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RCA Bio-hacking Workshops Train Designers of the Future

We talk a lot about STEAM – John Maeda’s positioning of Art (and design) within the accepted Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics matrix – and the benefits that designers can bring to thinking within these traditional disciplines. It is the Royal College of Art’s ongoing contention that the real step changes in solving the world’s most pressing challenges are made when scientists, engineers, artists, designers, writers and historians work together.

At the RCA this week, Design Interactions students are putting this theory into practice, in workshops that aim to promote awareness and understanding of biotechnology, to demystify the methodologies involved, and to enable these designers to engage in molecular and genetic strategies in the context of bio-hacking and design. Students will learn to design DNA circuits, to hack the colour-producing behaviour of bacteria, and to build 3D prototypes with growth-promoting agar.

Design Interactions (DI) is deeply rooted in what it means to be human in relation to the social, cultural and ethical impacts of existing and emerging technologies. Students are encouraged to design for ‘the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be’.

Contextualising biology in a design context allows students to think about new ways of designing. By learning the skills to assemble a DNA circuit, designers build on an existing conceptual framework with real-world experience that allows them to start a design process with an organic substance. Prototyping 3D objects allows the students to think about how these modified bacteria could be used in the real, tangible world.

Synthetic biology brings engineering principles to experimenting with microbiology and bacteria, and has a mixed reputation, obfuscated by media stories that conflate biotechnology and genetic modification in the ‘Monsanto’ mould and represent a panoply of fearful futures. In reality, synthetic biology is firmly regulated and likely to become a foundation future technology. Professor Anthony Dunne, head of the Design Interactions programme explains, ‘I came into design in the 1980s, at the beginning of the explosion of excitement around digital technologies. In our post-digital age, new technologies are emerging, and I believe biotechnology will be central to our futures.’

Using a commercially available ‘genetic modification kit’ of genetic components and enzymes, students can design a DNA assembly. Once built, the assembly can be fed into bacteria, to allow them to produce colour that is coded in their DNA. The Royal College of Art was the first UK design and art institution to perform a genetic assembly using this equipment.

Students come to Design Interactions from a range of backgrounds, many with science learning stalled in half-forgotten school laboratories, and a received culture that complex science is exclusive, regulated and out-of-reach.

StudioLab Research Associate Raph Kim, a DI graduate and bio-hacker designer who runs the workshops, explains his approach: ‘We encourage a DIY approach to science, giving students a selection of small vials, each containing small chunks of DNA that can be assembled, and enzymes to piece the parts together. This allows them to think about a biological system from the bottom up (which is how we like to design), starting with the basic unit of life – the DNA. It may sound complicated, but you don't need a degree in biology to engage with it, you need curiosity.’

Outcomes include modified squid ink with luminescence, bacteria that exhibit a spectrum of colours and 3D models that support microbial growth. Students who intend to make biotechnology part of their practice are supported by a three-week synthetic biology project and are then able to join scientists at Imperial College London, one of the world’s highest-ranking STEM universities, to test their ideas in controlled, laboratory settings. Thinking in 3D terms is unique to this design environment, so brings an unexplored challenge back to the expert scientists, alongside a shared need to strike the open balance between science and design that allows innovation.

The implications are manifold. Anthony Dunne, Head of Design Interactions, said: ‘It’s really important that designers have an understanding of biotechnology, as it will be significant to their professional lives over the next 10 years and beyond. We want to introduce biotechnology into our art and design world, and equip our students with an approach that’s both hands-on and future-focused.’

He added, ‘This is a significant moment, as biotechnology moves from the laboratory into everyday life through the market, and it’s vital that designers are involved in this transition.’

The initiative builds on a worldwide push towards art and design within biotechnology – exemplified by Oron Catts at the Centre of Excellence in Biological Art at the University of Western Australia; or, closer to home, SynbiCITE at Imperial College, which brings Design Interactions into proximity with biotech and research partners – and is an opportunity for RCA designers to be part of this UK wave of innovation.