This is part one of a three-part series written by the judges of the upcoming IxDA, Interaction Design Awards. Submissions close October 1, 2012.
The gentle sea breeze tickles your face as the sun ripples off a perfect blue ocean. Lazing by the shores of a tiny island, deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you are enjoying a quiet holiday. Nothing out of the ordinary—except that this island might have been forged entirely from waste plastic found buried in the depths of our oceans, fabricated not by humans but genetically modified plastic-eating bacteria.
This unthinkable idea has its roots in a proposal for the iGEM competition by a team of teenage students at UCL. They are looking to find genes from organisms that have plastic degradation properties, and then insert them into marine bacteria. If they succeed, these new plastic-eating marine bacteria could be a "natural" solution for the millions of tons of tiny bits of plastic floating in our oceans. They could then become microscopic construction workers, building artificial plastic islands.
The UCL team is one of the 193 student teams from around the world participating in iGEM, the Olympics of synthetic biology. Using a selection of DNA-encoding elements from an online registry combined with biological parts they design, participants assemble new biological systems in a Lego-like fashion, and then operate them in living cells. The resulting data and DNA strands are submitted as biobricks to the registry, and winners are decided on the basis of the number of biobricks submitted.
Typically, these biobrick projects explore the ways in which DNA strains of bacteria or yeast can be manipulated to express desired traits—for example, to glow green in the presence of explosives or change color to detect pollutants in water. Over the past few years, the registry has grown to host a collection of biobricks containing DNA to turn microbes into sensors for measuring environmental pollution, disease monitoring, arsenic sensing, and more. Beyond these relatively small-scale experiments, the promise of synthetic biology lies in its potential to radically change the conversation around climate change and health care by engineering new kinds of biofuels, vaccines, and antibiotics.
There are parallels between this structured approach to designing living organisms and the neat, organized world of engineering. The techniques and materials to "edit, design, and build" living organisms will become more accessible, just as Arduino and software today, making interaction design open to anyone. But with the electronic hardware, the inputs and outputs are generally predictable. Plug in an Arduino, add a sensor, and write some code, and the LED will blink. But living systems are capricious: They adapt to context, display random behavior, and most important, mutate into forms that are not always predictable. You are never in control. Epigenetic expression means we might never fully understand what the "mutated products" will look like; any attempt to deal with such uncertainty requires a more deliberate, thoughtful, and critical approach—and that’s where interaction designers come in.
Interaction designers today specialize in understanding the promises of technology. They create blueprints for its applications. What happens when DNA becomes our new material and organisms become "apps"?
Designers all over the world have started playing in this space already, but of particular interest are a series of projects by graduates at my alma mater, the Design Interactions Department at the Royal College of Art. James King and Daisy Ginsberg teamed up with the Cambridge iGEM team to engineer E.coli bacteria into living, color-coded sensors that would live in your gut and give you an early-warning signal for an oncoming illness by turning your poop a certain color. David Benque created a fantastical acoustic gardenhttp://www.davidbenque.com/projects/acoustic-botany, a controlled entertainment ecosystem to illustrate our cultural and aesthetic relationship to nature through beautiful soundscapes.
As a contrast to the more shiny worlds of white labs, chrome, and skyscrapers of most futuristic visions, Tobias Revell explores a more plausible future with synthetic biology in his project titled New Mumbai, in which he imagines residents of Mumbai slums adapting fungal biotechnology to generate power for their homes and secure their energy independence from local government.
There is also an opportunity for us designers to address the ethical and legal conundrums that synthetic biology and biotechnology create. We are already awash in stories of companies like Myriad Genetics seeking to patent genes that they "discover." Who owns our genes? Who can patent them? Will we have patented children? And is there a new opportunity for a deviant entrepreneur to step in and sell "pirated genes" for those who cannot afford to get the patented alternatives? How would health care models adapt to these new changes? Ultimately, how will we value human life?
In a project titled Genetic Stock at our studio Superflux, we are exploring a world in which genome sequencing, profiling, and modification have become the norm. The algorithm that we are currently designing calculates insurance premium costs based on specific gene combinations and their associated risks. Over the coming weeks, we will develop scenarios and prototypes to understand what that would mean not only to our health care models but also taxation and welfare structures.
Such propositions are opening up a new space for design that is both exciting and necessary. The emerging narratives and artifacts tell compelling stories around humanizing a technology that might seem consigned to the far future, but is in fact very much part of our lives today. As the biobrick registry gets bigger, as more and more DIY bio labs spring up across the globe, as DARPA invests millions of dollars in furthering research, as corporations get ambitious, these projects become less wildly speculative and more like wireframes, a traditional design mockup. By working with and alongside scientists, technologists, ethicists, and economists, we can create a new cultural understanding of living designs that ensures the presence of important critical and ethical perspectives.
I write this post in my capacity as a jury member of the IxDA awards this year, musing over the fascinating categories for this year’s awards. Will any such living design project consider applying? What category might it fall under? As the very materials—DNA, plasmids, and proteins—we are made of become the materials for the design of new kinds of living organisms, the entire idea of what it means to be human will be revisited, once again. And this time, interaction designers can take the lead.
For more information on the Interaction Awards or to submit a project, go here. Entry to the competition is open to all companies, individuals, and students until October 1.