‘Biodesign for Social Impact’ is a workshop created by Eva Auer, Sean Greaves and Joseph Revans that explores the potential of synthetic biology to radically alter the social and political landscape of the future. The workshop was held throughout the day on Saturday 28th of October at the Student Hotel in Eindhoven as part of the Dutch Design Week 2017 program. The workshop was attended by 35 participants ranging from students, designers and engineers to members of the public.
Participants were introduced to biotechnologies through an activity of world-building. The workshop structure was adapted from causal layered analysis, a future’s research technique that our team found useful in constructing alternate worlds within our ‘UK 2029’ project exhibited within the 2017 Biodesign Challenge. Participants were lead through a process of exploring and deconstructing news and social issues of interest to them. This deconstruction allowed them to reach the underlying archetypal beliefs, myths and metaphors that underpin their chosen social phenomena. Myths and metaphors offer fertile ground for world building and beginning to understand new technologies.
The workshop aimed to explore how myths and metaphors not only serve to characterise technology but shape their development. Participants were introduced to future biotechnologies not only through potential applications but also through the metaphors that are often used to characterise them within the media and science communication. In this way, the technologies could become tools with which to build worlds. Some of the technologies included CRISPR gene editing that offered a technique for the cut and paste of DNA to create mythical hybrid creatures, sentinel plants and chemical detecting mice to patrol borders and engineered bacteria as the chemical factories of the future.
Participants were also encouraged to question the metaphors that underpin our current world where many abstract things such as land, humans and information are characterised as resources to be managed and commodified. Many participants moved towards more symbiotic relations and co-operative kinship between humans and non-humans. These altered relations led to the construction of colourful alternate worlds.
Bioluminescence was envisioned as giving nature’s ecosystems a voice to alert humans to the damage caused by over-fishing or pollution. The potential applications of biosensors within diagnostics led to the suggestion of new healthcare industry in tension with a ruthless pharma-surveillance state. CRISPR gene editing was imagined as being used in real-time to allow people to adapt to their immediate context, likening the human to an operating system with its code constantly being adjusted and developed. Embedded wearables were imagined as allowing for a citizen science platform to understand more about cross-species diseases, such as Alzheimer’s which is also found in dolphins. Equally interesting however were the worlds that struggled to find technological application for social issues such as sexual harassment or the post-truth social media climate. World building encouraged participants to be critical as to whether synthetic biology had any suitable application within their area of interest and equally to speculate on the kinds of design accidents that could result from the technology.