It may not be the prettiest showpiece at the MAK Design Lab in the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in Vienna, but it's the thought that counts. UCT's world-first bio-brick, made using human urine, is there to get people thinking - and talking - about sustainable change.
The museum focuses on crafts and design as well as architecture and contemporary art. The exhibition is linked to the Vienna Biennale 2019 theme "Brave new virtues. Shaping our digital world".
The bio-brick, created in Dr Dyllon Randall's lab in the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Department of Civil Engineering, signalled an innovative paradigm shift in waste recovery when it was unveiled by master's student Suzanne Lambert last year.
It's now on loan to the Vienna museum for four years and arrived on time for the exhibition's 28 May opening. The exhibition is being hosted in the museum's MAK Design Lab, a floor dedicated to contemporary design production. The bio-brick is among the many objects the curators have borrowed from contemporary designers, artists, technology researchers and others.
The lab has positioned design as a driving force in sustainable change.
"The MAK Design Lab is ultimately trying to enhance the development of a resonant relationship with our world," said the organisers.
"The MAK Design Lab is ultimately trying to enhance the development of a resonant relationship with our world."
This is well demonstrated by UCT's bio-brick, which is created through microbial carbonate precipitation, a natural process not unlike the way seashells are formed. But the brick uses real human urine with "significant consequences for waste recycling and upcycling", said Randall, a senior lecturer in water quality engineering.
When the bio-brick was unveiled last year, the museumʼs curators took note and sent Randall an invitation. Urine features in several of the pieces on show, which have been exhibited in a cluster.
The intention, said the curators, is to get viewers, artists, designers and creators thinking about the weighty questions around our impact on the future: How do we need to change our habits and consumption patterns to positively influence the health and development of nature and civilisation? What is the fabric of the future? Which production methods will still make sense tomorrow? What should we produce in a post-growth society and how can we succeed in consuming in a fair, sustainable and meaningful way?
Randall's work attempts to answer many of these questions by challenging the status quo of our modern sanitation systems. His postgraduate students are already working on other novel uses of urine.
"Thinking outside the box has resulted in many innovative products and who knows what else the team will produce from human urine?" he said.