Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Better: Navigating Imaginaries in Design and Synthetic Biology to Question “Better”
Designers, engineers, marketers, politicians, and scientists all craft motivating visions of better futures. In some of these, “better” will be delivered by science and technology; in others, the consumption of designed things will better us or the world. “Better” has become a contemporary version of progress, shed of some of its philosophical baggage. But better is not a universal good or a verified measure: it is imbued with politics and values. And better will not be delivered equally, if at all. “What is better?”, “Whose better?”, and “Who decides?” are questions with great implications for the way we live and hope to live.
At a time when social, economic, and environmental conditions place in question the dominant paradigms of better defined by globalisation and technology, Better, a PhD by project, investigates some of the powerful dreams triggered by a banal word and develops critical design techniques to find new ways to ask better questions. This thesis contends that the “dream of better” is so influential in advanced technological societies that it is what science and technology studies scholars term a sociotechnical imaginary. The imaginary is used as a critical design tool to examine better, revealing links between design and the emerging technoscience of synthetic biology and other ideological spaces, like Silicon Valley. As a young field, synthetic biology offers a space to test and expand critical design’s potential.
The practical research includes six critical design projects that engage with synthetic biology and its vision-making processes, using techniques from designed fictions to curation. The written thesis comprises six chapters informed throughout by commentary on the practice.
The first chapter looks at the influence of dominant concepts of better on design, separating design’s intrinsic optimism from engineering and market-led ideas of the optimum and optimisation. It situates critical design practice as an optimistic activity, seeking alternative meanings of better.
The next three chapters track how the imaginary of better has shaped synthetic biology and the field’s evolving culture of design. Meanings of better have proliferated since 1999, as synthetic biology’s visionaries promise to better biology, better the world, and even to better nature itself. But resistance has revealed the existence of alternative betters.
Chapter Five explores critical design’s examination of synthetic biology’s dreams of betters. Recognising the mutual colonisation of critical design and synthetic biology, which is contributing to the emerging platform of biodesign, the chapter discusses how navigating imaginaries can improve future critical practice. It encourages framing technoscience within society, rather than placing society downstream of it.
Chapter Six proposes that the social imaginary itself can be a critical design object. Designing “critical imaginaries” can open up our understanding of better, offering a process to reimagine the world. The critical imaginary is not a utopian effort to produce prescriptive visions of how the world ought to be. It is a heterotopian design technique to include diverse views and generate worlds that could be made, asking “what ought the world to be?”
Microbes outnumber your cells ten times over, even telling you what to eat. These microscopic workhorses of the Biotechnology Revolution now face synthetic biology’s quest to reduce the chaos of life to components. From DIY-hacked bacteria to artificial, corporate life-forms, microbes will compute, produce energy, digest pollutants, make self-healing materials, kill pathogens and do the housework. Biotech promises control over nature, but living machines need controlling. How will our internal microbial landscape address a synthetic external one? Biology doesn’t respect boundaries or patents. In simplifying life to its molecular interactions, might we accidentally degrade our sense of self? How will we decide what is natural or unnatural? Are the promises seductive enough to accept such big compromises?
School of Design
Design Interactions, 2013–2018
School of Design
MA Design Interactions, 2009
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is an artist, designer and writer developing experimental approaches to imagine alternative ideals around design, science and technology. Daisy works with collaborators around the world, including scientists, engineers, artists, designers, social scientists, museums and industry. Lead author of Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature (MIT Press, 2014), her PhD research, Better, at London's Royal College of Art (expected 2017), explores the imaginary of “better" and its influence on both design and synthetic biology. Daisy received the World Technology Award for Design 2011 and the first London Design Medal for Emerging Talent in 2012, and her work has been twice nominated for Designs of The Year (2011, 2015).
- MA Design Interactions, Royal College of Art, 2009; Visiting Student (non-degree), Graduate School of Arts/Sciences & Graduate School of Design, Harvard University 2005–6; MA (Cantab), Architecture, University of Cambridge, 2004
- Leonardo Group, Science Gallery London, 2016-; Lead Curator , Grow Your Own... Life After Nature, Science Gallery, Dublin, 2013-2014; Design Fellow, Synthetic Aesthetics, Stanford University & University of Edinburgh, 2010–2013; Residency, SymbioticA, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, Perth, 2009
- Beauty, Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, 2016; Beauty, Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, New York, 2016; Globale: Exo-Evolution, Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM), 2016; Designs of the Year, Design Museum, London, 2015; What Design Can Do, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2015; Sense Nonsense, Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, 2014; Project Genesis, Ars Electronica, Linz, 2013; Grow Your Own... Life After Nature, Science Gallery, Dublin, 2013; Biodesign, Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam, 2013; Bunny Smash: Design to Touch the World Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2014; Alive: New Design Frontiers Espace Fondation EDF, Paris, 2013; Curious Minds: New Approaches in Design Group Exhibition, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2012; INDEX Awards, Copenhagen & Asia tour, 2011-13; Talk to Me, Museum of Modern Art, NYC, 2011; What If?, Beijing International Design Triennial, National Museum of China, Beijing, 2011; Designs of the Year, Design Museum, London, 2011; Hyperlinks: Architecture & Design, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 2011; Museum of the Future, Ars Electronica Centre, Linz, 2010; Wellcome Trust Windows, Wellcome Trust HQ, London, 2010; What If? Science Gallery Dublin, 2009
- Nomination (Graphics), Designs of the Year, 2015; Winner, Emerging Talent, London Design Medal, 2012; Nomination (Product), Designs of the Year, 2011; Winner, World Technology Award (Design), 2011; Best Documentary, Bio:Fiction Science, Art & Film Festival, 2011; Finalist, Index: Design to Improve Life Awards, 2011; Special Mention (Growth Assembly) VIDA Art & Artificial Life International Awards 12.0, 2010
- DLD Munich, 2016; What Design Can Do São Paulo, 2015; Design Indaba, 2013; Knotty Objects, MIT Media Lab, 2015; Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design, MoMA NYC, 2014; SB6.0: The Sixth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology, 2013; Designing Living Things, SXSW Interactive 2012; TEDGlobal 2011; PopTech 2011; Tsinghua University Art Science Media Lab (TASML) Symposium, 2010
- Ginsberg et al., Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature, MIT Press, 2014; Guest Editor, "Aesthetics", Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, Volume 16, Issues 5–6, 2012; Synthetic Biology Could Use Some Questions from Humans, Wired Magazine UK, February 2015; Designing for the Sixth Extinction, Magazine des Cultures Digitales, 79, 2015; Robocrop, Icon Magazine, 135, 2014; The Prefuture of Synthetic Biology, Volume Magazine, 35, 2013; Molecular Gastronomy of the Future, DAMn Magazine, 2012 35,