Design for Genomics and Synthetic Biology

The greatest design challenges of this century may not be found in the bits and bytes of the digital world, but rather in the realm of nature itself. We are only at the very beginnings of understanding what it means to modify DNA, the code of life.

In 2003, the publicly funded Human Genome Project sequenced the entirety of our DNA, providing the blueprint for building a human being at a price of $3 billion. President Clinton, announcing the working draft sequence of the Human Genome in 2000, said: “Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by human kind.”

Fast forward just over a decade, and the cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped to roughly $1,000 — an exponential reduction in price far exceeding what Moore’s Law would predict. A host of companies are racing to introduce technology to make even more rapid and inexpensive sequencing possible. With the widespread affordability of this sophisticated test quickly becoming reality, genomics can provide the map for a new wave of personalized therapies — highly targeted drugs for fighting cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other hereditary illnesses. 

The human genome transcribed into more than a hundred volumes. Each book is a thousand pages long, written in type so tiny it can hardly be read.  Photo by Russ London.  License:  CC-BY-SA-3.0

The human genome transcribed into more than a hundred volumes. Each book is a thousand pages long, written in type so tiny it can hardly be read. Photo by Russ London. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0

As with genome sequencing, the price of DNA synthesis continues to drop. It is now 25 cents per base pair or less via services like GenScriptDNA 2.0, and others. Writing the code of life is the cornerstone of the science of synthetic biology — the intentional design and engineering of biological systems — that will make incredible things possible. George Church, geneticist, Harvard professor, and perhaps the most well-known scientist in this field, in his book “Regenesis”, outlines some of the inventive solutions offered by this future potential, including bio-fuels, targeted gene therapies, and even virus-resistant human beings. In Church’s expansive vision, we see a future where humans have the capability to design and change the fabric of biology and human evolution.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach
The challenges inherent in genomics and synthetic biology are far too great for an individual to encompass the requisite cross-domain knowledge. For this kind of work, then, the team will become paramount. It is a multi-disciplinary mix of scientists, engineers, and designers that will be best positioned to understand and leverage these technologies — and it is crucial that these creative disciplines evolve together. From such collaborations new roles will be created — perhaps we will soon see a great need for the synthetic biological systems engineer.

This cross-pollination of science, design, and engineering is already happening at organizations like the Wyss Institute at Harvard, whose mission is to develop materials and devices inspired by nature and biology. The Wyss structures itself around multi-disciplinary teams. Forward-thinking design firms are adding synthetic biology to their established practices of industrial and digital design.

As an example of this cross-pollination, in a presentation, “Life is what you make it,” given at a Friday Evening Discourse at The Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, esteemed scientist and Imperial College professor Paul Freemont described how biological design could take its cues from computer software engineering, using an abstraction hierarchy for biological design. In the design of complex systems, an abstraction hierarchy allows engineers to focus on solving the problems at hand, because they don't necessarily need to understand the complexity of the lower levels of the hierarchy. In software development, for example, engineers can code in Java or C++ and not need to understand the machine-level code that ultimately executes the program. In the coming revolution in biological design, such an abstraction hierarchy will allow bio-engineers to operate similarly. 

While programming may be an apt analogy for that manipulation of nature, there are fundamental differences between the writing of computer code and genetic code. Even if we know the outcome of the genetic code we write, the environment into which it is released is far more complex then the controlled operating system of a computer or mobile device. There is so much unknown about biological systems that prototyping and testing will be critical steps for responsible innovation. While designers won’t necessarily need to become genetic engineers to contribute to the field of synthetic biology, we’ll need to understand the materials just as deeply. 

Innovative designers like Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Daan Roosegaarde are already incorporating synthetic biology into their forward-looking projects that run the gamut from bacteria that change color to indicate the presence of toxins in our gut, through our fecal matter to glowing trees to light our streets and highways. 

To find our way forward as designers, we must be willing to take risks — relying upon a combination of our education, experience, and intuition — which can be key to innovation. We must always keep in mind both the benefits and consequences for people using these new technologies, and be prepared for mixed results.

Studio Roosegaarde's visualization of a light-emitting tree with a bio-luminescent coating, as seen on .

Studio Roosegaarde's visualization of a light-emitting tree with a bio-luminescent coating, as seen on

If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, check out "Designing for Emerging Technologies", from O'Reilly Media. I was honored to serve as editor and lead author on this project. In the book, you will discover 20 essays, from designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers, exploring areas of fast-moving, ground breaking technology in desperate need of experience design — from genetic engineering to neuroscience to wearables to biohacking — and discussing frameworks and techniques they've used in the burgeoning practice area of UX for emerging technologies.

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Ethics and Bias in AI

On The Digital Life podcast, Jon Follett and Dirk Knemeyer discuss ethics and bias in AI, with Tomer Perry, research associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. What do we mean by bias when it comes to AI? And how do we avoid including biases we’re not even aware of?

If AI software for processing and analyzing data begins providing decision-making for core elements critical to our society we'll need to address these issues. For instance, risk assessments used in the correctional system have been shown to incorporate bias against minorities. When it comes to self-driving cars, people want to be protected, but also want the vehicle, in principle to "do the right thing" when encountering situations where the lives of both the driver and others, like pedestrians, are at risk. How we should deal with it? What are the ground rule sets for ethics and morality in AI, and where do they come from? Join us as we discuss.

Designing the Dynamic Human-Robot Relationship

Jonathan Follett, editor of Designing for Emerging Technologies, chats with Scott Stropkay, founding partner at Essential Design Service, and Bill Hartman, director of research at Essential Design Service to talk about the relationship dynamic between humans and robots, and ways designers are being stretched in an interesting new direction.

"The Future of Product Design" Free Ebook

Design and production considerations change throughout any product's lifecycle—from prototype to market introduction, through growth and maturity, and finally into decline—with each stage introducing its own set of challenges. But emerging technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, and the IoT are disrupting every stage of this lifecycle as they reinvigorate existing categories and create entirely new ones.

In this free report from O'Reilly Media, Jon Follett examines, from a designer's perspective, the ways in which emerging technologies are affecting the product lifecycle, and explores various options for companies looking at new ways of approaching product design and development.

Today, not only must companies contend with the difficulties of introducing emerging tech into their product portfolio, they must also negotiate a labyrinth of complex factors, as the product design and development cycle itself is remade by these new technologies as well. This report will help you to understand and navigate this new world of product design.

The Future of Design: UX for Emerging Technologies

Since the dawn of technology, man has had to deal with both its benefits and burdens. The fire that cooks your food, burns your hands; the mills and factories that produce your clothes, pollute your water and air; the computer that processes your data, crashes and send your mission critical records into oblivion.

The technological changes we will witness in our generation are beyond imagination. Over the next thirty years, there is little that humans can dream that we won't be able to do — from hacking our DNA, to embedding computers in our bodies, to printing replacement organs. The fantastic vision of science fiction today will become the reality of tomorrow. Similar to the Second Industrial Revolution in America — when inventions and innovations from electric power to the automobile first became prominent, experienced widespread adoption, and helped shape our modern existence — we are undergoing a period of technological advancement that will alter the way we live our lives in nearly every way.

As we face a future where what it means to be human will be inexorably changed, we desperately need experience design to help frame our interactions with emerging technologies that are already racing ahead of our ability to process and manage them on an emotional, ethical, and societal level.

Whether we're struggling with fear and loathing in reaction to genetically altered foods, the moral issues of changing a child's traits to suit a parent's preferences, the ethics guiding battlefield robots, or the societal implications of a 150-year extended lifetime, it's abundantly clear that the future of experience design will be to envision humanity's relationship to technology and each other. 

The coming wave of technological change will make the tumult and disruption of the past decade’s digital and mobile revolutions look like a minor blip by comparison. As we look beyond the screen to the rich world of interactions and experiences that need to be designed, we need to define new areas of practice. Experience design will be a critical to tie the technology to human use and benefit. For those asking "How can we do this?" we must counter, "Why and for whose benefit?". 

How will this happen? To begin with, the boundaries between product design and engineering for software, hardware, and biotech are already blurring. Powerful technologies are creating an environment of constant change for the creative class knowledge workers. In the coming years, those who began their professional lives as industrial designers, computer engineers, user experience practitioners, scientists, and system thinkers, will find that the trajectory of their careers takes them into uncharted territory as the cross-pollination and evolution of these fields in parallel creates new possibilities for influencing humanity’s progress.

Designers have only just begun to think about the implications of emerging technologies for the human condition. We can and should be involved early with these emerging technologies as they develop, representing the human side of the equation. And while we can't anticipate all the possible outcomes, thinking about how these technologies will act within a larger ecosystem and how they might effect people in the short and long term, will be time well spent. 

While this challenge won't necessarily be taken up by or even appropriate for everyone who currently works in the various design fields, for a select few the chance to wrestle with the multivariate, sometimes incongruous inputs required to shape our human interactions with and understanding of emerging technologies, will be exactly the right opportunity.