VivoBiome is a radical vision for a circular, scan-to-print system that reimagines how footwear is designed and made. Vivobarefoot Co-Founder Asher Clark is leading the project, so we sat down for a deep dive into VivoBiome’s roots, possibilities, and (many!) challenges that lay ahead...
So Asher, what’s the problem with shoes?
Put simply, shoes are trashing our feet and our planet. They’re making our feet shoe-shaped and weak, which inhibits natural movement, harms our health, and disconnects us from nature. And around 19 billion pairs end up in landfill every year, produced in complex, overseas supply chains.
Before the industrial revolution, shoes were made person-by-person and foot-by-foot, from natural local materials. But today it's a one-size-fits-all model for mass markets, using complicated ‘subtractive’ processes that generate lots of pre-production waste and have little consideration for what happens at the end of a product’s life. You buy something, use it for a bit, and it goes off to landfill when you’re finished with it. This has a huge environmental cost, and we believe it needs a BIG rethink! Our goal is to create regenerative (net-positive) footwear, but this is near impossible with the current approach to making stuff.
What’s the VivoBiome elevator pitch, in response?
We need footwear (not shoes) that is regenerative to our feet and the planet. But making net-positive products is a huge ask, so it requires a new approach. VivoBiome is a new system, not a new product.
VivoBiome is a radical vision for a scan-to-print, circular, bare-footwear system that completely reimagines how footwear is created. VivoBiome footwear will be made-to-order (on-demand) made to measure (bespoke fit), made locally (on-shore) and made to be remade (circular).
VivoBiome is fast, digital, and additive, which means you only make what you need, when you need it – without waste. In contrast, the ‘Big Shoe’ model is slow, analogue and wasteful. In other words, not fit for feet or the future.
How did the idea take shape?
The Vivobarefoot product mission is to make bare-footwear that’s regenerative to feet, human movement and planetary health. So in this sense VivoBiome is basically a way to make Vivobarefoot’s vision a reality.
We like to say that the best bit of technology to ever go into a shoe is the human foot. But all feet are different, so footwear must be different. Yet the current industrial shoe model only allows one-size-fits-all shoes, because customisation is even slower, more wasteful, and less economical.
However, new technologies are changing this. The combination of mobile foot scanning, VivoBiome’s computational fit-and-design platform (patent pending), 3D-printing, and robotics now makes VivoBiome’s bespoke element possible. This means footwear that’s even better at enabling the barefoot condition and allowing natural movement.
VivoBiome will also use new tools to meaningfully measure and reduce our environmental impact. This will enhance our understanding of how unsustainable our products are, so we can improve them and give customers as much transparency as possible.
We‘ve been talking about 3D-printed footwear for ten years, but the first prototype arrived in 2019. Essentially I scanned my feet on a volumental scanner in the US, flew back to China where we were making our footwear, made a last to my foot, 3D-knitted the sock, and 3D-printed the outsole. Putting them on my feet was a big ‘wow’ moment!
You could feel the difference immediately?
Oh yeah, massive. And there was an emotional connection, too, because the footwear is really made for you. It became an obsession, and the Vivobarefoot mission really wrote the brief. It wasn’t about cool marketing or making a 3D-printed shoe; these technologies genuinely offered a road-map to an enhanced solution. But we are only at the beginning!
So given you have all these technological processes, and want VivoBiome to be a localised model, talk us through the ultimate VivoBiome user experience.
The user experience starts with a foot scan. At this stage you can also get a foot-health MOT and access everything you need for a healthy transition into barefoot. You then go into the ‘footwear configurator’ to pick your preferred style (shoe, sandal etc.), outsole, materials and colours. You can then try your footwear on using augmented reality, to ensure you like it, and alter the fit prescribed by the fit algorithm, if you prefer your footwear a little looser or tighter. It’s all your choice.
VivoBiome will likely be a subscription model that uses loyalty and gamification to encourage you to get out in nature, move better and return your footwear when you’re done to earn credits and access special releases or premium VivoHealth courses – but these are things we will slowly integrate and test.
It’s also important to say that your feet today are probably not the same as your feet in a year. So your feet and movement will be connected to our VivoHealth platform to help you learn about moving better and measure metrics like foot strength and foot morphology along the way.
What stage is all this at?
VivoBiome footwear and the VivoBiome Lab (the digital experience) are both at the initial live prototype stage, and we’re ready to test!
It feels natural to invite our community to help us reimagine the next step for Vivobarefoot. So on 6th July we launched the VivoBiome Pioneer programme in the UK to recruit 200 test pilots to be the first to get their feet in the Biome footwear prototypes and hands on the Biome Lab.
Pioneers will wear test the footwear and feedback on every part of the process, shaping the future of VivoBiome. They will help take us from offering three data-driven width fittings to a fully bespoke fit, from prescribed styles and colour to fully customisable styling, from semi-local manufacturing the vision of locally made, and from testing materials and end-of-life solutions, evolving from recyclability to full circularity. With your help we will change the future of footwear.
Applications are open until 28th July 2023. Follow this link to apply if you’re based in the UK.
VivoBiome is a seriously ambitious project. What are the biggest challenges?
Where do I start! Loads of challenges come with a completely new way of making footwear.
The challenges start with the foot scan, which you can do on your phone via Volumental’s new mobile-foot-scan tool. The trickiest, and perhaps cleverest, bit is the computational stuff that sits behind it. Our proprietary software generates your fit by using multiple data points from over 100,000 feet. At the moment we offer three widths, but future models will be completely customised.
The design part is enabled by patent-pending software that we have built in-house to allow us to create multiple CAD geometries for the outsoles, instantly snap the new computationally driven design to different last or foot shapes, and then directly send to print. This means the whole workflow is digital, accurate and efficient. This forms the foundation of complete customisability for our design and fit ambitions!
On the physical side, 3D-printing isn’t made for mass production, so the additive manufacturing approach needs to be highly efficient, replicable and scalable. Working in partnership with WAZP, we have worked for two years to make the process as efficient as possible for making durable, cost-efficient, replicable products. 3D-knitting the upper is also still challenging, as is robot assembly. This is only the start of how most products will be designed and made in the future – including Vivobarefoot.
The 3D-printing, 3D-knitting and robotic assembly stages are not yet under one roof, but we’re working hard to ensure we will have our first on-shore Biome production cell in 2024. Then coming to a city near you.
That’s a very long way of saying that every aspect of this is ambitious, and the different stages have never been put together before. But we’re lucky to have an incredible internal team in Warren, Dali, Pete, Lee and Jamie – the energy and brains working tirelessly to make our vision a reality. We’re also working alongside a unique group of value-chain partners to bring the vision to life. And, of course, we’re grateful to everybody else at Vivobarefoot and beyond helping to get VivoBiome out into the world.
Who do you hope VivoBiome will influence?
Vivobarefoot aspires to create a business model that is not mechanistic and linear, but more of an ecosystem, with a connected value chain, community and a net-positive impact – on people within Vivobarefoot, on the wider community, and beyond.
VivoBiome isn’t just a new product. It’s a new way, designed with de-growth at the centre. If we’re successful, I hope we can play a part in democratising healthy feet and footwear, and create a deeper connection to nature for millions of people. I also hope VivoBiome will inspire all sorts of organisations that create products and services, physical or digital, to consider how to do things better, work together transparently, and adopt new models that are fit for the future.
How would you love people reading this interview to get involved?
We genuinely believe that the more people that are barefoot, the better the world will be. If you agree, apply to become a Vivobiome Pioneer by 28th July to help shape the future of regenerative bare-footwear. This is only the first step – make it a VivoBiome one!
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Margret Mead