Interview Subject: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: Designer, Artist, Writer, and PhD Researcher in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art
Tell me about your interest in design. Did you know, when you were nine years old, that you were an artist or a designer and you wanted to go in that direction? Or was it a circuitous route?
I wanted to be an artist (my grandmother is a sculptor, it seemed a very good job, involving welding, tools and lots of mess), then briefly, a product designer. I chose to study architecture at university, then worked in urbanism, and then ended up going to design school. It’s been a winding path! I also considered studying politics, philosophy and economics at one point, and now those areas are resurfacing in my research.
Do you think that those fields have a place in design?
I’ve gone back to do a PhD to develop my understanding of design further. Increasingly, on the edges of design, there’s an idea that design can set agendas and not necessarily be in service, but be used to find ways to explore our world and how we want it to be. I think that bringing all of these different influences together can only benefit how we think about the world.
Your interests seem to stay in step with where design is evolving, and people’s evolving recognition of what design can do. Do you think that’s the case?
More and more, we’re seeing design being used in policy or in commercial practice to drive vision. To do this well, and to imagine radically different visions, we need to have a much broader frame of knowledge. I found that architecture was a great first degree to learn design within a historical, theoretical, and ethical context. My short time working in urbanism let me see how design and policy can shape the world around us on a far larger scale than designing the things themselves, and how this could be the remit of design: taking on something as big and complex as the way a city works, for example.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about design and your approach to it?
Working across disciplines and fields, we assume that we share common languages or common goals, beyond our own specific disciplines. Working with biologists or social scientists or industry, we may think that we’re all working towards the same thing, often an ambition towards the common good. But what that common good actually constitutes may be very different. Finding ways to articulate that good, negotiate it and impact on it is the biggest challenge. I’ve found that design can be especially useful as a mediating discipline to communicate between lots of different agendas.
Do you think that’s the change that design is undertaking right now—finding ways to articulate, negotiate, and impact the common good? And do you think it will happen as people demonstrate that it’s possible?
There are two parallel tracks for design: One is business as usual, and then there is another path, where we can challenge the status quo. This kind of design could help us change the way we think about things, how we make things, and how those things function in the world. I see potential in the developing experimental design practice of critical design. This may seem to have more in common with art practice, but curiously it seems to really trouble some people if we call it design! This is design that isn’t solving problems or smoothing things over, but making problems and bumps. I think such a powerful reaction is worth exploring.
It’s exciting to see this critical practice infiltrating more traditional, commercial areas of design. Design has long had an economic agenda attached to it, but it also has a social agenda. Critical design could be woven into a lineage of social provocation in design, from Italian radical design of the 1960s and 1970s, to the grand utopian architectural visions such as the city plans of Le Corbusier, and even back to 19th century designers such as William Morris, who saw a transformative potential in design.
At the same time, design is very much part of our material, capitalist society: The profession of industrial design was a product of the Great Depression in America; design was proposed as an economic strategy to stimulate people to consume their way out of crisis. Design has mixed values; it’s not a purist profession. It’s very human!
In your book, Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature, you explore the rise of synthetic biology. How close are we to the world of these “living machines”?
We already have living machines in our midst that are doing useful things, such as producing medicines (insulin has been manufactured by genetically modified yeast since 1978) or even rennet for cheese. Crops and cows could be classed as living machines even if they are not genetically modified, just bred for purpose.
But synthetic biology is offering something a little different. It is an approach to genetic engineering that adopts ideas of control from engineering. DNA is being used as a programming language to construct or design biological systems, devices, or machines to make useful things. That could mean redesigning yeast so that it makes a chemical, or one day, inventing novel organisms for our benefit. But biology is very, very complex, and there is a long way to go. We may never be able to control it properly.
At the outset, I was intrigued by the engineers and biologists who were describing what they were doing as design. They were saying that they wouldn’t need to know what was going on at the DNA level, but instead, the technology of synthetic biology would let them focus on design and applications. I wondered where would that leave designers, if biologists and engineers were designing. What would they design? How would we evaluate good biological design? Where would we draw the limits for the design of life?
Though biology is more complex than the simple machine metaphor leads us to believe, and the field has evolved, design can help us open up those questions. Design is a process for making things, but it can also be a tool to ask what kind of things could or should be made.
As a designer, does synthetic biology give you cause for concern?
Synthetic biology is a technology—as with any—shaped by people, policies, and economics. These forces mean that technology is not neutral. Synthetic biology could bring new kinds of medicines or materials, but it also has possibilities that I don’t believe are a good idea.
Being so involved in the field has shown me how it is not black and white. So much depends on your position: consumer, maker, industry, funder. Finding a way to navigate—and even unite—these agendas is the interesting part. For example, many people assume that a technology that makes things out of biology will be environmentally sustainable. But how do you actually make that happen? I’ve worked with scientists at SynbiCITE at Imperial College London, the UK’s largest synthetic biology research center, to ask: “What does sustainability mean for synthetic biology?” Is the path we’re following going to deliver that future? If not, how do we steer towards the future we want?
What role can a designer play in such a technical field?
There’s an advantage in being a nonexpert and asking questions that may be naïve, but can offer a fresh perspective.
In 2009, I did a project called “The Synthetic Kingdom,” where I added an extra branch onto the Tree of Life. I was wondering how we would classify all these new life forms that might be designed. So I drew an extra branch on the tree. This became an incredible tool to open up the conversation with scientists. About six months later, I was asked if it could be used on the cover of a scientific journal. I found myself on the phone with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who was editing the issue, with him asking me, “Could you make a couple of edits to the diagram? Because it’s got a few errors in the way it is drawn.” I thought this was absolutely magical: Although we were talking about a fiction, we were discussing how it was scientifically inaccurate. We could jump into a conversation about whether—or how—synthetic organisms are the same as natural organisms. It showed me that a playful observation based in serious research could open up conversations with experts.
Tell me more about your book, Synthetic Aesthetics. How did this come about?
Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature is the outcome of an international research project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the UK’s EPSRC. This project was enabled by pure science funding to bring artists and designers into synthetic biology to see how it might stimulate new kinds of thinking, research, and critical discussion. We had six pairs of leading artists/designers and synthetic biologists in residencies all over the world. From architecture, to smell design, to protocell science (trying to create life from scratch), to plant science, the artists/designers spent time in the laboratory, and then the scientists and engineers went to the artists’ and designers’ studios. It was an unusually reciprocal conversation. The project opened up different ways of being critical, and also recognized science and engineering as a creative process.
The book is a collaboration between 20 people from art, design, synthetic biology, and social science, with very different agendas and ambitions. It offers an introduction to synthetic biology and design, and documents the outcomes of the residents’ projects, from cheese made from human body bacteria to biological computers used to calculate structural designs. We showed how each of these projects opened up a new theme to explore in synthetic biology, from evolution as a design tool to the issue of cultural disgust. Art and design can reveal new ways of thinking in and about science.
The residents’ projects themselves were also unusual hybrids. They were exhibited internationally in art and design shows, and also resulted in scientific papers. This was not public engagement or communication design, but using art and design as a research tool to make new things, and make new ways of thinking about things.
Have you seen a change in the community as a result of this project?
Yes, there are a lot of designers, artists, and synthetic biologists working together in all sorts of different models now, as well as social scientists, policymakers, and more. There’s a great and ready space for experimental design and bioscience to work together to develop new materials, for example. Useful critique and uncovering difficult questions, as I do, can be a little trickier, as it is not always a comfortable process. But it’s beneficial for everyone: for industry, for science, for art, for society, for our environment. What “better” and “good” mean to us are the difficult questions that we have to ask along the way. If we think it’s worth it to engineer life, then I believe they’re questions worth asking.
Do you ever think being a woman has impacted your job?
That is a very important question. I try not to let it affect how I work. I have my convictions and my code of ethics, I simply try to get on with the work that I believe in. Moving into this space, I’ve found a voice, which is great. But I worry when I go to conferences and see so few women are onstage, because there are lots of women doing amazing work in the world! Where are they? Why aren’t they being recognized?
I have the luxury that I’ve not been hindered in what I do; I’ve been able to pursue my path. But I know I’m very lucky to have been able to do that. My grandmother is still in the studio at 95, making sculptures. My mother runs a company, and there are amazing women designers and artists who have taught and mentored me—such as Fiona Raby, and Sissel Tolaas, the smell artist. I’ve been fortunate to have these incredibly strong women as role models, and I continue to be inspired by them. But there is a lot of work to be done to sort out the gender balance and influence in design and technology and science, as with all professions.
When you walk into a room to present a crazy idea, like adding another branch to the tree of life, how do you do it? How do you catch people’s attention and get them to look beyond the obvious?
I think craziness can just be context—a crazy idea can depend on how you look at it. In 2009, I turned up with fellow designer James King to the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM), a synthetic biology competition at MIT (which has seen over 15,000 students in the last decade), carrying a briefcase filled with models of colored poo.
Seven undergraduates from the University of Cambridge spent that summer genetically engineering bacteria to secrete a variety of colored pigments visible to the naked eye. They went on to win the Grand Prize at iGEM. The students had designed standardised sequences of DNA, called BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria. Each BioBrick part contains genes selected from existing organisms, enabling the bacteria to produce different colours: red, yellow, green, blue, brown or violet. In theory, by combining these with other BioBricks, their engineered bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they sense a toxin.
James and I worked with the students to explore the potential of this technology while they were developing it. An experimental workshop got them to think in new ways about its implications, not just its applications. We designed a timeline of ways that E. chromi could develop over the next century, from food additives, to patenting issues, bioterrorism to corporate geoengineering. We wanted to use design to explore the different agendas that could shape the use of E. chromi, and, thus, our everyday lives.
We imagined a genetically engineered probiotic yogurt drink in 2039, when it would be culturally acceptable to buy in the supermarket (the distant release date being a provocation in itself). The bacteria would colonise your gut and monitor for chemical signals of a variety of diseases. If they detected anything, they’d start producing the corresponding colored output, which would result in colored poo.
Our traveling-salesman briefcase with colored poo samples allowed us to talk at iGEM about the design work we had done with the students around the technology’s potential impact. We also wanted to challenge what we saw as a problem of aesthetics in synthetic biology because of the dominance of the machine metaphor, which seemed to obscure the fact that these engineers are manipulating living matter. Confronting those designing the technology with biological “reality” (albeit a fictional reality), we were presenting the gut as a challenging future interface for synthetic biology. It was not a proposal for an application, rather a critical provocation within the specialized context of iGEM.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Jonathan Kotula from Pamela Silver’s lab at Harvard Medical School published a paper where he and his coauthors engineered gut bacteria to be fed to mice. These bacteria detect chemical signals in their gut; the results could be measured in their poo as flipped DNA switches. The mouse poo isn’t colored, but this marks a step towards a future that we inadvertently helped imagine. And this research was funded by DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For me, this raises a lot of questions about the responsibility of designers working in this space, imagining futures, even in a critical way. It also gives evidence that this kind of design can actually make futures happen: It can change the path of the present.
It may have seemed crazy to us at first to take fake colored poo to a synthetic biology competition, but it triggered a series of incredibly productive and provocative conversations about synthetic biology and design that are still developing.