Content type: Article
Source: 'Editorial: Other Biological Futures' The Journal of Design and Science, Edition 4, MIT Press

Credits: Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (artist) and Natsai Audrey Chieza (designer)
Year: 2018

Biology isn’t inherently good, safe, or kind. By imagining that biotechnology will help solve sociopolitical problems, we risk missing the opportunity to identify big, systemic changes that may be a more appropriate fix.
Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg​ and Natsai Audrey Chieza​, 'Editorial: Other Biological Futures'

Over the past decade, artist Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza have been exploring the potential implications of fusing science, design and art practices. As early pioneers of the current interest in biodesign, the authors are heavily invested in the ability of this field to contribute positively to the world of design, and to the world at large. However, in their editorial for Other Biological Futures, the fourth edition of the Journal of Design and Science they unpack the simple narrative of biodesign as an environmental saviour to explore its economic, colonial and historical entanglements. In this way they reveal the potential danger of biodesign replicating problematic and harmful industrial manufacturing systems. Whilst pointing to the problematics of biodesign, they also hint that there is hope by proposing that we can radically reimagine new futures for and through biodesign if we reconsider the questions we ask. Other Biological Futures, includes conversations between a vast array of practitioners with contrasting viewpoints reveal complex and nuanced discussions of how biodesign operates today and how it can develop for the future.

Excerpt from Editorial: Other Biological Futures

Medical devices embedded deep in human flesh. Mushrooms growing designer chairs. Engineered probiotic bacteria colonising the guts of soldiers. Implants; fungal factories; bacteria. All three are 'biodesigns', yet each is a product of a very different discipline: biomedical engineering, design, and synthetic biology. Over the last twenty years, each field has in turn claimed the fusing of biology and design as their own. If design is humanity’s process for changing present conditions to other, preferred ones (to paraphrase political scientist Herbert Simon), then biodesign—which we broadly define here as the design of, with, or from biology—offers novel perspectives on what change could look like, for ourselves and other living things. Altered or designed by humans, these organisms could populate 'other biological futures; possible futures different to those dictated by our planet’s naturally evolved present.


Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Designing for the Sixth Extinction (2013-15) uses fiction to explore the real dialogue between the conservation and synthetic biology communities about engineering organisms to save existing, “natural” ones. Credit: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Natsai Audrey Chieza cultures bacteria to print textiles. This garment was specifically designed and pattern cut to be dyed by Streptomyces coelicolor, and made during her residency at Ginkgo Bioworks in 2017. Credit: Natsai Audrey Chieza/Faber Futures.

While specialist fields like synthetic biology—a new approach to genetic engineering—have made the design of biology more precise than ever, the design of, with, or from biology isn’t new. From crops to cattle, developing and refining living organisms through selective breeding is a 10,000-year-old practice. Industrial fermentation is a well-honed tool for converting biology into foodstuffs or commodity compounds. Major global industries routinely transform biomass into flat-pack furniture, cotton T-shirts, and vanilla flavourings. However, biodesign fans are today repackaging biodesign, describing it as an ecological remedy, a technological breakthrough, an economic opportunity, and a manufacturing and industrial revolution. For this issue, we question whether biodesign can deliver the accompanying social transformation that those dreams imply, and explore how it might otherwise begin to challenge modern industrial, social, and economic paradigms.

Adopting this more social rather than technological perspective on biodesign allows us to include within it a wide range of activities and people, from traditional to contemporary processes that use low-tech or high-tech methods, practiced by scientists to farmers in labs, factories, studios, and homes. Two questions unite their work: 'Can biology do this better?’ And, 'How will using biology change things for the good?’ This approach provokes thinking about what 'good’ biodesign might look like, and what other kinds of potential biological futures could exist, which we hope this issue begins to sketch out.

The growing interest in biodesign is driven by a range of factors. One is rising concern about the ecological and social effects of the Anthropocene, humanity’s ever-more-visible impact on Earth, alongside the equally visible failure of earlier green movements to mobilise change. This paradox is increasingly complicating for the contemporary industrial design profession, since capitalism requires a continuous cycle of production and consumption to keep designers in work. World-saving circular design efforts like cradle-to-cradle design were promulgated by some designers and industries in the early 2000s, alongside biomimicry and circular economy efforts that some now consider as essential for meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. For designers, this zeitgeist was captured by curator William Myers, who in 2012 titled his popular design book Bio Design, presenting biology as a new, sustainable tool for designers. This burgeoning movement celebrates alternative ways to make things, such as growing biodegradable packaging materials for consumer products.

An icon of biodesign for the design world, Erik Klarenbeek’s Myceliumchair chair, built from 3D-printed living mycelium. Credit: Studio Klarenbeek & Dros.

Today, enthusiasts of technosciences like synthetic biology also promise that their technology can help to deliver more sustainable or circular economies. The question 'Can biology do it better?' is not just a desire to remediate polluting industries, biodesign also means harnessing self-replicating manufacturing systems that could reinvent industrial processes more widely.

Engineered bacteria at Ginkgo Bioworks’ organism foundry. Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks.

In advanced technological societies like the US and UK, the technological, economic, and geopolitical potential of this imagined bioeconomy is driving investment in the sciences, from state to corporate interests. One example is Bolt Threads, a US biotechnology company defining a new paradigm for industrial biodesign. Bolt Threads feeds sugar to its engineered yeast to produce spider silk protein, which is spun into yarn. Presenting itself as a design-led business, Bolt Threads does not look like a typical life science corporation: from its products, to the company it acquired to scale its capabilities, to its partnerships, and its focus on the consumer in the messaging and design of its products.

A glossy PR campaign launched Bolt Threads’ first product in 2017, when its limited edition knitted silk tie—the male business wardrobe staple—adorned the necks of male and female influencers, including footballers, actors, and fashion bloggers. Later that year, Bolt Threads purchased the aspirational outdoor lifestyle brand, Best Made Co., purveyor of artisanal axes and designer camping gear, which embrace the imaginary of the American wilderness or frontier explorer. While the acquisition may seem incongruous, Bolt Threads clearly recognised that synthetic biology could do more than simply make 'drop-in replacement' molecules that replace petrochemical equivalents: synthetic biology could create value even in the carefully spun fashion market, despite a widespread public aversion to genetically modified organisms.

Bolt Threads’ campaign images for the launch of their limited edition spider silk tie in 2017. Credit: Bolt Threads.

Best Made’s first commercial products under Bolt Threads was a $198 wool-spider silk mix beanie hat. Its second, the $498 Nyala Knife With Microsilk™ Handle, demonstrates a silk-based composite as a plastic alternative. Bolt Threads’ bioengineered silk has also led to partnerships with Stella McCartney and Patagonia; both brands that are seen as innovators in sustainable fashion, helping Bolt Threads span the luxury to mass-market continuum. As Bolt Threads transforms its materials into prototypes and limited edition products designed to attract investors and stakeholders, which help build an industry, they inadvertently set the stage for the kinds of products and markets that follow. These early biodesigns test and scale product typologies, methods of production, and distribution models. But as with all designs, they are neither socially, politically, nor environmentally neutral. Silk ties and camping knives, dresses and hiking gear; these objects interact with social values and cultural legacies.

Whether it’s Bolt Threads’ biosilk plastic, other companies’ promises of lab-grown 'clean' meat ousting ecologically-damaging factory farming, or the development of less toxic textile-dyeing processes to mitigate the impact of fast fashion, drop-in replacements serve to make us feel better about our polluting lifestyles. However, what remains unresolved is the space in which these alternatives still operate—the capitalist system that demands continual growth—no matter the costs. The over-consumption that industrial design is predicated upon today is under increasing scrutiny. By designing with biology, start-ups like Bolt Threads can potentially challenge how consumer products are made, their life cycles, and enhance the performance of materials that could improve product lifespans. Scaling these technologies to reduce environmental impact, these new bioindustrialists still need to access the same instruments of capital and consumption that inhibit systemic change. Herein lies the uncomfortable paradox: whose role is it to link new industrial processes with systemic economic, social, and political change?

If we fail to create this link as new industries emerge, we may simply shift reliance from petrochemicals to other carbon-based feedstocks like sugar for the production of materials, medicines, and commodities. Conceptually, drop-in replacements limit the scope for imagining alternatives, while driving innovation through products alone means that we sidestep decoupling wealth creation from resource consumption. Simply updating traditional products with potentially transformative technologies still reinforces current systems and markets, and their ecological impacts, rather than reinvent them as promised.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Bolt Threads’ pragmatic prototypes lie the seemingly radical biodesign solutions that we encounter in the press, movies, or design exhibitions: growing houses that adapt to our needs, glowing trees that replace street lamps, or bubbling algae-filled façades. In all of these futures technology is supposed to save us from ourselves. But when the intensive requirements of maintaining life may not make a façade greener than a low-tech vernacular architecture, and glowing trees may modify ecosystems in other, potentially harmful ways, are these interventions actually radical? Have we correctly diagnosed the problem, which may be located in our desires, not in our technologies? How do we separate the fantastical imagination from radical re-imagination?

Biology isn’t inherently good, safe, or kind. By imagining that biotechnology will help solve sociopolitical problems, we risk missing the opportunity to identify big, systemic changes that may be a more appropriate fix. Making stuff with biological systems simply for the sake of making stuff will likely lead to a future similar to the present, with the same ecological and social issues. That approach exposes a limit of imagination of what biodesign could be used for. Asking how do we move forward means contemplating what we want forward to mean. How do we imagine other biological futures? Do the futures we want to see justify humans designing other living things? Since we are part of nature, and can’t live without it, what relationship with nature do we want, and what will we get? What relationship with other humans would those futures enable? Who should we ask? Who gets to ask? Can biology show us other ways to imagine?

A speculative image of glowing units by French start-up Glowee, who are working on engineering marine micro-organisms for light sources. Credit: Glowee.