SPACES & PLACES
By Julia Buntaine, Editor-in-Chief
This past June, 29 biologists, designers, artists, architects, technologists, and cross-disciplinary scholars and doers gathered at New York City's MoMA. Brought together for the Biodesign Challenge's (BDC) third annual summit, I was honored to be among those 29 judges who were tasked with deciding what projects on show combined biotechnology with design in the most promising, innovative, and elegant ways.
2018 Overall Winner: MYCOMMUNITY TOILET
In short, BDC is an international student competition which brings art and design students into the lab to envision and create new solutions for problems large and small. With its first summit in 2016, BDC has since engaged dozens of institutions worldwide. Impressively, many student groups go on to found companies based on their competition projects. The 2016 winning team from the Fashion Institute of Technology now run AlgiKnit, a company which creates a kelp-based alternative to yarn. Each year, the teams cover a vast ground of social and cultural concern, from rethinking the fashion industry's materials to improving local air quality to alternatives to plastic packaging to tracking our microbiome health and more.
Looking back on the last three years, I spoke with BDC's founder, Daniel Grushkin, on the founding and mission of BDC:
Julia Buntaine, SciArt Magazine: Why did you found Biodesign Challenge? What need was there between biology and design, with a focus on student education, which you see the annual challenge as filling?
Daniel Grushkin: I started BDC when I was still journalist writing about biotech. One of the things I noticed in my reporting was the absence of designers - and really anyone from the humanities - involved in developing new applications in biotech. And at the time, the ideas emerging from the field felt stale, unrealistic, and often undesirable (who needed another biofuels company?). Meanwhile, I was working with artists and designers at Genspace (our community biology lab in Brooklyn). Artists and designers provided an entirely refreshing perspective on the technology. It became clear to me that biotech needed art and design for it to develop in more thoughtful ways.
Biotech is a transformative technology - it asks people to reconsider their identities, relationships with each other, and with the living world. This is fertile ground for art and design. Simultaneously, for any technology to successfully move beyond the lab, researchers really need to think beyond the technical - how will people use it? Who will use it? Who won’t? How will it be made? How will it be disposed? What are the ethics in its use? How does it fit into a context of other technologies? etc. These questions reach beyond the lab into questions of society-at-large. And in many ways, this is the realm of art and design.
Of course, the problem is that biotechnology is not often taught outside of biology programs, and the language and concepts can be abstruse. We created the Biodesign Challenge to bridge biotech, art, and design. The goal is to seed a new generation of biodesigners and bioartists - people who are fluent in languages of biology, art, and design. We hope to build an interdisciplinary community, while engaging the larger public about the potentials - both desirable and undesirable - of biotech.
2017 Overall Winner: QUANTWORM MINE
JB: After just finishing your third annual summit, what has been the most surprising thing so far in running this program?
DG: I was surprised by how eager art and design students are to get into the lab. I’m always pleased to see that they are unintimidated by the new technical language and concepts of biology, and want to jump right in. I admire our students’ courage.
2016 Runner Up: MYOTOMATO
JB: What are some of your favorite projects and why?
DG: When I was a kid, we used to badger my parents by asking, which one of us is your favorite child? I’ll answer you the way my parents answered me: You're all my favorites. I know... pretty unsatisfying. Honestly, students and instructors are putting so much of themselves into these projects. It has become one of the great pleasures of my life to play my part to help.
2016 Overall Winner: BIOESTERS