Artist and designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is asking all the right questions. Can biology be designed and if so what role can designers play in the eventual outcome? The role of design in such a world is huge, and integral to how it evolves.
In many ways synthetic biology is simply a new approach to genetic engineering. Potentially it will have an enormous impact on biodiversity and conservation. “It aims to makes biology predictable, repeatable and programmable” says Ginsberg who will be in Amsterdam on the 8th and 9th May to present her research at the What Design Can Do conference.
Much of the criticism targeting designers for their experimentation with the future is that it is purely fictitious. Even the technology employed to achieve results is fanciful. But the point is to highlight possibilities and to create stories around how a future world can be created and used. “Nobody should be limited to what is only possible now,” Ginsberg says. “A wide selection of approaches can only ever be useful.”
What’s critical is that the design discussion start early in the process of synthetic biology development. In other words, before the future is here. Controlling biology, or at least turning it into a system, needs a design framework. How will it look and work? How will it be used?
“The are so many questions about possibilities and ethics that need to be explored now,” says Ginsberg. “One way to do that is to start early using fictions.”
Of course scientists and engineers attack these issues with a completely different way of thinking. “But it is the crashing together of approaches that makes things interesting and moves things forward,” Ginsberg says. “Via that we discover new possibilities and interesting ways of solving problems. What these experiments reveal is how design can function in the imagining and making of things.”
And the issue is not that none of the design or art projects surrounding synthetic biology are (yet) real. What is being discovered are opportunities and it is only through experimentation that one can discover how design can help to imagine the way forward. “This is really unusual,” says Ginsberg, “because in the past designers have entered the process downstream, but now we can be a part of the very earliest investigations.”
On a practical level, for example, material investigations involving designers have obvious benefits. Knowing and contributing to new materials – its properties, potential and limitations – can have a huge impact on how they are eventually used.
“I also think fictions help close the gap between science and society,” says Ginsberg, “and they are often seen as separate, which really limits any real participation.”
The issue of ethics is also a big one in the early stages of technological developments. “Laws and regulations controlling biotechnological distribution exist,” Ginsberg says, “but discussion about what is and is not ethical also stems from these early and sometimes fictitious experiments. Take iPhones, for example. They are not really ethical when you look beyond the product to the supply chain. Being ethicalt is not only about sustainability, but also ownership and production.”
How these new sorts of laws are written also require a type of design because a lot of it is about anticipation. “Can regulations keep up with technology?” asks Ginsberg. “How do you design a law that can capture change?”
And of course it is not just bio-ethicists who can have this conversation, but designers and artists too.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature will be published by MIT Press. Tomorrow night (Friday 25th April) the V&A Friday Late will present the book, its co-authors and transform the V&A into a living laboratory, bringing science and design together for one night of events, workshops and installations, each exploring our biological future. Ginsberg will also be in Amsterdam to present at What Design Can Do.