Biology – and life with it – is being transformed into a twenty-first century material for design. Through synthetic biology, a future is being constructed accompanied by the grand rhetoric of a world changing, world-saving technology. How are these beliefs defined and evaluated, and whose ‘better’ ultimately shapes our common biological future?
While synthetic biologists come from fields as diverse as engineering, biology, and computer science, its pioneers see it as an applications-based design discipline of the future, rooted in engineering. As a developing field with, as yet, little precedent or fixed role for design itself, it is a valuable space to test ideas.
Rather than focusing on solving problems, experimental approaches in design are seeking to ask new questions. The Synthetic Aesthetics project between Stanford University and the University of Edinburgh, funded by the NSF and the EPSRC, has built an international program bringing artists and designers into collaborations with synthetic biologists to research together what it means to ‘design nature,’ and how we might design it well. The social and ethical implications become inseparable from the applications.
Synthetic biological research is often underpinned by a desire ‘to make the world a better place.’ Can design take a useful role ‘upstream,’ where futures are being built, to help seek out ‘better’ questions about the future? Why do this? We need not only to solve the problem, ‘how do we make algae make fuel?’ but to look at the question. This means designing ways to use less fuel, but also imagining alternatives that don’t need fuel. This is where novel, ethical innovation may emerge.
The Design Council notes that, “eighty percent of the environmental impact of the products, services, and infrastructure around us is determined at the design stage.” By affecting the direction a technology takes at a much earlier stage than problem solving, can we use design of all kinds to truly alter the future?
by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg – GGCS enriching life session speaker and panellist
Design Fellow on Synthetic Aesthetics, Stanford University and University of Edinburgh