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Architects of the living world

18 October 2021

10 min. to read

©Toby Coulson
Natsai Audrey Chieza, the founder of Faber Futures, has been invited as an ambassador of DDW21 to reflect upon the relationship between humans and nature. Her project, the Bio.Stories forum, relates to the sub-theme It's in our nature as part of this year's central theme, The Greater Number. We spoke to her about the relationships we want to have with nature as mediated by synthetic biology's emerging technology.

A seat at the World Economic Forum table

As a designer and leading thinker on synthetic biology, Natsai was invited in 2020 to become a council member for the Global Futures Council of Synthetic Biology at the World Economic Forum (WEF). "It was a huge honour to be invited there as a designer. For me, it was the recognition that synthetic biology will be an industry that touches all of our lives. For design to be represented there, is to acknowledge the closeness to society that design has, and, therefore, how we can interpret the emergence of the technology as a discipline and perhaps steer it in a certain direction. A direction that otherwise would not have been represented, would we not have been given a seat at the table."

Design as a conversation starter

As design touches all of our lives, the design field is a natural starting point for this critical discussion on this emerging technology. "Design is well-equipped to answer so many of the challenges that we're facing if the questions are oriented in the right direction," Natsai explains. "It's essential for this conversation to start here because we can reach a wider pool of people because our practices interface with society at a certain level. Unlike traditional modes of policy making that can at times be somewhat removed from the realities of life, designers, more often than not, have a closer relationship to what’s at play closer to the ground. When supported, designers have the capacity to develop, prototype and disseminate systemic solutions to everyday problems.

So, to ask ourselves this question of 'who are the stakeholders of our future?' and how do we assemble them, how do we curate and encourage dialogue to hold space for these methodologies?"

Expanding the dialogue

In 2020 the World Economic Forum formed a new Global Future Council on Synthetic Biology. Synthetic biology is developing approaches to design and repurposing the building blocks of the living world, and the Council’s mission is to explore which futures are made possible and which may be desirable. As part of this work, the Council has partnered with Faber Futures on a project called ‘Bio.Stories’. Bio.Stories is a multi-stage engagement strategy to solicit compelling narratives about our changing relationships with the living world from stakeholders whose insights and viewpoints may have been underrepresented in previous global discussions.

When invited as a DDW21 ambassador, Natsai and her Faber Futures team were in the process of developing a dialogue setting for WEF. "We saw the opportunity at DDW in Eindhoven to expand those dialogues. I think so much about our motivation to do this in Eindhoven is tied to the fact that DDW highlights a specific localism, bringing the city together to  interact with what is happening through the exhibits."


The ambassadors project Bio.Stories is a design installation forum inviting us to think about what kind of relationships we want to have with nature as mediated by technology. The 3-day forum invites different stakeholders to be part of that conversation. Stakeholders that would otherwise not be represented, or stakeholders that would otherwise not interact with one another."

In the Bio.Stories forum, three topics will be explored:

-       Mission: What relationships do we have and want to have with nature?

-       Money: What systems, tools and infrastructures shape our relationships with the living world?

-       Molecules: how do we value the living world?

Together with invited speakers and the wider audience, Faber Futures will examine how we can work with nature to shape a future that centers the values of equity, sustainability, solidarity and humility.

"We have designed the experience to be as accessible as possible. It is easy to get bogged  down in trying to define what synthetic biology is rather than what it means for us on a day-to-day basis. We've tried to distil this not so much around what it is as a science or an industry and how it works. Rather, what are the implications of our capacity to engineer life?"

Everybody is a stakeholder

The international ambassador states: "The notion of engineered life forms is no longer something that might happen. It's already happening. And from that perspective, we must ask the question how these technologies are going to mediate the living world." Developments in synthetic biology are not happening in a vacuum. Therefore anyone should be able to join the conversation. What we’ve done curatorially with the exhibit is to facilitate that entry point. "And so for people who are not well-versed in the topic, this is an invitation for them to discover its realities and nuances differently. And to discover, importantly, that they know a lot more about it than they realize. And that because of that, they are important stakeholders to that conversation and the development of interventions"

Systemic thinking as a skill

Natsai urges the design field and industry to think beyond the products and materials from the molecules. "What concerns me – I think about the focus on the product alone, that doesn't engage with the right system – is that we're not having a critical conversation about how these new interventions can offer meaningful solutions to our biggest problems. And the solutions to pollution, waste, resource scarcity etcaren't due to merely  replacing materials or processes alone. They are actually tied to much bigger system change."

Natsai gives the example of the covid vaccine to explain the importance of systemic thinking. "Synthetic biology is the reason why we were able to come up with a vaccine so quickly, following decades of research. And yet, we have gross vaccine inequity on this planet, which is shameful. That shows you that we can't look at this only from the perspective of drop in solutions. We have to question the systems that they are going to interact with. And I don't expect one single actor to be able to do that alone. It is about how we cross-pollinate and build with other stakeholders."

The covid vaccine patent is an example of one of the prompts you can find in the exhibition space of Bio Stories, showcasing everyday examples of how this technology, and it’s infrastructure influences our lives and what is at stake.

A bio-based world?

With synthetic biology and the rise of bio-materials, we could be moving towards a more sustainable future for our material goods. "When replacing our current system with a new one, we must be aware of scale – as our existing systems extract and waste at an unsustainable scale.”

"A culture shift around consumerism is needed. We need material goods, but in the global West, the rate of consumption tied to carbon emissions and biodiversity loss is not compatible with life on earth  and is the reason why we are facing ecological collapse." Natsai feels we can distribute the means of bio-design and expand where these innovations can take place, even though it will take time and sustained engagement from practitioners and investors. "I think there are many things that point towards that future. Our ability to be able to distribute the manufacturing of bio-enabled material and product systems, and therefore localising solution-building."

Diversity in engagement

Finally, we ask Natsai: what is The Greater Number regarding our relationship with nature? "I want to see more diversity in the field of synthetic biology and bio-design: a greater number of people from different backgrounds and cultures, more diversity in the kinds of solutions we see, how they are deployed and who they help."

The Bio.Stories forum will take place between 16:30 and 18:00 on Monday 18, Tuesday 19 and Wednesday 20 October at Mu Hybrid Art House (Strijp-S). Open access for everyone to join in on the conversation.  Or visit the exhibition on any other day during DDW.