Interview: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Designer and Synthetic Biology Expert

Alessia Andreotti
July 12th 2013

The next guest in our interview series is Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a designer, artist and writer. Daisy Ginsberg explores the social, ethical and cultural implications of emerging technologies, and seeks new roles and functions for design. In 2012 she received the first London Design Medal for Emerging Talent. She has been researching synthetic biology since 2008, including her work as a design fellow on the international research project, Synthetic Aesthetics (Stanford University and University of Edinburgh). In 2014, MIT Press will publish her Synthetic Aesthetics book, which investigates design in synthetic biology.

At the moment she is co-curating Grow Your Own with designer Anthony Dunne and synthetic biologist Paul Freemont at Science Gallery, Dublin. Opening in October, the show will tackle provocative questions raised by synthetic biology and explore its possibilities and potential implications.

We recently talked with Ginsberg about the overlap between design, nature and science, future prospects and what she thinks about technological change.

How would you describe the field in which you work: art, science or design? 

My work is in design. I’m trying to push design into spaces and roles where it doesn’t normally operate but I do also sometimes describe myself as an artist. There is an implicit flexibility that comes with the term: expectations are less fixed when compared to contemporary design, which is focused on problem solving. I’m interested in challenging embedded assumptions in science and design, looking at how we might use design and artistic practice to come up with alternative ideals and visions. I’m operating somewhere between art, design and science, but the fact that it is not yet fixed gives room to experiment. Synthetic biology is such a new field that the role of design is not yet defined. How it could evolve is what I find so interesting.

Design and science are very different fields, how do you combine them?

I work with scientists; this is the first step. I’ve been working in synthetic biology for over five years so a lot of the ideas emerge through collaboration and direct involvement in the field. For me design isn’t just about objects, it includes everything, from objects to ideas to more participatory things, like workshops, seminars, discussions. The subject is science, but there is a lot of design: for example ‘Synthesis’ was the design of a 6-day intensive laboratory workshop, curating the content, commissioning scientists to design protocols based on a designed narrative that ran from hacking to the creation of life. Design and science processes can overlap, but I’m definitely a designer, not a scientist.

With your activity you try to understand design through the research in synthetic biology, what have you learned so far?

A lot! Our forthcoming book, Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating synthetic biology’s designs on nature, is the outcome of a research project funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.K.’s EPSRC. In 2010, we brought 12 artists and designers together with synthetic biologists to look to some fundamental questions about synthetic biology, like: What does it mean to design nature? How would you design nature? The book addresses these ideas and examines our 12 residents’ projects. There are no right answers to these questions about designing life, but by using design as our lens, I learnt that it’s possible to open up a space in science for this kind of thinking. The major international synthetic biology conference SB6.0 is taking place in London this July, and for the first time there is a design panel. We’ll be addressing societal and cultural issues in the same context as innovation and technical ones. Having space within a scientific conference to ask questions like:“what does it mean to design nature well” and questioning what kind of values and ideas we want, within the scientific domain rather than outside for ‘society’ to address, is a great thing. It’s definitely helping me to understand design more deeply too.

What design can do for biology? What does design have to offer to the manipulation of living organisms for technological purpose?

My approach to design is to ask questions, rather than solve problems. I graduated from the RCA Design Interactions course, which uses this idea of design that provokes. In synthetic biology, the design I’m interested in is involved in asking what we want to make and why we are making it, rather than offering design solutions for those applications. For me, this involves opening up new areas of thinking and bringing critical discussion into the process of manipulation of living organisms. It’s also about challenging the expectations others have of design; my initial interest in synthetic biology was triggered by scientists and engineers talking about biology in a way that hinted at a future design discipline. Were they going to be the designers of the future? If so, what kind of design would this be? Design is seen as a conduit between technology and the things that we consume, but today we design so much rubbish! Synthetic biology is often promoted as a sustainable, disruptive technology. But would there really be a paradigm shift through large-scale design of living organisms? Or will we just follow the same production systems and models that design as we know it today is complicit in? If we are questioning the manipulation of life, to me design must also include questioning what we will design and what kind of society we want to make.

Can we influence the path of our biological future? Can art and design help us to make this possible?

In art and design, or any single discipline, altering the path is unlikely. But while the direction of progress may appear inevitable, we must all question its course, not just artists and designers but, society, which includes scientists and engineers and special interests too. Synthetic biology is already on the road to industrialization and commercialization. Art and design can be amongst many tools that we use to ask, “is this right?” or, “are we setting things up in the best way?” Synthetic biology includes many ideological areas as well as technical ones, from the ownership of a technology to the foundation of new kinds of communities around a technology. What we can own and patent in our biological future – from biological parts, sequences of DNA,  to bigger devices – is a crucial discussion that all of society should be part of. Art and design can be useful tools to contribute to, and open up, these bigger discussions around ethical legal, social implications, both for the field and beyond, and in that way, perhaps help us influence the path of progress.

Do you feel that technological change is speeding up? And where will it go?

I think it depends how you measure it, in terms of sequences and synthesis technological change yes, it’s measurably faster. I don’t think the world will necessarily change completely: there are limiting factors that involve society. The news stories at the moment around surveillance and corporate tax avoidance are all pretty dark. As a society, we have to challenge these developments; otherwise the ‘progress’ we are embracing is in a pretty negative direction that doesn’t value freedom and diversity.

Assuming we as humans are co-evolving with technology. What can we do to steer this in a desired direction? Can we steer at all?

Technology and evolution go hand-in-hand, whether we’re talking about wearing clothes to cultivating and breeding our food. I read an interesting piece by Charles Mann, where he argued that humans could be a ‘special’ species if only we were able to constrict our growth. In a petri dish, a population of healthy bacteria will just grow and grow. Eventually, they exhaust their food and die. To be truly unique as a species we need to recognize the limits. This might be too contrary to human nature; it could be our biggest cultural and technological challenge. At present, technology is part of us, and part of the process of unconstrained growth. But are growth and sustainability simply incompatible?

How would you describe bio-design? Can you make an example of its application in everyday life?

Emerging biological research into the design of living systems is at the very beginning of a new way of working with biological material. Whether design and biology can overlap, or are opposing concepts is also a matter of debate. The term bio-design means different things to different people, which we should be clear about. First, there is bioengineering, which includes scientific design with biological materials, like synthetic biology. What is being described as bio-design by designers is a more lo-fi, speculative or experimental approach manipulating biological materials such as kombucha and mushrooms, or design fictions. I think these are quite distinct; hype comes from trying to assimilate them too early. If manipulating biology is achieved as bioengineers hope, it could well be very interesting to see the overlap of these two ways of thinking. Synthetic biology is still mostly a vision. It may be achieved in a way that is very different from current dreams.

Do you think that design combined with science can be the design of a next natural world?

It’s easy to get lost in utopian visions around growing everything from biology. There are so many issues surrounding how we actually control biology, that it may be just that: utopia. Biology doesn’t behave like others engineering materials that we know; it has its own ‘agenda.’ Being willing to submit to biology to fulfill our consumer needs may be something that ultimately we won’t accept.

How design can investigate and affect the social, cultural, political and ethical aspects of the way we live?

Using design to challenge and investigate the way we live has not been a mainstream approach, but it is becoming more widespread. This kind of design perhaps has more in common with art. I value art that makes me see the world in a new way. Whether we can actually affect the future is a nice idea, I hope we do! In the meantime, we have to decide what it is that we want, and using design to find that out is interesting.

Which one of your works do you consider the most successful and representative of your activity?

I think Synthetic Aesthetics: it has been a 3-year project and has culminated in a book through which we can share a discussion between 20 different people, from artists to an architect, a musician, designers, social scientists and of course synthetic biologists. These discussions have fed back into synthetic biology, which is really important to me. On the other hand, E. chromi, was a really small project with major impact. This collaborative work was about challenging existing assumptions, like the aesthetics of the biological computer, to ways that designers might work with scientists making applications and implications inseparable.

How close is E. chromi to becoming reality?

Making bacteria produce color pigments is a real technology; making bacteria detect different levels of concentration is also a reality. The idea that you could ingest bacteria that could reliably detect different kinds of chemicals and produce color signals with no risk of false results, within the body, is less likely. It may work in a laboratory, soon, but stopping it from evolving and keeping it reliable enough to risk your health on is probably further away. While there is not any vast technological gap, there is a big cultural gap: are we willing to ingest biological computers?

Are people ready to use it?

I think that the reaction is different depending on cultural attitudes. I talked about it in Austria recently and no one batted an eyelid! E. chromi raises many issues. The project was intended as provocation, and the Scatalog was intentionally set in 2039. The technology may come soon, but the cultural barriers maybe more impenetrable.

How would you describe the next nature concept?

Next nature is a valid provocation about how we see technology and ourselves, highlighting the artificial separation that we accept between the things that we consume and the world we live in. This separation is damaging because it makes easier to separate them in our head and absolve responsibility.

What are your big plans for the future?

Among various projects, I’m starting a PhD this autumn at the Royal College of Art. Called ‘The Dream of Better’, I’ll be looking at why we think that the future is going to be better and the role design takes in the shaping of hope around technology. We have such faith in the future and technology that even in bad times, many think that technology will save us. I’m curious about that attitude and also the assumption that design makes things better. For the design part, I’ll be working in synthetic biology to experiment with ways we might use design to help imagine alternative ideals of better futures.

Thanks so much, Daisy, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!

Related post: Interview: Floris Kaayk

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