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Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ALICE (Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment)

Reporting period: 2019-06-01 to 2020-11-30

The goal of Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment (ALICE) is to develop the bio-digital interface capabilities of the Living Architecture (LIAR) project (Grant Agreement no. 851246) and take it towards market from TRL3-4 to TRL5. The actual “ALICE unit” is a 4-chamber bioprocessor component, or “living brick,” that is digitally enabled through bespoke low-power electronics, to connect with online systems and networks. Its focus is to develop an attractive digitally enabled bioprocessor unit that conveys a relatable experience to a general audience with specific focus on the creative industries that are experience-led in terms of their values and preferences and therefore are likely early advocates and adopters. This enables people and microbes to interact and therefore, increases the potential uptake of the technology through its user-friendly design. The successful proof-of-concept ‘living architecture’ ultimately aims to transform our habitats from inert spaces into programmable sites, taking the form of a modular bioreactor-wall, based on the operational principles of microbial fuel cell technology and synthetic ‘consortia’ of microbes. In the LIAR project no specific, relatable interface was developed that enabled a wider uptake community to ‘see’ what was different about the technology compared with more conventional methods of producing energy such as a fossil fuel-based boiler. The aim of ALICE is to introduce and familiarise an uptake audience of sustainably-minded promotors such as architects, designers, engineers, “green” businesses and their clients, to advocate the use of live microbes as processors of waste within our homes and cities.
Owing to the novelty of the technology, ALICE recognises the need for a “sociable” interface for the advance bioreactor technologies to achieve this relatability, especially if its units are to be incorporated within domestic environments. ALICE is a first-generation bio-digital hardware with flexible digital communicability that is capable of delivering a user experience, which translates the activity of microbes into meaningful encounters with human audiences, establishing a trans-species communications platform. Taking the form of an electronic interface powered by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), with digital connectivity, ALICE draws from sensor data, which is translated into a lively, communicable display that is transferrable to a range of social contexts—from art galleries, to schools, exhibition spaces and festivals.
ALICE itself is a functional building unit that turns feedstock (wastewater and urine) into useable amounts of electricity. It comprises the 4-chamber “living brick” designed in the Living Architecture project, a low-power electronics system (a self-contained electronic controller module that autonomously manages data acquisition, energy management and system operation monitoring) and an “intelligence,” or algorithm that graphically/artistically depicts data changes in the system.
ALICE is therefore configurable according to how many units are used, what feedstock is provided, how the electronics are configured, and software that can be customised to address different contexts, audiences and communications aims.
The aim of the ALICE project was twofold:
a) To increase user acceptability and useability (through digital connectivity) leading to adoption of the Living Architecture “living brick” as a household device and indoor building block
b) To raise the TRL of the Living Architecture “living brick” advance its TRL towards market moving from TRL3-4 to TRL5 through its increased public acceptability and useability.

Summary of ALICE status and road to implementation
At TRL 5 ALICE in its present form is not considered a prototype for immediate productization. Its journey to market is imagined through its formal interrogation through further research grant applications that enable its interrogation through its interface and interaction design with its intended uptake audiences. The present consortium is currently working on further EU grant applications and prototype investment particularly from public venues, although budgets and development opportunities have been significantly compromised by the ongoing lockdowns. That said, the importance of ALICE’s versatility as both material and digital development has been spotlighted by social distancing measures and notions of interaction are being considered in ways that are likely to further increase its potential to continue to build its uptake audiences, especially within design, architecture, and the creative industries as an exemplar for new human/resource interfaces and possibilities.
ALICE is the first bio-digital platform capable of bringing the digital and biological/realms together.

A digitally enabled version of a “brick” from Living Architecture further increases the installation’s accessibility through an interface that facilitates conversations with microbes. This Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment, or ALICE prototype, provides a relatable digital experience based on real-time energy data. The electricity produced informs animations, which are reinforced by online feedback loops that support beneficial exchanges between people and microbes. Establishing foundational principles for bio-digital architectures, these design-led explorations interrogate new frontiers in low-power electronics, materials and robotics. Such limits to consumption of energy, resources and the re-deployment of the matter we call “waste” are critical for stabilising carbon dioxide emissions. Present approaches, including renewables, do little to reduce the thermoeconomic profile of societies, as how societies consume resources is established by past innovation that is propagated through ongoing urban growth. To make an effective impact, our economies must be kept at a steady state while devoting energy production to maintaining civilization, rather than expanding it. Existing fossil-based innovations must also urgently be phased out, and new non-fossil fuel technologies developed (Garrett, Grasselli and Keen 2020). Offering a vital, relevant platform towards achieving these ambitious aims, microbial technologies make effective carbon dioxide emission reduction achievable, while simultaneously promoting liveability and securing fairness for the natural world.