Female Biophilia as Inclusive Innovation: JCU Welcomes Giulia Tomasello
On February 9, 2023, the JCU Department of Communications and Media Studies hosted the Italian interaction designer, Giulia Tomasello, as part of the Spring 2023 edition of the Digital Delights and Disturbances series. She delivered a talk called “Female Biophilia as Inclusive Innovation.” Tomasello is the co-founder of ALMA, an organization that combines biotechnology, design, and anthropology to challenge the taboos surrounding the female body.
The term female biophilia explores how the intersection of science and technology can address women’s intimate care through living organisms and contribute to revolutionizing practices regarding female bodies. Tomasello’s talk was an opportunity to question how we are changing the way we interpret and question the world, biologically and socially. She stated that it is time to choose by what means we want technology to enter all aspects of our lives.
Tomasello received her M.A. in Material Futures from Central Saint Martins in London and began her career as a product designer. She discussed her experience in London, where, through design, she cultivated an interest in science, which subsequently led to a change in her career path. Tomasello presented the 2012 scientific revelation that our bodies contain more bacteria than human cells.
There is, in fact, a symbiotic relationship between our bodies and the environment, which is filled with bacteria. Upon learning about these discoveries, Tomasello felt an urgency to understand them in greater detail, so she began to visit a biohacking open space in London, a lab for amateurs to do hands-on learning. There she learned how to grow and domesticate bacteria.
Tomasello described her fascination with the idea of creating life through colors, forms, and textures. Having acquired this knowledge, she became a biohacker by interfering with the process of life of a living organism. She used this philosophy to design products by creating wearable computing and digital fabrics, mainly made up of bacteria cultivated by agar agar.
To drive her research, Tomasello asked herself “What is human and what is technology?” She explained that, as a woman, the answer to this question must come from a feminist perspective. Tomasello pointed out that conversations around the female body have become a taboo, which grew stronger in the 70s, causing a lot of disconnection among women and their bodies. Consequently, this placed health issues like urinary infections, STIs, vaginal infections, and endometriosis on a silent agenda of topics to not be discussed by women.
As Tomasello stated, “We as females don’t talk about the shame of untreated conditions because of disgust and a socially conceived idea of impurity of the body.” With the fourth wave of feminism, which is based on intersectionality (transfeminism), a change in this ideology must be accomplished, and the use of technology is one of the main factors that will open the space for change.
Tomasello introduced the ways in which she is using technology and biohacking to reconnect women with their bodies and remove the taboos surrounding women’s intimate hygiene. Through the manipulation of bacteria and wearable technology, Tomasello has created two inclusive innovations that help people with a vulva keep their bodies healthy.
The first project presented by Tomasello is based on speculative design, the process of addressing big societal issues with design processes and systems. Future Flora was born in 2016 in London, and its goal is to encourage the symbiotic interaction between humans and bacteria, which increases the healthy presence of germs and bacteria in the human body. It is a kit designed for people with a vulva, which includes a pad made of the agar agar bacteria to prevent female genital infections. With Future Flora, Tomasello seeks to show women how they can heal their bodies through Biophilia, in order to “start to criticize what happens in society and change some parameters.”
Tomasello then talked about her second innovation: ALMA, a social impact project she co-founded with a material scientist (Tomasso Busolo), a medical anthropologist (Isabela Farina), and a nanomaterial scientist (Ryo Mizuta) to create tools that eradicate the taboos around female bodies. Together they are developing a high-tech sensor to monitor the PH of vaginal fluid to help prevent vaginal infection. It uses minerals like gold and silver to build a microprocessor that measures the change in the PH and sends a signal to the user’s phone. Tomasello talked about the importance of women’s opinions in this process, which is why ALMA runs workshops that open conversations to understand what women are doing in terms of their personal hygiene and how they are dealing with these taboos in society.
“The idea is not only to bring technology to a high level of monitoring information contained in vaginal fluids but also to create an atlas of female intimate health through the direct participation of users. Because women are stronger when they can unite and speak out.”
Science and technology have an ever-growing presence. It is up to us to decide whether we want to take control over it and use it as a “delight” or simply allow it to be a “disturbance.” Through her lecture, Tomasello illustrated the possibilities of merging technology with biology to eradicate the stigmatization of the female body.