Animals and plants are no longer heralded as autonomous entities but rather as biomolecular networks composed of the host plus its associated microbes, i.e., "holobionts."

Refers to both the material aspects of urban living and the cultural aspects of city life.

Holobiont Urbanism is a research endeavor that sets out to study, map, and visualize the microbiome of New York City, inviting participants to reimagine the city they live in as more than a vast metropolis, but rather as a complex and adaptive biological superstructure. Quantitative and artistic methods are used to produce data visualizations that are the basis for a data art installation created by using thermal imaging to capture a live video stream of streets in New York, web-based 3D technologies to artistically render the video, and a design aesthetic crafted from a scientific framework. The project seeks to distort the participant’s perception of the known reality so as to see the city through the lens of the microbial world. Once aware of the companion species that live among us, on us, and in us, participants may begin to review what it means to be human and their relationship to their bodies and to their urban environments.

“Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is something very different; it’s about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline—a specific field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods.”

–Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab

Neri Oxman, Journal of Design and Science, jods.mitpress.mit.edu

A team of engineers, scientists, designers, artists, and technologists.


Princpial Investigator
Playful Systems
MIT Media Lab

Project Lead
Hive Engineer
MIT Media Lab

World/Data Analysis
Parsons DT

Species Design
Extrapolation Factory

DNA Sequencing
Cooper Union

DNA Sequencing
Weill Cornell

Chief Science Advisor
Weill Cornell

Bees as citizen scientists.

Custom bee hives are deployed on New York City roof-tops.

Trays at the bottom of the hives allow scientists to extract bee detritus without disrupting the hive. The bees are never disturbed or hurt - they are true collaborators.

Animation by Miguel Perez

Partnering with apiarists in Brooklyn and Queens.

Bees travel about 1.5 miles from their hives, but always return, so we can see what environmental interactions they have in these neighborhoods.

Scientists collect metagenomic samples.

Metagenomics is the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples. These samples are taken from the hive, bees, honey, and bee wax. The scientists then purify the samples in their lab to extract DNA.

DNA from the bee samples are
sequenced using shotgun next-generation sequencing technology.

Scientists remove all the bee DNA from the data and analyze only the remaining DNA to see what microbial life exsits in the environment in the neighborhoods.

Illustration by Miguel Perez

Taxonomical mapping by neighborhood.

The maps show the microbial "fingerprint" of each neighboorhood and can visually hightlight their unique quality.

Data visualization reveal
microbial links between neighboorhoods.

And can begin to highlight the differences to show which species are unique to a neighboorhood.

We can peer into the microbial world using a Nanotronics microscope.

How can we bring the microbial world to life to put turn the microscope onto the city?

A design aesthetic crafted from a scientific framework.

Microbes perceive their the world through
temperature. Using a thermal camera,
videos are taken of streets in New York.
Each species of microbe thrives in its own
optimal temperature range.

Taking inspiration from computational fluid
dynamics in biological systems, flow fields
are used to model the movement of urban
microbial species. Microbes are then mapped
to the scene based on temperature.
More flow fields here.

The video is rendered on a 3D mesh to
bring depth into the scene. The absence
of color reflects that microbes do not
“see” color as humans do. Applying a
microbial depth of field, only objects
that are near can be perceived.

“There is a vast negative space around us, and we think it’s empty, the same way we imagined life before germ theory. It’s not empty. It’s more alive than anything we build. This is a project in shifting what Foucault called 'the liminal horizon' so that you understand the whole world differently when you look away from what we’ve shown you.”

–Kevin Slavin