When science collides with design

2039 is the year of the Scatalog, the process that allows patients to use synthetic biology to watch for early warning signs of diseases. People will be able to go to the supermarket and buy a yogurt that will mix with bacteria in the gut. The bacteria then keeps watch for chemical markers of diseases. If a potential illness is detected, a vibrant output results in the feces.

It is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology award-winning futuristic idea and the result of an experimental collaboration between scientists at Cambridge University and designers. The project, called E.chromi, is as much about science as it is about creativity, and it even got the attention of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last week the New York City museum featured the Scatalog ― (fake) feces and all ― in Talk to Me, an exhibit that explores the communication between people and objects.

One of E.chromi’s project leaders, James King, is a 29-year-old self-described speculative designer with a focus on biological science. Two years ago he started working with the University of Cambridge International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition team. The team’s members gave him a crash course in synthetic biology. To return the favor, King ran a design workshop for the iGEM team, and from this, E.chromi was born.

I talked with King today about what happens when designers meet scientists in the lab. This Q&A is edited for length.

Q. How do you define synthetic biology?

A. I think different people define it differently depending on where they’re coming from, but I think it’s a field which is defined by a goal of basically trying to engineer bacteria or other organisms to do interesting things using standardized genetic parts and process. And I think that’s the clearest and most common kind of conception of synthetic biology.

I think it’s more interesting to talk about it as a field of people rather than a field of science or interest. There’s a very interesting kind of social element to it and community of practice, and all of those interesting social science things that people like to study all exhibited in this particular area.

Q. Tell me about the role of design in this project. How did you see that there was potential to mix lab science and design? 

A. Traditionally designers are considered to be applied artists in an analogous way to engineers being applied scientists. And what I’ve been really interested in for the past two years is what happens when a designer goes into the lab and talks with a scientist and whether that interaction can be useful or meaningful.  And I think it can. I think the role that we’ve had in this project was really to question what the researchers were doing.

And our role was really to bring an idea of what culture and kind of a sense of what people desire from technology and bring that into the project. People are interesting, and what they do with the technology will always be different to how your imagined it yourself. And it’s important to just be aware of that.

The easiest way of describing it is to say that the technology wasn’t just designed at the genetic scale, which is what the students were doing, but it was designed at the human scale as well. And that’s incredibly powerful because you’re just considering many more layers and many more scales rather than just focusing on the one that’s right in front of you in the petri dish.

Q. One of your futuristic scenarios using E.chromi technology is 2069: Red Sky in the Morning, Google Health Warning. You imagine that Google would release pollution-mapping bacteria to color the sky red in zones with excess carbon dioxide. Can you explain that?

A. I think it was a slightly tongue-in-cheek poke at Google. I think at the time there were lots of news stories with people being unhappy with Street View, at least in Europe. And not wanting people to show pictures of their street and their houses, make those available online. And just the idea that Google does take kind of uni-lateral action and does make available this information, just because it can. And I don’t personally have any problem with that at all. But we thought that if any company would be likely to do this, then Google would probably be the company to do it. Just because it tries to make information free and visible to people regardless of who might not want that information to be free and visible.

Q. Where is E.chromi going next?

A. This is project that has come from the mind of designers but is now being used to kind of raise awareness of synthetic biology in academic institutions, and we always imagined the value of the work we do is to help the public understand what the science is. But actually, what’s been more interesting is that within the institutions of science and funding and research, the project still has value and still has a way of kind of communicating important things to people. I can see more of that happening.

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