This sandpit project was unconventional, interdisciplinary and international, involving synthetic biology, social science, art and design. It was a collaboration between the Universities of Edinburgh and Stanford, jointly funded by the EPSRC and the NSF. The project brought together six synthetic biologists with six artists and designers to spend time in each other's work spaces in reciprocal paired residences. The residents were from a range of different fields of art and design (architecture, bioart, critical design, product design, smell, and music), and a variety of subfields of synthetic biology (parts-based, protocells, cyanobacteria, plant science, and cell signalling). The residents engaged in a diverse range of activities including: extracting the logic of biology and applying it to architecture, integrating ‘design thinking’ into synthetic biology, making cheese from bacteria that grow on human skin, and re-interpreting synthetic biology from the humbling perspective of geological time. During the residencies the project team carried out interviews with the participants, and observed and documented the exchanges.
One of our aims was to initiate collaborations that were mutually transformative, and we have found that the work of both the synthetic biologists and the artists/designers has been changed by their involvement in the project. We wanted to start a process that would continue for the longer term, and we are pleased that although the residents officially finished their exchanges at the end of 2010, they have all chosen to continue their collaborations. Another objective was to lay the groundwork for new and expanded curriculum across both engineering and design schools. There are signs that this is happening: the residents and project team members have been involved in a range of different teaching initiatives. Another objective was to improve synthetic biological projects and products and their contribution to society. This is clearly a long-term aim, but the interaction of synthetic biologists with artists, designers and social scientists has already led to more informed and nuanced discussion of the issues raised by engineering living things, and a greater recognition of the importance of views from those outside science and engineering in the development of the field. At the intersection of synthetic biology, social science and art and design we have created a space where new questions can be raised, providing new opportunities for cooperation, debate and critical reflection on all sides.