Design is the focus of my thread in the Biopolitics project. You might wonder what design has to do with technologies that may still take years to develop. Biotechnology is not something you would easily encounter in stores. What is there to design? Normally design comes after technological development. Only when the touchscreen was ready, the iPhone was designed. Only when LED lighting was ready, the portable flashlight was created. Right?

Things turn out to be more complicated. Consider the envisioned tablet from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or autonomous concept cars of today. When technology is not yet market-ready, design can guide the direction of development. With visions materialized in futuristic products, technicians are inspired and consumers are prepared.

This is happening with biotechnology as well. Designers are exploring the possibilities of designing life. Some speculative designers aim to ponder about the future through fictional products. Why? With the noble goal to make technology more democratic.

Technology enters through design

Design has a tradition of taming emerging technologies for everyday use. In other words, new technology enters people’s lives through design. Consider the novel steel bending techniques in early 20th century. Through the minimalistic furniture from the Bauhaus, such production technologies entered the house of the common man.

The Wassily armchair by Marcel Breuer

The Wassily armchair by Marcel Breuer

Further on, advancements in the world of electronics translated into household products including shavers, radios and washing machines. A generation later saw the birth of garage inventors like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Under the famous influence of design, computers moved from room-filling mainframes to offices, to living rooms, to pockets. Finally, information technologies for military purposes such as the internet and GPS, were cultivated to end up being the lifelines of people today.

Now, there is a new wild technology to tame. Synthetic biology is a biotechnology that enables the engineering of living organisms. DNA and proteins replace bits and bites; tissue and microorganisms replace plastic and steel. Biotech is predicted to mark the 21st century and current developments affirm such predictions. Read more about the technology in Duuk’s explainer A Revolutionary New Technology.

What will this mean for design? Before biotech enters our lives, it has to be given a shape and a purpose. First, the practice of design will change. To be able to work with living materials, a studio will have to resemble a lab. Second, the design possibilities of biotech have to be explored. What applications are apt? What are new opportunities? Most importantly though, the social, ethical and political implications of the design output change. A bioengineered product might affect current ecosystems, benefit certain social groups or might have other unpredictable or irreversible effects. Is it even right to design life itself? Is it OK to play God?

These are questions that certain designers are already facing. I am hinting at the emerging field of biodesign.

Dutch biodesign

A lab-grown leather jacket, light from bioluminescent bacteria, bulletproof human skin; all examples of projects that can be labelled biodesign. The term roughly encompasses projects where design and biotech come together, but this happens in various ways.

Ambio, a lamp with bioluminescent bacteria, by Teresa van Dongen

Ambio, a lamp with bioluminescent bacteria, by Teresa van Dongen

There are designers who use biotech to make products. Think of the bulletproof skin from
Jalila Essaïdi made from human skin and spider-silk. Or Ambio, the bacteria-lit lamp of Teresa van Dongen. In such projects, designers often collaborate with scientists. Teresa worked together with researchers from Delft, for instance. Other designers take a ‘wet hands’ approach themselves and figure it out independently. The Victimless Leather project brought tissue-generation to the domain of clothing, a field previously unexplored by scientists.

To accommodate wet hands, special open laboratories pop up, called wetlabs. Just like fablabs supply designers and other makers with prototyping tools in plastic, metal and wood; so do wetlabs enable the investigation and manipulation of organic material. Waag Society in Amsterdam aims to bridge science and technology with art. Their Open Wetlab enables anyone – from artist to enthusiast – to experiment with biotechnology.

When combining the implications of biotech with its seemingly accessible practice, you might start asking questions. What if the Open Wetlab enables a bioterrorist to create a virus? These are the kind of issues that a more critical branch of designers thinks about. Speculative design tries to raise questions on the future implications of technologies like biotech. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, the designduo who popularized the term, explain it as follows in their book Speculative Everything:

“Designers can look in to the possible consequences of technological applications before they happen. We can use speculative designs to debate potential ethical, cultural, social and political implications”

Sketching the future

Normally design solves problems, but design does not have to be functional. Speculative design objects are reflective; they make you think. The In Vitro Meat Cook Book presents an extensive menu of recipes for lab-grown meat. These are not yet feasible, but may be common in 10 years. By making future implications of biotech tangible, speculative design facilitates debate. Dunne & Raby argue how this can “move design upstream” in the development process. Instead of coming after development, it aims to influence the direction of development.

'Electrostabilis Cardium', a human heart with an ale's electricity organ. By Agi Haines

‘Electrostabilis Cardium’, a human heart with an eel’s electricity organ. By Agi Haines

Such design shares the goals of art. In fact, exhibitions on bio-art and biodesign feature projects from both sides impartially. It is hard to categorize the self-defibrillating heart by speculative designer Agi Haines, for instance. There exists controversy about the labels – when is something speculative, and when design? – but I’m interested in the project’s effect. Oron Catts from the Victimless Leather project may distance his work from design – as he does in the Synthetic Aesthetics book by biodesigner Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg – still it makes people speculate about the role of biotech in the future of fashion. Therefore, I will use bioart and speculative biodesign interchangeably.

Speculating about the future is not new, think of science fiction literature and movies, but design works differently. First, it engages the user through experience, instead of only visual or textual. Consider, when in a historical museum, the difference between an animation or an archaeological find of a spear. Second, it can lower the threshold for social and ethical debate. Through experiencing it surfaces intuitions, desires, fears more easily than a dry piece of text can do. This is not to say that text can not be effective. Research institutes use vignettes to speculate about technological futures. See for instance these synbio scenarios from the Rathenau Institute. However, these do not often escape the institutes to initiate debate outside.

Speculative biodesign could make biotech more democratic by opening the discussion. Still, who makes sure that this discussion leads somewhere? If people decide they do not want lab-grown jackets, where are their voices heard? In crowdfunding the wish of the people determines whether something is produced. However, biotech seems in need of a platform where people determine whether technology is invented.

In this thread I will focus on such questions. How can speculative design contribute to the democratisation of biotechnology? I want to speak to designers, experts or curators. Do you think speculative design sounds promising?

Gijs de Boer | correspondent Design & Discourse