Samuel Iliffe

Samuel Iliffe is a design engineer focused on the use of innovative materials and processes to address everyday problems. As a part of the Future Observatory Design Researchers in Residence programme hosted by the Design Museum, Samuel is exploring the issue of water pollution and eutrophication in the UK, with a focus on the role that algae play. Photographs courtesy The Design Museum.

Describe the nature around you at the moment?

I’m on a train, so lots of trees and bushes.

What lessons have you learned from nature?

Billions of years of evolution have created organisms with amazing abilities, and this is an endless source of not only inspiration but the organisms are potential collaborators in designs.

How can nature teach us more about design?

Nature is a repository of examples of issues and problems being addressed and solved. In that way, we simply need to observe. I’ve read instances where wonder fungi and bacteria capable of degrading waste thought impossible to degrade have been found by looking at the waste under the microscope - human creativity is almost removed from the design, it's just up to us to observe and encourage.

Name a TV series, film, podcast or documentary that blew your mind.

Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s podcast Interdependence is a constant mind blow.

Name a place where you feel most at ease.

At home with my family - I’m slowly renovating our flat, so it's actually not that much at ease.

How did you first become interested in exploring water pollution solutions?

I started working for Atelier Luma on their Algae Platform. Atelier Luma is a design and research lab, and the Algae Platform is “Bringing together a community of scientific, cultural, legal, and industrial experts from the algae world to conduct research and generate knowledge.”

While based in London, my first contact with algae was the Algal Blooms I saw on the river Lea. This was my gateway into learning about the nutrient pollution that caused the blooms, and understanding that this was a visual signal of decades of overuse of fertilisers, mismanagement of waste and general anthropocentric pollution.

What inspires you every day?

Everything! I don’t know when something I perceive will inspire me, but when it happens there’s this feeling of flow, of connecting the dots and being able to see something that’s not there. The hard part is taking inspiration and actually executing it and making it real.

How can we understand ourselves as part of nature?

We cannot help but instinctually have a human-centred view, and the difficulty is in thinking outside of this, moving from human-centred to life-centred. We literally are consuming and ejecting and recycling and reusing nature through us all the time. Take the element phosphorus, which was the focus of my research this year, it does not get used up, it can be endlessly recycled through ecosystems. The phosphorus that we consume in our food might have come from an animal that ate it in a crop that ‘fed’ on it from the faeces of another animal that ate it in a processed animal food made from phosphate rock, a sedimentary rock made up partly of organic matter of organisms from millions of years ago, that ate it from a plant.

Our understanding and definitions of what separates us from other organisms in nature are crumbling away - I spoke with James Bridle about their research into other forms of intelligence, including plants with memory, octopuses that escape prison, and intelligence-like characteristics exhibited by the earth itself. I think in this way by breaking down and interrogating why we humans think we are special and different from other organisms; we can better connect and understand nature.

What initiative have you heard of recently that you’d like everyone to support?

This is exactly what my research this year at the Design Museum has been on: water pollution, eutrophication and Algal Blooms. Sign this petition to help save Lake Windermere from environmental catastrophe:

Could you suggest someone else or other organisations you admire that we could approach for #TheNatureKind

Matt Staniek, who created the petition above, Zoologist, conservationist and Director of Windermere Lake Recovery CIC.

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