Workshop Design meets Synthetic Biology

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. 

Published bog post HERE (shorter 😉 )



Recent advances in synthetic biology, together with a renewed interest in engaging with living materials, 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.

Our initial questions were : How could access to biological materials be facilitated to artists and designers ? What are the abstractions and models adopted in synthetic biology, and how do they influence materials, access and new designs ? Could artists and designers contribute to create new representations of synthetic biology ? What are the narratives and facts in synthetic biology and how do they influence design and art practice ? What changes when we consider living organisms as a material for 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 facet 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’. They were encouraged to think about appropriate tools, models, collaborations at different stages of the process. We wanted to identify and define what we called ‘black boxes’: the steps which are too abstract when you don’t have specific scientific knowledge, when the key of complex mechanisms have not been discovered yet or when you don’t have the appropriate tools to design living organism.


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. Going through this iterative process on different objects and with different partners we wanted to extend the potential outcomes and encourage discussions between the different participants. We were expecting the participants to grasp the challenge of designing with life, which also means dealing with evolution, to explore what it means to live and design for a world where things have a life of their own, and where the lives of things become integrated with human practices constructing new everyday rituals. We also wanted to observe if the interaction with the surrounded environment and broader impacts on the ecosystem would be taken into consideration or if the debate would stay around the design of the object, as well as is the morning discussions would have an impact on the design process they will go through.



The first observation would be that as we did not particularly emphasise that to make a link between the morning exercise and the afternoon one, and as the groups were different we did not noticed an obvious link between the two. Moreover, by asking to redesign common everyday object using synthetic biology we constrained the participants to add value to something which has been designed and re-designed for centuries. We made this decision to avoid frustration of not coming up with new concepts, and to give a starting point for discussions. However, at the same time we prevented to come up with innovative design ideas. It was a safe choice, nevertheless we have to open to the idea that what synthetic biology is going to bring to society brand new concepts and products that have not been developed yet and not only going to add value to existing concepts like it is currently (cheese made from engineered yeast, biosensor, fuel…). To arrive to this stage we will have to develop innovative ways to design, new tools and methods. Design with this invisible material which is DNA is not something which will come intuitively and we have to accept to go beyond traditional methods.
This field at the intersection of engineering and biology is opening new perspective and practice in term of new material: engineering a living organism such as yeast to make it produce a new substance, or engineering a living organism and use it as a product. Consideration of environment, nutrition, evolution, waste management… would have to be taken into account. Again, by asking during the workshop to re-design every-day life objects we tend to concentrate on the traditional form and function and forget about broader issues tied up to working with life.

Genetic material is a complex material to work with, experiments are complicated and our limited knowledge of genomes make positive outcome difficult to get. DNA design is about trials, error and assumption which make it currently only accessible to biologists. This is why some expert in the field see in robotics and computing the way to go in order to democratise synthetic biology: control of the optimal condition, experiments can be reproduced easily, combinatorial is made available at lower cost enabling to try large combinaisons of design in order to find the most effective one…



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.

Finally, another concern was about the trendy topic since the Human write project has been announced: are we ready to design humans? Are designer going to be involved in the process ? And if yes, as we have already product design, web design, interaction design… is a new field going : human design ?

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.