Chapter 4. Why the Synthetic Biology Movement Needs Product Design

Sim Castle

The global synthetic biology industry is expected to be worth over $16 billion in 2018—growing at a rate of 41% a year. But without the application of product design, could the world’s fastest growing industry be doomed to remain the muse of scientific research and hobbyist hacking?

It is often said that the electronics industry of the 1970s was in a similar stage to synthetic biology today—a mix of state-of-the-art scientific research and geeky amateurs experimenting.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two such amateurs of the electronics movement. It wasn’t the technical aspects of their products that led to Apple’s rise and its pivotal role in creating the tech revolution we see today: it was their recognition that they had to create products that had the user in mind and be technically innovative. The simplified graphical interface of the Apple II (in comparison to other products, many of which didn’t even have a screen) and the creation of the first effective mouse (designed in conjunction with product-design firm IDEO) are examples of how great design made these new technologies accessible to the everyday user.

If Steve Jobs had never envisioned a world of casual computer use, where would the tech industry be now—a few large computers restricted to universities? Would we have progressed to anywhere near the level of technology we have today? I would argue almost certainly not. To really fulfill a technology to its potential, it must be adapted to a human user; this is what Steve Jobs did with the Apple II and what Henry Ford did with the Model T. It is not the discovery or even the technology that starts a revolution, it’s the product that brings the technology to the masses.

With such rapid scientific progress being made in the new field of synthetic biology, it can be easy to think that design has no place within it yet and that to be thinking about commercial products is premature at best.

After all, it is true that every advancement in technology must progress through distinct stages of development before its full potential is reached. Firstly, the fundamental scientific discoveries need to be made, allowing greater understanding of principles that can eventually be used to create parts with simple functions. These parts then become the building blocks of engineered systems—both physical and informational—which can be used to complete ever increasingly complex tasks. Once you have a engineered machine or system, this can then be used to design a product. This is something that not only simply performs a function, but performs it well, in a way that suits the user. This stage provides revenue streams through commercialization of a technology that can support the lower levels of research and engineering, thereby accelerating progress.

Until recently, synthetic biology has been strictly in the research phase. However, the efforts of iGEM and BioBricks have created the beginnings of the standardized parts required for engineered systems to be created. While for now these systems remain relatively simple, we are already seeing systems and machines with real-life applications. For instance, the Beijing Insitute of Technology has created a reusable device that can detect levels of antibiotic in milk that is expected to be available in stores as early as next year.

Some designers are already utilizing biology for their own purposes. Suzanne Lee of Biocouture is a fashion designer who works with biomaterials that have consumer applications in clothing. The focus of her work is not just to create a novel material from biotechnology, but to shape exciting, viable products from it. Most of these designers are currently working with low-tech biodesigns: that is, designs that exploit and include existing natural organisms rather than the products of synthetic biology. Since natural and synthetic biology share the same architecture, so too they share the same broad design considerations.

In fact, synthetic biology would allow for designs that are even more efficient, reliable, and useful than purely natural applications, as synthetic biology can be better designed and optimized toward the focus of the product. One such example is the collaboration of the Cornell iGEM team with Evocative Design, a manufacturer of a mycillium-based alternative to Styrofoam, used in applications ranging from surfboards to packaging. Evocative Design used an existing organism (mycillium-producing fungus) to produce a useful material that is now being proved via synthetic biology. The Cornell iGEM team is working to improve its disease resistance. As synthetic biology becomes both cheaper and more advanced, product design will increasingly shift toward more synthetic biology, allowing an ever greater range of applications.

There are several questions about synthetic biology’s future that can only be answered by design. How will we as humans interface with new biological products? How will we create social acceptance for a misunderstood and often feared technology? How will we create scalable, cost-effective manufacturing processes for biological products? And, perhaps most excitingly, what can be achieved by combining synthetic biology with existing (and future) technologies? These are all questions that good design seeks to answer—in addition to bringing to light further questions of what will be possible, just like design questions in the tech industry have spurred on incredible progress and innovation.

In the future we can expect to see engineered biological systems performing as wide a range of functions as today’s electronics industry—not only producing novel new materials and medicines, but spurring innovation in consumer products, architecture, and even fashion. With a little vision, through collaboration between scientists, DIY biologists, and designers, and as the synthetic biologist’s toolkit continues to expand, this future can be designed now. It is therefore vital that we begin to develop the design language necessary in order for synthetic biology to fulfill its true potential to change the world.