Designing with Life,
Designing for Life

“We’re drowning in information, but we’re starving for wisdom.” 1

Humanity’s understanding of time is defined by an ever-evolving relationship with our planet. On a geological scale, we divide time into epochs: from the formation of Earth during the Hadean Eon some 4.5 billion years ago, to arguably the most famous – the Jurassic Period (201-145 million years ago), to the current and most contentious: the Anthropocene. On a human scale, time is understood through a lens of materiality: in European history, the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages; ancient non-Western beliefs centered around the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire; and most recently, the periodic table of elements. Historically, materials have been born out of necessity, evolving to accommodate the changing needs of societies. Once these needs shift, a new relationship emerges:

“The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones.
It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live.”

The Industrial Revolution – defined by a push for growth, capitalism, a shift from making to manufacturing – birthed humanity’s most damaging and unsustainable material system: the Oil Age. “We are tethered to this resource, and we’ve crafted a dependency on it that defines our identities, cultures, our ways of making, and our economies.”3

These violent symptoms of our lack of imagination
to live within the limits of the Earth are being felt,
and the evidence is irrefutable.

The Earth bakes as the planet’s 0.5% of fresh, accessible water dwindles.A drought in the Mediterranean that started in 1998 is considered to be the worst of the last 900 years, affecting more than 480 million people.5 Since 2010, every successive year has registered a new record in average global temperature.6 Icecaps melt and Water rises as the Arctic measures just 1.44 million square miles, half of its area 40 years ago.7 Wildlife chokes on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic estimated to measure twice the size of Texas.8 The world chokes as levels of carbon dioxide in the Air continue to rise. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have led to an increase of 47% in atmospheric carbon dioxide.9 Fires ravage the planet, with an estimated 3 billion animals killed or displaced in Australia’s recent Black Summer,10 spewing half of the nation’s annual carbon emissions into the atmosphere.11

However, an emerging movement bringing together tools and ideologies from biology and science, art and design, and engineering is ushering in a new era, one defined by “the machine and organism, assembly and growth”12: the Biological Age. The use of “biologically based tools”13 and synthetic biology across a diverse range of fields – from agriculture, fashion, medicine, and architecture – aims to unite high and low tech in order to create more ecological futures.

The first known use of the term ‘synthetic biology’ was by French biologist Stéphane Leduc in 1910, but it was only in the 1950s that the basic structure of life – DNA – was beginning to be understood. Biotechnology as a field emerged in the 1970s when scientists learned how to transplant sections of DNA from one organism to another, and by the late 1980s, machines capable of synthesizing DNA letter by letter were being developed.

Today, synthetic biology harnesses the potential of microorganisms as both materials and co-designers, allowing for collaborative, interspecies relationships in the hopes of creating more certain and symbiotic futures. Benjamin Bratton argues,

“The job of Design in the 21st century
is to undo (much of) the Design of the 20th.” 

However, the role of the human hand in manipulating life and the planet is a contentious topic. Despite an undeniable history of damage and displacement, some argue against the curation of life on a molecular scale. One of the most common criticisms of synthetic biology is an argument against human intervention in the ‘natural’. However, this implicates humans as removed from the world and life forms around them. Why is it that human intervention in nature is seen as intrusive and ‘unnatural’? Why are we separated from nature, instead of being seen as intricately a part of and reliant upon it?

Western histories and cultures of anthropocentricism, colonialism (and with that, racism and sexism), and capitalism have fractured humanity’s relationships with and understandings of nature and other living organisms. Informed by the European invention of the idea of nature – “an ontological fiction”15 – what grows is discounted as primitive, whereas what is built is considered innovative. During the Renaissance, “a limited sector of [Earth’s] creatures were able to define themselves as human and impose their self-referential description as standard for all living organisms.”16 According to Walsh and Mignolo, modernity was built on a foundation of oppositions: the masculine and feminine, white and nonwhite, developed and undeveloped, and finally, human and non-human. Fueled further by the Age of Industrialization, 19th century ideologies surrounding progress continue to inform today’s narrow understandings of technology. Julia Watson refers to this as the Mythology of Technology.17

Where a product is iterated and developed,
life is backed by tens of millions of years
of evolution, adaptation, and survival.

The genetic modification of organisms has been passionately resisted around the world, and falls into the trope of “dangerous knowledge”.18 Contemporary beleifs of both the potentials and possible consequences of “dangerous knowledge” are informed by fictional and mythological representations. The most famous example, Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, “explores the unintended consequences of our human science when we relinquish responsibility from what we create.”19 According to Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire for humankind and was consequently punished by Zeus. This myth highlights the idea that there is some knowledge only a god should possess. Furthermore, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov coined the term ‘Frankenstein complex’ to refer to “the fear of humans using technology to breach God’s realm”20; even the phrase ‘playing God’ was born of the 1931 film adaptation of Shelley’s novel, in which Dr. Frankenstein declares, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

Despite the reputation of synthetic biology as ‘unnatural’, and genetically-modified organisms as uncontrollable and dangerous, the practice of shaping biology for humanity’s own purposes is not new. It is estimated that the domestication of plants and animals dates back some 10,000 years.21 The products of these interventions are so familiar and ubiquitous, they have become invisible, transforming over time into the new ‘natural’. For example, for centuries, carrots naturally grew white or purple. It was only in the 17th century that orange carrots emerged, the product of selective breeding by Dutch farmers as a tribute to King William of Orange. Due to the popularity of the orange mutant, almost all original color variants died out within a generation.

“For millennia, [humans] have been sourcing molecules from organisms for things like flavors, fragrances, vitamins, and drugs. With synthetic biology, we can harness the machinery to make those molecules such that we don’t need to go destroying the planet’s ecosystems to harvest them.” 22

‘Nature’ is derived from the Latin natus, meaning ‘born’.23 From the moment of birth, life is defined by growth; however, since the Industrial Revolution, modern life has been dictated by assemblage. Contemporary cross-disciplinary practitioners working with biology call for a change in not just the production of artifacts and architecture, but an entire paradigm shift in our understanding of ‘good’ design – that is, “a new dimension of how performance is evaluated: the degree of sustainability.”24 In order to ensure the future of our home and our species, perhaps we need a renaissance, rather than a revolution: a return to nature, “the best among all engineers and architects.”25

1. Julia Watson, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Cologne: Taschen, 2019).

2. William McDonough quoted, Jo Twist, "Eco-designs on future cities,” BBC News, July 14, 2005,
3. Natsai Audrey Chieza. 2015. “Fashion Has a Pollution Problem - Can Biology Fix It?” filmed October 2017 at TED&BCG Milan, video, 13:06,

4. “Freshwater Crisis,” National Geographic, accessed September 24, 2020,

5. Ellen Gray, “Drought in eastern Mediterranean worst of past 900 years,” NASA’s Earth Science News Team, February 29, 2015, accessed October 2, 2020,

6. “Vital Signs: Global Temperature,” NASA, last modified September 28, 2020, accessed October 2, 2020,
7. “Charctic Interactive Sea Ice Graph,” National Snow & Ice Data Center, accessed October 2, 2020,

8. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” The Ocean Cleanup, accessed October 2, 2020,
9. “Vital Signs: Carbon Dioxide,” NASA, last modified September 28, 2020, accessed October 2, 2020,

10. “Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfires: The Wildlife Toll,” WWF, July 28, 2020, accessed August 28, 2020,

11. Heesu Lee, “Bushfires Release Over Half Australia’s Annual Carbon Emissions,” Time, December 23, 2019, accessed July 28, 2020,
12. Neri Oxman, “Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology,” filmed March 2015 at TED, video, 17:24,

13. Susan Hockfield, The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), ix.
14. Benjamin Bratton, “On Speculative Design,” speech February 10, 2016 at the University of California, San Diego,

15. Catherine E. Walsh and Walter Mignolo, “The Invention of the Human and the Three Pillars of the Colonial Matrix of Power: Racism, Sexism, and Nature,” in On Decoloniality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 158.

16. Ibid., 159.

17. Watson, Lo-TEK.

18. Sandra Swart, “Frankenzebra: Dangerous Knowledge and the Narrative Construction of Monsters,” Journal of Literary Studies 30, no. 4 (December 2014): 45.

19. Britt Wray, Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2017).

20. Swart, “Frankenzebra,” 48.

21. Oliver Morton, “A whole new world,” The Economist Technology Quarterly: Synthetic biology, April 6, 2019, 3.

22. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 6.

23. “Nature,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed April 11, 2020,

24. William Myers, Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 15.

25. Paola Antonelli, “Vital Design,” in Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity, ed. William Myers (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 7.