. And one of the theses I have is that art and design play an important role in making this transition, because we’re really changing the way we look at things. Some things are going to be super well accepted, and others are going to feel very strange at the beginning. We’re forcing people to leave their comfort zone. And the role of art to push the boundaries of what is even thinkable will be really important. So how are you experiencing this? Do you have the sense that you’re pushing boundaries?

MM: Certainly the main focus of the work we do at Mogu is based on a transition from an extraction-driven type of approach, where finite resources are taken out of the ground, transformed, with all of the emissions and problems associated with that, to fuel a crazy pace of over-production that ends up in consumer behavior—and also us consuming in great amounts and then disposing in great amounts, at a very fast pace. That pattern has created terrible disasters that we all know about, and that we’re now trying to tackle.

Us humans being the ones who created the problems in the first place, and us also being the ones attempting to solve those problems, also raises some questions. In any case, it’s fundamental to move towards new paradigms that look into the possibility of regeneration that could activate any process related to production of goods, utilities, and so on. And how best to do that if not by partnering with living systems that might not be human and yet are extremely intelligent, without even possessing a brain? These living systems, in fact, are responsible in their ecosystem as the composers, assemblers, and the creators of new life.

Here of course I’m speaking of fungi, and without giving the biology lecture about the biological framework, that’s what fungi do in nature. Each specific family, each specific fungus, has its own task and capacity and skill. Nevertheless overall we see they have a capacity to take up any type of carbon source, as nutrients are present that favor their growth. They use different types of sugars, cellulose, or plant matter, and feed on that matter to expand their body, consisting of different micro cells that together form clusters.

Now, the interesting thing is that according to physics, nothing is created and nothing disappears. This notion is less straightforward than one would think, because in that process of decay and decomposition, that is where we witness an opportunity. And that is, from a cultural perspective, fundamental, because envisioning a possible future means we must reflect on death, or what is commonly considered the end of all things. We have to explore that transition as a collective possibility rather than an individual drama, because embracing this notion of temporality can introduce possibilities for the very concepts of regeneration and rebirth.

So it’s interesting for me to think about the genesis of my work. When I stumbled upon fungi, it was not about wanting to create new materials. It was about getting rid of stuff, and questioning the role of the designer as someone who fuels the cycle of overproduction. It was about rehabbing microbial systems in the eyes of humanity while showing the opportunities that emerge when these partnerships are created.

But I like to stress once again, how fundamental it is to understand how regeneration fundamentally includes the notion of transience, temporality, transitioning, and therefore death. And until we, as a society, are able to embrace that as something important in our lives and in the life of everything that surrounds us, I am afraid we are going to have a hard time understanding how to move forward.

MP: Do we need to embrace the notion of the death of the planet to get there?

I’m referring to death itself as a fully regenerative act. To a certain extent, in the same way the cells in our bodies continuously die, mutate, reproduce, and so on, the planet does the same. In the same way we in every single moment die and are reborn, the planet does the same. Death is for me not the end of all things. Death is the beginning of all things, because death equals rebirth. And I’m not here touching upon spirituality, which of course comes into the discourse, and very often bumps into people’s biases. If you introduce notions that are a bit more meta, such concepts may not resonate with everybody. But there is a parallelism between this science of death and the philosophical looking at life at multiple levels.

Mogu Floor products are currently undergoing certification.

Mogu Floor products are currently undergoing certification.

In Western society, we have been shaped by an anthropocentric view that goes back to Aristotle and the Greeks, centered around humans, with everything rotating around us. Now people are saying that we actually need more of a daoist or Shintoist view of the world, where you have three components: the whole, humans, and nature, and you look at the harmony of the three coming together.

MM: One great inspiration that informed my research and my overall sensitivity at a younger age was a book called The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. Fritjof wrote an earlier book where he demonstrates, to the extent possible, that scientific research in physics (rather than in other scientific disciplines) is completely aligned with spiritual research, and that the two continuously inform one another and tend to the same objective, though through different paths. Letting go of that boundary that we humans keep erecting — dividing and creating compartmentalized pockets of domains — is key to being immersed in it all. It means acting consciously. It means being driven and pulled by the forces in society, which continuously distract you, and being able to come back to that moment of silence, where you are part of something much greater.

MP: You spoke about “regenerative.” I decided when talking about codesign with nature to use “generative” instead, to differentiate it from the circular economy. But we’re not gods, we’re not creating from nothing, so there is a regenerative component to everything. Does that resonate? I think it’s important that people don’t think it’s all about circularity.

MM: I completely agree. I tend to use the word “regenerative” because everything is in a constant flow. Calling it a circular economy is a little bit more refined; before that it was just called sustainability. Now we are moving, perhaps, to talking about generative systems, generative economy, and so on. It’s something that could be exemplified in the capacity of a system to adapt. And in fact it’s more layered and complicated than that closed-loop diagram that usually represents a circular economy.

More Mogu acoustic panels.

More Mogu acoustic panels.

I agree it’s good to take off the “re” part, but it’s inevitably going to reenter the picture, particularly if we believe or feel that everything is in a constant flux of transformation through metamorphoses. And that is what I meant when talking earlier about death. It’s about understanding what metamorphosis is, that it’s generated by biological processes that happen naturally. And we can discuss that because there’s always confusion surrounding “nature.”

MP: Let’s go there. What do you mean by “nature”?

MM: I mean a complex, pluralistic system field with many agents and many voices, whose voices we often cannot yet even attempt to decipher, that is in constant flux, in constant becoming, in constant transformation. This is in opposition to the way we humans tend to talk about nature, as this romanticized idea of something existing in beauty and stillness. There’s a lot of nostalgia there, that “things used to be better.” And I think, yes, okay. We created some trouble, but nature has always been changing. Nature has never been one thing. Evolution is part of nature.

And by the way, this idea of purity in nature, or nature as the perfect system? Nature is extremely dynamic, extremely violent. It’s quite rough! And we are part of it. We are quite rough. So we need to move on from this romanticized perspective. We need to distance ourselves from these cultural preconceptions. (And yet culture is nothing without nature. If we keep that strange notion of culture and nature as two separate things, we are doomed.)

Until we recognize ourselves and our culture as part of natural evolution, we have a problem. This is a fundamental shift. Design can capture attention. Once that attention is captured, it can make uncomfortable and sometimes complex information a little simpler, or let somebody deep-dive into something that perhaps they didn’t have the chance to tackle before. We have to remember, and I remind myself every day, that we are privileged here.

MP: I love the way you’ve been describing nature. When we created the term “nature co-design” it was a deliberate choice, signaling that what we’re about to do goes beyond working with organisms. We can start engaging with nature more broadly. For the first time in history, it seems we have come to a place where — I wouldn’t say we can tame the monster, but we can work with the monster at a different level. And this is actually what you do both as an artist and designer, and as an entrepreneur.

What’s it like to work with nature and design with nature, and to have nature basically be — brutally put — one of your capital expenditures? You’re using fungi as your capex. So how is it?

Microbes may lack a brain, but they’re intelligent systems. And they are fundamentally necessary for our existence on the planet, because we couldn’t exist without them. And we partly are them, which also raises questions about our identity. Should we disregard them, or let them go unnoticed? And this is for me a question. In order to make the collaboration work, you need to kill your partner. Now for many, this is not a problem; “Yeah. Okay. You kill some bacteria, you kill some fungi, whatever.” But from an ethical perspective, it’s relevant. These microbes are my partners. To make a parallel to another discipline like dancing, well, there are the dancers, but there is no dance without the choreographers. Both are needed.

Fungi are the dancers. I’m the choreographer. I’m actually just inviting them to behave in a certain way, or to perform a certain task. And I’m creating the conditions for them to be accepted in society, hopefully. So there is an exchange of benefits. But in the end, is it a complete symbiosis? Well, it’s not one of the most positive symbioses because in the end I kill my partner.

MP: It reminds me of Coleridge and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” when he shoots the albatross. Basically, with bacteria, after collaborating with them, we shoot them.

MM: And yet there is a question about who is controlling whom. Because we think we are empowered. We are the humans. But what if the fungi have a hidden plan, and they have been working it out for millions of years? What if they have been unfolding a keen plan that brought us to the place of being controlled by them? Once you fall into the mycelium and the fungal world, it’s a vortex. You cannot get out of it because the more you deep dive, the more it expands. It’s ridiculous, and it gets you. You could say that it’s the fungi that are controlling us to promote their advent in this world.

The 3D shape of the “Wave” tile maximizes sound absorption.

The 3D shape of the “Wave” tile maximizes sound absorption.

It’s our refusal to embrace complexity, because if you focus everything on value and you don’t consider the broader ecosystem, you’re considering only one of the currencies. And because we want to avoid dealing with that complexity, we have just focused on one of the multiple currencies in the broader ecosystem. So I would bring it back to our refusal to deal with complexity.

MM: There’s definitely a connection. At Mogu we decided as a company not to work with modified organisms, but to work mostly with natural strains as part of our production and therefore our products, which by the way, are not sold as living products. They are once-living products. Even if they were the result of the growth of a synthetic organism or a genetically modified organism, that wouldn’t be an issue, because the products are inert and leave the factory completely inert. With GMOs you would encounter inevitable resistance from a public that might think about it differently, or might not be thoroughly informed about what something is really about. So through my studio practice, I always tried to avoid giving a straightforward answer, because I prefer to offer it in the form of a question.

There is simply no way to stop this type of development. Whether one wants it or not, this is happening and will keep happening. Modified organisms are constantly being used. And luckily, if we keep expanding, synthetic biology will be key to some groundbreaking transformations, starting with the biomedical field and tackling all different types of health-related issues.

The problem is who decides how synthetic biology will get used. How can we make this decision or process as democratic as possible? Public participation can play a key role in informing decision-making processes that mostly are done in closed rooms by the scientific community, by policy makers, and so on. This is the question: How can we be part of an informed society that can discuss and come to terms with the positive potential of a technology while limiting the use of that technology for its negative potential?

MP: Isn’t it exactly what corporations and artists should be doing? Really fostering this dialogue, and saying, “It’s a complex world, and I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Let’s have a discussion and let’s see what we think is good and what is bad.” There are examples of people doing this. There was the Lyme disease effort in Nantucket, where the community was involved and they discussed it. There was another one where they modified a strain of broccoli, but they got the community to discuss it and approve. I think it’s possible. The velocity with which these developments are taking place requires a direct dialogue, because if we wait for institutions to do this, it’s gonna take too long.

I think that the worst thing that can happen to us is that we refuse to engage because of this fear of complexity. We try to do things behind the scenes. And then this leads to an emotional discussion instead of a grounded discussion. Then you enter a place where you cannot have a discussion, because people are coming up with things that are completely emotional, and then you don’t go anywhere.

I’ve always thought artists can play an important role in pushing the boundaries and making room. Or chefs! Great chefs are artists in their own way.

When the Arabs came to Italy they brought the aubergine. Today when we think about the most traditional Italian dishes, they have aubergine. So how do you manage to bring together tradition and heritage with the advancements in synthetic biology? I dream of a world where there are people in the consortium, like Grana Padano Parmesan, working with synthetic biologists to think about the future of parmesan.

MM: That’s exactly what the work with the studio has been about since the beginning: trying to really exploit and make use of design as a catalyzer of attention, this seductive field very much associated with misleading notions of aesthetics. To take it out of the lab, out of the scientific discourse, and simplify it without “banalizing” it. To democratize certain notions that are incomprehensible for a larger public that doesn’t have the background for reading a scientific paper or scientific essay.

[On comparing synthetic biology to breeding] Let’s think about the Dutch carrot. Carrots were not orange. Carrots are orange because the Dutch made them orange for the Oranje. That is amazing. But now we do not even question that. People don’t even know about it. Or the fact that different varieties of broccoli all come from the same family of mustard.

There are many different varieties that we know as different vegetables, and yet they came from one plant that was modified over time. We do not even question that; we consume them happily. So where is the difficulty? Synthetic biology allows you to be much more precise and targeted in what you want to achieve. And yet it encounters cultural resistance, generated by our cultural beliefs in relation to the gods, the creators, the spirits, and this kind of presumptive ambition of humans as empowered for creating things. But really, we have always been doing that. And to a certain extent, what is bad about it? If there is a little bit of God in all of us?

MP: I think one of the paradoxes that few people see is that the economics of nature co-design are different, and when you don’t have an exploitative paradigm, scale plays a different role. We have the possibility to move to an economy that is more distributed and way more resilient. I think that we have the opportunity actually, if done properly, to move to a world in which we have what I love to call “craftmanship at scale.” So we started with craftsmanship, then we had industrialization, and now we have the possibility of industrial craftsmanship, so to speak, because of the precision you were talking about. And then you can empower different people to do different things and come out with different products.

One last thing: I think one of the biggest challenges in mastering the complexity we’ve been talking about is the fact that when you start operating and thinking this way, you need the capacity to navigate and operate across different scales, almost riding the logarithm, if you will. You move along orders of magnitude. You need the capability to think at the atomic level and also in terms of macro systems. What would be a linear piece is actually a logarithmic one. This is something that Neri Oxman has been always talking about and really good at putting into practice. What is your view on that?

MM: Scale is always more complex than one could expect. Particularly if we think about established industries, such as the food industry, where precision fermentation has been used in a very targeted way for some time now, and that also informs our processes. So luckily we can learn a lot from the different steps of scale-up. But if we think about the manufacturing setups, as well as the volumes that you want to be able to produce. It’s not so proportional, as we know, to scale up a process, and particularly this one, it comes not just to chemistry, but even worse, to biology.

It’s not that chemistry is an easy science, but it’s a little more determined. Biology does not offer you that certainty. And that makes it exciting and challenging at the same time, particularly along scale-up processes, because often what you validate on a micro or nanoscale in a lab needs to pass to the petri dish and then to the Erlenmeyer, then to a small bioreactor and so on, or from five liters to 10 liters to 7,500, etc. It’s not linear.

It’s not just about proportions, like increasing the amount of nutrients. In biology, the architecture of the vessels and the technologies used matters. There are a lot of different parameters. So when working with micro-bio scale-up, we are quite likely going to see a development that is not necessarily the exponential one, but more like S-curve development. How do we face this? We face it with great enthusiasm and great difficulty, particularly considering that yes, we do employ the notions and the findings of other industries. We do not pretend to be the inventors of everything.

That is the complexity that arises from the fact of needing to merge multiple fields of action. The microbial scaling gap is meaningful, but it needs to come hand in hand with the market in which you’re operating, and therefore with all of the other disciplines that informed the development of that project or product. The microbial growth is just one step, very complex, and just one step of the whole process that leads you to the final objective.

So we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of letting different fields of action and expertise communicate not just openly but in a comprehensible way with one another. This is one of the major challenges when dealing with the ambition of establishing an industry rooted in biofabrication-driven processes at scale. It’s really about allowing for the convergence of all these different types of expertise, and then creating the framework that allows for them to effectively communicate with one another and understand one another’s meaning or language. And inform each other through feedback loops that need to be very dynamic, very active, and fast if we want to achieve something in a relatively short term, because otherwise we could stay here and do research for centuries. But no, we want to put it out. We want to make an application. We are not doing fundamental science. We want products. We want to trigger a change. And that is where the complexity lies.

MP: I love this. We started with the convergence of design, science, and engineering in one person. And we finished with the other convergence we always talk about when we talk about deep tech, which is the convergence of different fields — matter and energy computation and cognition and sensing emotion brought together. Which requires people who can speak the same language, who are what I love to call “T-shaped” people, who have certain expertise but also have the breadth to be able to talk to others. That is really important in getting there. So thank you very much, Maurizio.


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