Designing Life

There are design courses with small questions and there are design courses with big questions. This project is about a big one:

How do we design life?bug

1. The role of Designers

Humans develop tools. They design their environment. Human history has been shaped by technological, social and communicative innovations. What we have been calling “Design” might be defined as the introduction of those innovations into our everyday lives in the form of products, communication and systems (“services”). So the definition of what a designer does always closely relates to the innovations of her time. In recent decades the designer was mostly defined by the computer and its implications as a medium and production utility. We now face innovations in biosynthetic engineering and the pressure to create ecologically sustainable systems.

This change is a perfect platform for a design discourse since it is – so far – largely undefined and it promises to upset many ideas of industrial production and our consumer culture.

So what is the role of designers when it comes to create biological systems?

2. Living organisms are not machines

We usually explain what we don’t know yet based on ideas that we already know about. We have called computers “electronic brains”, cars were described as “horseless carriages” and we still use images of paper envelopes to signify emails.

This process to explore the unknown with the patterns of the known is of course helpful to manage the transition but it also bears the danger of misunderstandings. Graphic designers who were used to linear communication formats (books, movies, magazines, and so forth) often found it hard to wrap their minds around non-linear communication systems (websites, apps) which were less predictable, open-ended and unstable. And just like a website is not a book, an organism is not a machine. When we as designers imagine future biological innovations we shouldn’t limit ourselves to our previous understanding of how to “design technical innovation”. We want to find out what the properties of living organisms are, how to interact with them, and how to shape them.

3. Industrialisation vs. Biology

In recent decades design has been shaped by the idea of consumption.This linear rational of exploiting finite resources, turning them into short-lived consumer products destined for the landfill collides with the network logic of ecological systems.

One problem with many approaches to “Eco-friendly Design” is that they often stay within this paradigm of linear industrial production and limit themselves to less toxic materials, a reduction of waste – and guilt.

Advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering promise innovations which might have radical impacts on humankind. One pattern of looking at living organisms is that of the – linear – assembly line. Just like a factory produces consumable objects, living organisms might be used to produce food, medication or other products. Should these advances be met with the industrial mindset of creating and marketing consumer products?

What is the mindset necessary to design resilient biological systems?

4. Our idea of “Nature”

There is a paradox in our relation to the living creatures that surround (and inhabit) us: We have a blurry idea about “nature”. At first sight this term seems so simple. It is an understanding of a pristine area untouched by humans. We visit natural parks, forests and love “natural” organic food which seems to nostalgically hint at times when food was still healthy, wholesome and free of toxic human intervention.

The problem with this idea of nature is that it is a fantasy. Almost none of the food we consume – not even the occasional organic apple – is free from human intervention. Our forests, parks, pets, our own bodies are shaped by humans and their inventions. And disease, famines and death are a part of biological systems which we sometimes happily ignore.

So how do we imagine biological systems if the simplified and distorted concept of “nature” does not suffice?

5. Biological Design

There are various design approaches so far which we should discuss: The efforts which are subsumed under the idea of “Sustainable Design” should be examined in detail since that term is rather broad. Over the last years Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby developed with their students the concept of “Speculative Design” where the designer should be allowed to design various future scenarios which can be integrated in future scientific, economic and social developments. We shall investigate this exciting idea of “Critical Design” critically.

But most of all our task during this semester is to define our own positions and visualise them in the format of physical objects.