Design meets Synthetic Biology
Research associate @ Design Informatics
Edinburgh, Scotland 2017
On 12th July 2016, we (Larissa Pschetz and I) organised the Design meets Synthetic Biology workshop, where we invited biologists, engineers, designers, artists and social scientists to design domestic artefacts through the lenses of synthetic biology, also considering issues of representation, access and perception of this emerging field.
Recent advances in synthetic biology, together with a renewed interest in engaging with living material, have motivated designers to question traditional ways of carrying out and understanding their practice. As designers start to consider materials that evolve, through time and as part of complex ecosystems, issues of form, function, user needs, as well as ideas of modernity and progress start to lose their traditional centrality. To explore novel design methods we invited biologists, engineers, designers, artists and social scientists to participate in a workshop to discuss issues of representation, access and perception of synthetic biology. We were particularly interested in exploring how synthetic biology could be affected and influenced by arts and design.
We divided the workshop into 3 sessions. The first one was a series of Pecha Kuchas from participants representing the different disciplines. It was meant to allow everybody to grasp the multidisciplinary aspect of synthetic biology, open new perspectives and discussion on synthetic biology and give scientific insights to participants not familiar with the subject.
It was followed by a first exercise called: Representations and Processes. We asked the participants to discuss and sketch the process they would go through when designing from DNA to a ‘thing’.
The second exercise was a design challenge. We asked the participants to redesign three objects: a knife, a blanket and a clock using synthetic biology and following a design process: brainstorming on attribute and function of the object, sketch and prototype with provided craft material.
One of the concern raised during the closing discussion was that the design proposal where again using synthetic biology to tackle the symptoms of problems instead of the roots. The participant was reacting to one of the ideas developed by a couple of different teams: blankets for homeless people. She rightly noticed that design would often be developed to improve a bad situation without resolving the core of the issue. A good usage of synthetic biology might be to tackle the core of issues instead of addressing symptoms.
In parallel of this exercise, we made individuals interviews of some of the participants. We asked them to share their vision of the future synthetic biology, their hope and fears… It resulted of two short video clips, giving an overview of the range of practitioners gravitating around the discipline. The long version (18m10s) is aimed to be used as an exhibition piece. The shorter version (6min14s), is to publicise the workshop, be shown during lectures and presentations.
The outcomes of this workshop inspired a dedicated exhibition called “Living with Living things” taking place at the Edinburgh Art Festival and Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival from the 4th to the 28th August on George Street. It will be part of the the exhibition “Living with Data: Design Informatics” hosted in the the Pavilion commissioned structure by Pierre Forissier from Biomorphis Architects houses.