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Why the future of textiles is collaborative

How-to manual from MIT and the Fashion Institute of Technology codifies successful textiles partnership between designers, engineers.
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Illustration of two white sneakers with peach-colored patterned embroidery, with a cellphone in the middle
The MIT-FIT Team Laboratory 56's prototype footwear design enhances longevity and reduces waste.
Image: MIT and FIT
Illustration of a stack of blue books; the one on top has a title of "Transdisciplinary Innovation Playbook"
The Transdisciplinary Innovation Playbook developed by MIT and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)
Image: MIT and FIT

When MIT and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) joined forces to advance textile research and to develop and employ sustainable fabrics of the future, they found that their work was so synergistic that they were compelled to write an instruction manual about their multi-year partnership so that other organizations could replicate their process and benefit from their work.

“Transdisciplinary Innovation Playbook: How to build a virtual workshop that collapses walls between design and engineering and kick-starts collaboration to solve real world problems” codifies the partnership between MIT, FIT, and the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), which supported the work, into something of a template that other institutions can follow in order to develop their own innovative programs.

The playbook — based around MIT and FIT’s design and engineering synergy — is a model for successfully embarking on innovative partnerships. The manual offers step-by-step considerations for how to build interdisciplinary workshops that prepare students to think beyond their specializations and to tackle real-world problems together. It covers how to find an industry partner and what matters in a successful partnership, how to build an effective challenge, how to recruit faculty, how to plan a budget, and how to create a curriculum. “Use our story to write your own,” the playbook encourages.

Multiyear partnership

In 2017, after a meeting between FIT President Joyce F. Brown and MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Joanne Arbuckle, former deputy to the president for industry partnerships and collaborative programs at FIT, and Gregory C. Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT, created a plan to build a bridge between design and engineering — and to help boost the textile industry along the way.

How and why might their two missions merge? MIT scientists are advancing textile research that could change the world, while FIT designers, long renowned for their creativity, are developing the sustainable fabrics of the future. The overlapping synergies seemed destined for collaboration. What unexpected discoveries might occur if these students worked together? FIT and MIT wanted to find out and approached AFFOA to help realize this vision.

The playbook is an outgrowth of the resulting multiyear partnership. Since 2018, students from each institution have participated in three workshops during which they gather in small teams to develop product concepts exploring the use of advanced fibers and fabric technology. The workshops — which have pivoted to a remote experience since the Covid-19 pandemic — have been held collaboratively with AFFOA. AFFOA is a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based nonprofit public-private partnership whose mission is to rekindle the domestic textiles industry by leading a nationwide enterprise for advanced fiber and fabric technology development and manufacturing, enabling revolutionary system capabilities for national security and commercial markets. A key part of AFFOA’s mission is to inspire, prepare, and grow the next-generation workforce for the advanced fiber and fabric industry.

Part of the students’ work has been the opportunity to respond to a project challenge posed by footwear and apparel manufacturer New Balance, a member of the AFFOA network. Students spent their first week in Cambridge learning new technologies at MIT and the second at FIT, working on projects and prototypes.

“Collaboration and teamwork are DNA-level attributes of the New Balance workplace,” says Chris Wawrousek, senior creative design lead in the New Balance Innovation Studio. “We were very excited to participate in the program from a multitude of perspectives. The program allowed us to see some of the emerging research in the field of technical textiles. In some cases, these technologies are still very nascent, but give us a window into future developments.”

Many ideas

Over the years, teams of students have developed innovative and forward-thinking projects that have moved the needle on design and technology. A few examples of the teams are:

  • Team Natural Futurism, which presented a concept to develop a biodegradable lifestyle shoe using natural material alternatives, including bacterial cellulose and mycelium, and advanced fiber concepts to avoid use of chemical dyes;
  • Team CoMIT to Safety Before ProFIT, which explored the various ways that runners get hurt, sometimes from acute injuries but more often from overuse;
  • Team Peacock, which prototyped athletic apparel with color-changing material to highlight an athlete's movement and quickly analyze motion through an app;
  • Team Ecollab, which designed apparel and footwear using PE (polyethylene) and color changing material that is multifaceted and environmentally conscious; and
  • Team Laboratory 56, which created footwear to enhance longevity of product and reduce waste using PE, while connecting with the community through a recycling app program.

“We’re excited to see how the release of this playbook opens up the minds of students across the country to the possibility of working in an interdisciplinary environment, and in advanced textiles. We see a continuing need for a workforce that is agile, innovative, and able to apply higher-order thinking to develop the future of the industry, and believe this playbook will play a part in that development,” says Sasha Stolyarov, CEO of AFFOA.

“These kinds of partnerships are so valuable for both teams — the design students get to work in a team environment engaging in the latest technologies, while the engineering students use their creativity in a new way,” says Arbuckle. “So if the MIT/FIT collaboration can be a model for other institutions to do something similar, then these kinds of interactions and the invention of products they create together can help define our future.”

“When designers and engineers come together and open their minds to creating new technologies that ultimately will impact the world, we can imagine exciting new multi-material fibers that reveal a new spectrum of applications,” says Yuly Fuentes, MIT Materials Research Laboratory project manager for fiber technologies. “Being able to share what we’ve learned through this playbook brings this process to a different level and makes it possible that this kind of thinking will become more widespread.”

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