A new technology is changing the world, turning dreams into reality and promising solutions to some of our most difficult problems.
The industry wants to use it. Wall Street is investing in it. And governments around the world are paying attention. But with that excitement and recognition come questions of ethics, responsibility, and unexpected results.
Is it crypto? Blockchain? Artificial intelligence? Social media?
No. This emerging technology is synthetic biology, a set of disciplines that aims to make the life sciences more like engineering, programming organisms to create new products and solve problems in energy, agriculture, medicine, and manufacturing.
For the young companies that are pioneering the application of synthetic biology, it is a heady and hopeful moment. The possibilities for growth and impact at the level of civilization are enormous. But the unintended consequences of these powerful new tools could also be just as wide-ranging.
That’s why one of the major players in this space, Ginkgo Bioworks, has invited artists and creators into its labs to ask tough questions, pose uncomfortable problems, and help Ginkgo wrestle with the human effects of synthetic biology.
Ginkgo Creative Director Christina Agapakis and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza launched Ginkgo Creative Residency in 2017 as a joint initiative of Ginkgo Bioworks and Chieza’s design agency Faber Futures.
As Chieza recalled, it occurred when Agapakis inquired about purchasing one of Chieza’s bacteria-dyed textiles for the Ginkgo headquarters. “I declined,” Chieza said, “because, at the time, I thought we could do more together.” Instead, Cheiza suggested that Ginkgo put the money toward a residence, with her being the first resident. “I’ll be your willing guinea pig,” Chieza recalled telling Agapakis. Agapakis’ response was immediate. “That sounds great. Let’s do it.”
The Ginkgo Creative Residency welcomes creative professionals to Ginkgo’s headquarters in Boston for an annual three-month residency. Residents are paid a monthly stipend of $5,000 plus a project budget, and retain intellectual property for works created in the Ginkgo lab and with Ginkgo tools. “This defines the relationship that we are establishing with the creative residents,” according to Chieza. “They should feel free to do their job without holding back.”
The six creatives who have already partnered with Ginkgo on the residency show defy easy stereotypes. They are writers, architects, photographers, futurists, designers and specialists in interaction and interface. Some have extensive experience working with the tools of biology; others come to the laboratory as novices. And his projects at Ginkgo reflect this varied set of interests and backgrounds:
• The implications of creating at scale and how it changes the process, the output, the craft and the tools of biology.
• Visualization of wearable sensors and the importance of human interaction in biodesign
• Explore the decomposition process and how to design a world without waste
• The role of skin in mediating interactions between organisms: a zone of “cross-species gossip”
• How language shapes synthetic biology and the search for new meaning
“Each residency has been really different,” explained Joshua Dunn, Ginkgo’s head of design and mentor to the Ginkgo creative residency team. “I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone call themselves a professional artist. But it’s not just about art, it’s about asking questions and provoking.”
This focus on inquiry and being open to provocation is the essence of the Ginkgo Creative Residency. It helps ensure that the company’s mission of creating value through synthetic biology continues to serve human needs and the good of society.
“How do you ask the right question to know that you are improving the world? How do you bring other voices into the process of making this type of design? Agapakis said. “It’s important for us to not only welcome, but truly engage with those critiques and ways of seeing and asking ourselves, ‘Is this the right way to go? How can we incorporate that point of view into the way we approach a problem?’”
Andrea Ling, architect, researcher, and installation artist, was the 2019 Ginkgo resident. Her project, “Design by Decay, Decay by Design,” was inspired by how nothing is thrown away in nature. The wastes of one organism are food for the growth of another. Matter and energy return to the system as a form of self-renewal.
“For the third residency call, on waste, we were more deliberate about what we were asking residents to commit to,” Chieza recalled. “Our goal was to help Ginkgo think strategically about issues of the day like central sustainability in synthetic biology. That was not the most important thing for people at that time.”
For Ling, the three-month residency only hinted at the possibilities of creating with biodegradation. As he wrote in his post-project summary: “Let’s design waste as nature designs it, not just as the result of destruction and decomposition, but as inputs for renovation and construction.”
“There’s a rich dialogue here about what we’re doing and its effects,” Dunn said. “Those aren’t just the effects of misusing the technologies we’re building, but what are the effects of using them the right way? I’m involved in this show so I can hear that kind of dialogue and be a part of it as well.”
Why does this embrace of an outside perspective work for Ginkgo? According to Tom Knight, co-founder of the company and a leader in the world of computing before making the leap to the life sciences, it all comes down to how disciplines are linked, often in unexpected ways.
“You can educate yourself in a very narrow sense with the goal of learning a specific subject and becoming an expert on that subject. But the other goal is to learn how all these topics are connected. I like to quote Mark Twain: ‘You don’t want your studies to get in the way of your education.’”
And, for Knight, that kind of broad curiosity, embedded in a company-wide culture, sets Ginkgo apart. “What is the most valuable asset that Ginkgo has? It is not our intellectual property; it’s not our team. It’s the employees,” Knight said. “More than that, it’s who those people are and what their values are and what the company culture is. So it’s natural to want to amplify that culture and celebrate it with a creative residency. What worries me most about the company in the long term is that we lose that culture. It’s the most important thing we have.”
By bringing in creative residents, outsiders, who ask questions and explore topics that don’t get regular attention in a profit-driven environment, Ginkgo is finding a way to sustain that culture and strengthen it for the future.
“Artists have the imagination and the openness to say, ‘What world do we want to live in together?’ That is something I appreciate and value about working with artists,” said Agapakis, reflecting on the importance of the Ginkgo Creative Residency. “We know in our hearts, those of us who have been around synthetic biology for a long time, that biology will be an important part of that new world and will change the way we live forever. That’s why creative collaborations are important. They give you the tools and the space to start imagining what could be.”