Design thinking can be used across industries to produce some really cool end results. Sometimes, the field can be totally unexpected — take space exploration, for example. The Space Exploration Initiative at the MIT Media Lab is combining design principles to fast-forward innovation:

We’re trying to actively prototype our sci-fi space future. Look at Star Trek or Star Wars, these fantastical sci-fi visions of the space future. We’re at a point now where at MIT and elsewhere, we’re able to actually build and test those kinds of technologies.

These are the words of Ariel Ekblaw, a PhD candidate and founder of the Space Exploration Initiative. She sat down with me to discuss their fascinating work. They combine talent from a myriad of fields — uniting scientists, engineers, artists, and designers — to create a “design-oriented future of space exploration.”

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Ariel will also be speaking at the Design Thinkers track at TNW Conference next week. She’ll dive deeper into how design thinking can be harnessed in outer space.

Sci-fi becomes real through design thinking

Ariel’s own project TESSERAE creates self-assembling and reconfigurable magnetic plates that snap together in zero-gravity, to create habitable structures in space.

Ariel tells me how the shape of TESSERAE’s magnetic plates are based on the design principles of architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, referred to as a Buckyball:

The idea is to bring the concept of geodesic domes from Earth up into orbit, so it’s very much inspired from this design principle. And recognizing at the same time that the Buckyball is a carbon-60 structure that occurs naturally in nature. So a lot of the science that I reference in TESSERAE is also drawn from that side, marrying the design and the science approaches.

Her project also takes advantage of the unique affordances of zero-gravity:

TESSERAE is fundamentally a habitat. That’s the goal, to be a next-generation space station in orbit around the Earth or Mars. That means that from the very beginning, I have to be thinking about the design affordances for zero-gravity. What does it mean to operate and assemble a space habitat in zero-gravity? Well, TESSERAE makes unique use of its affordances, so it comes together — it self-assembles — in a way that it would not be able to do in the presence of gravity. What you can imagine is the different tiles that create this Buckyball, this tessellated sphere, are separate. They’re tossed together, allowed to swirl around each other, and because they have magnets on their edges, they find each other and they bond together.

Credit: Ariel Ekblaw