Guest post by Jestin George
The Biodesign Challenge (BDC) was created in 2015 as a competition and education program that partners classrooms with scientists, artists, and designers to develop projects that envision how biotechnology might be used to solve global challenges. Each year, teams of students represent their university or school at the BDC summit held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There they present their projects before esteemed judges from academia, the arts, and industry to compete for prizes.
This year there were 36 teams from nine countries and the audience of guests, invited speakers and judges included Leslie Mitchell (co-founder of NeoChromosome), Natsai Audrey Chieza (founder of Faber Futures), Antonio Regalado (senior editor of MIT Technology Review), and Sarah Richardson (CEO of MicroByre) to name a few.
But what is biodesign? Like synthetic biology, defining it is a difficult balancing act between being both accurate and inclusive of the broad range of research it encompasses. In his recent book entitled Biodesign (2018), William Myers describes it as an emerging practice of integrating biological processes into design and architecture. Here, neither design nor science is more superior; the design intention cannot be tacked on as an afterthought and, equally, the science cannot be founded on false assumptions.
Many science advocates, such as Dr Jen Gunter and Dr Ben Goldacre, rightly communicate how evidence-based practices and critical thinking are the bedrock of science. However, even scientifically validated products are not always used as intended or appropriate for their application. This is because humans are complicated. We form sentimental belief systems around concepts like money and power and we don’t always do what is technically best for us, as evidenced by our lack of response to the climate crisis – experts have told us what changes are needed, but implementing these changes is less straightforward than just using less plastic or cutting down our carbon emissions. Even if we develop all the scientific capacities to cope with climate change, or any other life-betterment technologies as intended by most synthetic biology research goals, rolling them out into the real world presents a new set of challengers.
Designers can help address this difficulty. Like scientists, designers develop work through iterations and face many failures. Unlike scientists, however, designers’ iterations closely consider user experience and cultural contexts. Designers are trained to explore, play and develop scenarios. As a result, they are more likely to take into account nuance, accessibility and aesthetic. Much of the time, scientists will only come into contact with artists and designers at the end of the development process to communicate their science in an aesthetically pleasing and accessible way. While this is also important, it is certainly not the quintessence of this relationship.
If we really expect developments in biotechnology and synthetic biology to revolutionize industries, we need to take these technologies out of their academic silos and teach them to non-scientist professionals for scenario development and user-centered design outcomes. Similarly, designers need to be properly educated about the possible future biotech tools they could be designing with, such as spider silk produced from yeast for textiles or using bacteria as a sustainable dyeing alternative. It is not about turning designers into scientists, but rather about avoiding designs based on false scientific assumptions.
In our classroom at University of Technology Sydney, we aimed to create a space for design students (ranging from product design, visual communication and fashion design) to explore the possibilities of synthetic biology and genetic engineering. We based our brief for the course on the recent publication by Llorente et al. (2018). These authors suggested synthetic biology would be a crucial component of long-term life of Mars because of the potential to make products on-site, instead of shipping everything needed from Earth. After a 12-week semester, we selected one group of students to showcase their design and represent UTS at the BDC summit. Their project, entitled Death on Mars, used the speculative design context of humans living on Mars in 2130, and was awarded the Outstanding Presentation Prize.
All 36 schools set up installations to showcase their projects and prototypes in an exhibition entitled Life in Reply. There the students were able to engage with the judges and members of the public, including Christina Agapakis (creative director of Ginkgo Bioworks) and Julius Tenenbaum (pictured), an eleven-year-old New-Yorker, who attended the exhibition with his dad.
The Overall Prize was awarded to Universidad de los Andes in Columbia, whose project addressed a real-world problem facing people in remote areas of their home country: They developed a refrigeration system that harnesses energy from proteins from Pseudomonas syringae, a bacterium that infects many species of plants. Their product, Pseudofreeze, could be used to deliver heat-sensitive items, like vaccines, with no batteries or outside power source. A trio of US high-schoolers from The Nest Makerspace were the runners-up. Their project aimed to move the toy industry away from non-biodegradable plastics by exploring alternative materials, namely kombucha leather and mycelium. They showed an incredible amount of product development and user-research by testing their prototypes with families and children in workshops, for which they won the Outstanding Field Research prize.
As we move towards a future where biotechnologies are becoming more feasible in the real world (at times without due regulation), interdisciplinary fields such as biodesign are vitally important. Scientists, ethicists and regulators alone cannot handle how we explore these new technologies and their implications. If we want DNA-based technologies to deliver on bioeconomies, sustainable manufacturing and precision medicines, we need to democratize this knowledge. Citizen science initiatives are an important part of this, as are science engagements with the public, such as Science Week’s held across the world. However, we also need to provide access to this knowledge to other non-scientific experts, particularly, artists and designers. This also helps in preventing highly dichotomous views (like pro-GMO verses anti-GMO), and dealing with the “facts don’t change minds” conundrum. Artists and designers play a significant role in bringing nuanced discussions about these sometimes-contentious topics into the public arena.
Biodesign is a highly interdisciplinary field and therefore depends on initiatives like the Biodesign Challenge to bring diverse groups together. Various synthetic biology communities across the world understand that artists and designers should be valued members of their communities. However, successfully immersing artists and designers into synbio research spaces is still very new. It requires breaking boundaries of established systems and navigating new territories. While this brings about unique challenges, it is crucial for the success of a future that embraces synthetic biology.
Visit biodesignchallenge.org to see projects and follow teams’ progress. Save June 18-19, 2020 for Biodesign Challenge’s fifth anniversary Summit.
Jestin George is a PhD student at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), working on genetically engineering the diatom, Phaeodactylum tricornutum, for applications in biotechnology. Together with Dr Mark Liu and Dr Briardo Llorente, Jestin taught the first UTS biodesign course. She is also a self-taught artist and designer who was mentored by South African artist, Julia Rosa Clark. Read more about her work here, or connect with her on Twitter.