Update: Synthetic Aesthetics in Biodesign for the Bioeconomy - admin - 30.3.16

Update: Synthetic Aesthetics in Biodesign for the Bioeconomy

When the UK’s new Strategic Plan for UK synthetic biology, Biodesign for the Bioeconomy, was published earlier this month we were pleased that the Synthetic Aesthetics project had been chosen as a case study, but disappointed that the project had been mispresented as setting out to “beautify or better communicate the science”, which was precisely not what we were trying to do.

We wrote an Open Letter to the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council explaining this point, and they reacted promptly by changing the document. The new text (on p.24) is a much better summary of our work. It notes that the project led to the “consideration of futures that might transcend current industrial framings”.

We are very grateful for the efforts that went into changing to text and reissuing the Strategic Plan. However, we think that two important issues remain.

The first is that the original mistake reflects the widespread assumption that the only role for art and design in synthetic biology is to “beautify or better communicate the science”, so it is not surprising that this statement did not attract attention during the drafting of the Strategic Plan. 

It is a long-term endeavour to debunk this assumption, and to show that art/science engagement should provoke reflection and critique, rather than just constituting a public relations service for a scientific field. We hope that the Synthetic Aesthetics project has demonstrated that the benefits of actual engagement with art and design are far greater than can be achieved by putting these disciplines in a subordinate role.

The second point, which we made in our original letter, is that the notion of ‘biodesign’ that has been adopted in the Strategic Plan is very narrowly defined, and implies that the only end to which design can be put is economic expansion. The Synthetic Aesthetics project showed that design should be connected to a much broader range of values. Importantly, one of our key motivations was to open up discussions about what counts as good design in synthetic biology, and who gets to decide. As we wrote in our letter to the SBLC, “Design does not only serve industry and economic growth; good design enables citizens and society and should serve the common good.” Synthetic biology is promoted as a sustainable, disruptive technology, but will the current vision simply perpetuate the same systems of production? What does a truly sustainable, disruptive or open synthetic biology look like? 

We are glad that our project is no longer misrepresented in the Strategic Plan, but we think that these broader issues cannot be resolved without open, inclusive and interdisciplinary discussions about synthetic biology and all its future directions.

Direct link to this page http://syntheticaesthetics.org/letterSBLCupdate.