3 Mar 2024

Tackling climate change with bonkers creative ideas: inventor artist Steve Mushin

From Culture 101, 12:30 pm on 3 March 2024
3D printer bird

3D printer bird Photo: Steve Mushin

Habitat-printing robot birds, water-filtering sewer submarines, and flying bikes launched on waste heat thermals are just a few of the 100-plus bonkers ideas artist and industrial designer Steve Mushin is suggesting to our cities to address climate change.

In his first picture book, Ultrawild: an audacious plan to rewild every city on earth, Mushin argues that the climate crisis demands radical creative thinking for our cities.

Mushin began working on the book while employed as a project manager and designer at Ceres Environment Park in Melbourne.

While a team carried out research on composting toilets, he started working on some "whacky ideas" and spin-off projects around composting and waste disposal.


Photo: Steve Mushin

"That's really the genesis of this book - I was working on real-world projects and bit by bit I started developing funny little sketches in the margins, and that developed over time and became the book."

One of the technologies in Ultrawild is a "compost cannon", which collects faeces - or "humanure, as it's described by poo experts" - for use in compost cannonballs.

Some of the waste is used to produce gas, which is then used to propel the cannonballs - which are guided by GPS - into the air.

"[Then we] drop them in the urban environment where we need some nutrients and compost."

Mushin says some of the ideas in Ultrawild are a little ludicrous, but that is what is needed to tackle the issues facing our planet.

The world needs to be transformed "incredibly fast" in the face of climate change and the biodiversity crisis, he says.

"Brain science suggests that being playful with ideas - pushing ideas in your mind, taking an idea, playing around with it, doing back-of-a-napkin calculations, being as playful as possible with that idea, being ludicrous with that idea - is kind of a mental yoga for creativity.

"I think in order to transform our world as fast as we need to, we need to embrace ludicrous ideas - as an exercise for ourselves and to push our creative thinking so that we can rapidly transform cities, so that we can find the ideas we need to change."

The book is being described as a dazzling achievement by leading climate scientist Professor James Renwick.

As well as an exercise in thinking, it is the personal story of Mushin coming to grips with the severity of the devastation occurring to our ecosystems. 

Released in November by Allen and Unwin, Ultrawild won the nonfiction category of the Storylines Notable Book Awards for children and young people in 2023. 

Mushin has also designed the playground sculpture park projects Terra Wonder and Wombalama Wild Garden in Melbourne, which feature colossal mechanical creatures, including a bus-sized millipede.

He was awarded an Australian Design Honours for work in sustainability design education in 2015 and works between Melbourne and Wellington.

Flying Bike

Flying Bike Photo: Steve Mushin