Science and Design
It’s an interesting project, largely because when one thinks of design in a product sense, one usually thinks of technology rather than science. So when I met Dunne, Raby and the ‘What If…’ designers at the display’s launch party, what I wanted to know is: what can design and science teach each other?
“Designers normally work at the end of the process, where the science has become a technology, which has already become a product,” Anthony Dunne told me. “Designers are usually brought in to make the product easier to use, to look good, to be consumable.”
‘What If…’ explores what might happen if designers and scientists interacted earlier: what sort of role might design play? And how would this affect the design, or indeed the science?
In the case of ‘What if…’ the results are tangible, but imaginative, products representing outcomes that current research might deliver in the future: an ice-cream van that makes flavoured snow clouds, a machine that reads facial expressions, a suitcase full of brightly coloured faeces. As Dunne says, “Some are more imaginary, some are more concrete, some are quite realistic whereas others are more fanciful”.
Why create imaginary products? Because, Dunne says, the way most of us interact with technology is as consumers – we buy it.
Debates about the ethical and moral issues of fields like genetics and nanotechnology tend to occur at a very philosophical level. But that’s not how we necessarily think of things at a consumer level, says Fiona Raby.
“[These products] take the debate away from the utopias, the ideals and more into the nitty-gritty everyday realities of what might happen and whether it is desirable or undesirable,” she told me.
This creates a new context for the debate surrounding scientific research and technology, and a new way for people to engage with the issues.
“The designer may create something that you are very interested in, but which also has some negative point to it,” says Raby. “There’s a trade-off between your attraction to the idea and the negative connotations that may come with it. It is the dilemma between good and bad parts that we think is the most interesting space of all.”
One such ‘What If…’ project is E. chromi by James King and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a feature of which is the Scatalog, a silver suitcase of multi-coloured faeces.
How did it come to this? I should first explain that the E. chromi project looks at synthetic biology – the field that looks to apply engineering principles of design, modelling, testing and standardised parts to create new biological systems – and what the fruits of this might realistically look like.
The team settled on the idea of engineering E. coli bacteria to produce different coloured pigments – raising the possibility of a new, more visual, type of biosensor.
“We wanted to explore the implications of that,” says King, “To see where bacterial colour might lead in the future and what sort of technologies, groups and services might emerge from this kind of new technology.” From this emerged the Scatalog.
“Imagine,” says Ginsberg: “It’s 2049. It’s now possible to ingest some E. chromi as a probiotic drink like Yakult. After you drink it, the bacteria start to form colonies inside your gut alongside the other bacteria that are in there, monitoring in the background. If there are any changes in terms of pathogens or new chemicals secreted by changes like colonic cancers then they start to react and secrete pigment and that pigment is then visible as a very simple, cheap visible output – your poo.”
The thinking is that you could check your faeces against a colour card and, through this, monitor what’s going on inside you as a cheap early warning, disease-monitoring system (it’s not as weird as it sounds – one of the symptoms of porphryia disorders is blue-black faeces). This system could be personalised for genetic susceptibility, as you can engineer these bacteria to suit your genetic make up and what disease in particular you are worried about.
The Scatalog is a mock-up of this concept, a suitcase filled with six coloured stool samples, which caused quite a stir when King and Ginsberg took it to the iGEM jamboree finals at MIT in November last year.
“Some people were quite negative because it’s not a very sexy implementation of the technology,” says King. “Synthetic biology has been touted as a solution to a lot of our problems, but this was more everyday, down to earth, much more mucky and grubby, and not very pleasant maybe!”
“But we also got some very positive reactions. After people had thought about it, they saw it as a possible, quite realistic and feasible solution to a problem we have at the moment – that is the difficulty in detecting diseases that are internal with no visible symptoms on the outside until it is too late.”
“It took people aback and helped us talk about the possible futures for synthetic biology, the medical applications for it, how it might interface with our body and what the aesthetic of the technology could be.”
For Ginsberg, it put into context some of the more fantastical ideas surrounding the field.
“People were talking about ‘biological computing’ and showing images of bacteria and cogs. But what is that? So we presented this suitcase, and asked, is this biological computing? No-one had thought about presenting something as gross as that before, but if it is that and we don’t like it, then maybe we should think differently.”
One of the major benefits of E. Chromi, if not the whole ‘What If…’ series, is that the process engages both the designers and the scientists.
“What I’m interested in is what designers will be doing in 20 or 50 years time and how design can help impact the science,” says Ginsberg, “the idea of scientific engagement as opposed to public engagement; how can design help?”
The presence of King and Ginsberg and the workshops they ran gave the students a new perspective on the project and helped contribute to their success, says Dr Duncan Rowe from the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge and one of the Cambridge team’s advisors.
“They brought a lot of fun and got the students to come out of their shells. But more seriously, it made them think about how synthetic biology can affect society and how you would talk to society about your work,” he says.
“For the first time, instead of focusing on the molecular scale of how to engineer this thing, the team had to learn to tell stories about it as if it were already a product or a service 50 years in the future,” says Ginsberg. “This was the first time they’d had to think about what it might be or how it might affect people.”
Ginsberg’s next project, ‘Synthetic Aesthetics‘, takes the scientist–designer collaboration a step further. The project will see six synthetic biologists and six designers do residencies in each others’ laboratories and design schools over an 18 month period. Through this, she hopes to explore the seemingly endless number of possibilities that synthetic biology seems to promise.
I asked her if the invasion of these ‘arty’ types disturbed the scientists, but she says it’s been quite the opposite. “Everyone is very welcoming to us. The nice thing about synthetic biology is that it is already a multidisciplinary field with physicists, engineers, biologists and computer scientists. So a couple of designers are just another type in the mix.”
“Synthetic biology is quite similar to design in some ways, with scientists asking similar questions like, what should we make?”.
This reminded me of something Anthony Dunne said earlier in the evening, “For me, science isn’t interesting because it is special, but because it’s the opposite. After all, what part of our lives isn’t affected by science and technology? There should be more courses exposing designers to genetics, synthetic biology, and neuroscience. Because when they go out and operate in the world, this is the world they are going to be partly shaping and working with.”
‘What If…’ runs at the Wellcome Trust until the end of the year.