What Is Biodesign?

In 2009 Nature Biotechnology asked a group of synthetic biologists to define “synthetic biology.” None of the scientists could agree on a definition. Yet today the synthetic biology market—a field evidently without a widely accepted understanding of itself—is worth $9.5 billion. When Nature Biotechnology posed its question I was a reporter covering the emerging discipline. I soon realized that definitions are less important than the groups of people who gather around and advance a particular set of ideas.

So what, then, is “biodesign”? Today I would say it’s a big tent where everyone who self-identifies as a biodesigner can hang out. Of course before I founded the Biodesign Challenge in 2015, I probably would have said that it’s a design practice that incorporates biotechnology, or one that uses design to critique the biotech industry. Both of these definitions are accurate, but today I see the unbounded potential of the community of people as much as the possibilities within the ideas themselves.

I soon realized that definitions are less important than the groups of people who gather around and advance a particular set of ideas.

In the years we’ve run Biodesign Challenge it’s become clear that purposefully leaving the definition vague has unleashed massive creativity. Biodesigners are edging toward a new set of design practices and ideas that are as plausible and exciting as they are inchoate. Today we can feel out the shape and texture of today’s biodesign community to get a hazy but exciting view of the future.

Biodesigners see the potential of biotechnology and its ability to shape the living world. They recognize the enormous responsibility that comes with wielding a power that might one day create new species or erase others. As much as they’ve embraced biotech in their practice, I can feel their apprehension.

Over the years I’ve observed a few characteristics of biodesigners. First, they think about systems and see themselves as partners of the organisms they work with and that their designed products might affect. Looking at a product’s life cycle, biodesigners elevate waste streams into feedstocks for the next cycle. Their conception of product “users” includes the animals that the product impacts (perhaps in landfill or waterways) and the microbes that live on it and break it down. Compare this systemic thinking to that of consumers who only pay attention to a product while they use it, never considering how it’s made or what happens to it when they discard it. In this way biodesign presents a radical departure from the narrow, short-term perspective of our daily lives.

Biodesign presents a radical departure from the narrow, short-term perspective of our daily lives.

Biodesigners also grapple with time and connections, making design choices based on thinking about how one change affects other organisms and how those effects echo through time. There’s a general appreciation for the Gaia theory of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, where all life has evolved as a singular planetary whole; this gives the biodesign field a different view of what it means to be human. As parts of an earthly body, judging our species as more important than another is like the heart disdaining the brain as inferior.

I like that biodesigners tend to be skeptical of consumerist culture. I like that they question how new technologies might be used, misused, and abused. They ask who technology includes and who it leaves out. These are critically important questions in a world where, as I write, only 0.3% of COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the developing world.

I appreciate that biodesigners are optimistic. They tend to believe that there are multiple ways—technological, political, and behavioral—to mitigate and even reverse the worst consequences of climate change and environmental degradation.

From June 21 to 25, 2021, students studying biodesign will gather online to present their ideas to the public and to a panel of 66 judges from across art, design, and biology. We’ll also be Kickstarting our first book—Biodesign Challenge: A Retrospective, a collection of designs and essays from the last five years of our competition and education program. I invite you to visit the event, order the book, and decide what biodesign is for yourself.

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Cite this Article

Grushkin, Daniel. “What Is Biodesign?” Issues in Science and Technology (June 18, 2021).