Victimless Prototype, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, 2004
Hair harbourer, The Race, Michael Burton, 2007
Clinical Trial, Future Farm, Michael Burton, 2007
Foot Growth, Future Farm, Michael Burton, 2007

Guest Editor

Genetic identity, pharming, DNA theft, biopiracy, designer babies, consumer eugenics, genetic underclass and molecular surveillance ? these are just a few of the many new terms that have appeared in the media over the last few years in an effort to try and understand or often simply describe the implications of recent developments in biotechnology on ideas of identity, self, family, nature  and technology.

Although many issues are already being examined by ethicists and government organisations, the results usually take the form of highly technical, almost philosophical reports. When they are reported in the popular media it is often alarmist and sensational. Film and literature sometimes deal with these themes, but due to the nature of the media they stay fictional and are often over dramatised.

Products however, as a special category of object, can locate these issues within a context of everyday material culture. Design today is concerned with commercial and marketing activities, but it could operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into an everyday context in a novel yet accessible way.

Although there is a relatively high awareness of biotechnology in the public sphere, there is very little actual understanding of it and, as a result, public discussion is very limited. Much of the current debate is presented through newspapers and specialist reports. The flow of information is one-way -- from the experts to the public. It is only when something goes wrong that the public get to express their concerns, for example the GM food debate in the UK. In much of the debate so far, the public have participated as citizens arguing in very general terms about the ethical, moral and social issues. Yet when we act as consumers we often suspend these general beliefs and act on other impulses. There is a separation between what we believe ought to be and how we actually behave when we want to use a biotech service or product.

Design can shift the discussion from one of abstract generalities separated from our lives to tangible examples grounded in our experiences as members of a consumer society. In this way, people can become involved in the debate earlier creating a dialogue between the public and the experts who  define the policies and regulations that will shape the future of biotechnology.

The hope is that design can explore public perceptions of different biofutures before they happen, and make a contribution to the design of regulations that ensure the most humane and desirable futures are the most likely to become reality. Ideas of right and wrong are not just abstractions, but are entangled in everyday consumer choices.

When technology is developing as rapidly as it is now, reflection and criticism are particularly important. We need to consider alternative visions to those put forward by industry.

Design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers.

As biotech moves out of the laboratory into the marketplace, there is a need now, more than ever, for a form of design that questions the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies. A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures, and avoid the least desirable.

As part of the process of understanding where design sits within this new space of enquiry, a number of experts were invited by Anthony Dunne and Sandra Kemp to a one day seminar at the Royal College of Art supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to present different perspectives on human enhancement. The audience, of about 30 people, included bioethicists, philosophers, designers, artists, writers, dancers, curators and lawyers. The purpose was to  explore new roles for design in relation to biotechnology and to discuss what design has to offer ongoing and future debates in this area. It?s one of many varied encounters that, as designers practicing in this very different context, we find oursleves participating in. We have picked out a few of the ideas we found engaging to give you a flavour of some of the ideas presented.

Michael Burton, a recent graduate of the Design Interactions course, really pushes the edges of speculative design. His project challenges the current healthcare model of isolating ourselves from the ecosystem. A system which is currently in crisis as antibiotics are often no longer effective, and untreatable super bugs like MSRSA have begun to emerge.

Michael sets out an alternative vision for health care based on reconnecting ourselves to the ecosystem. It's a purposely provocative position. The ideas behind the project are informed by David Strachan's Hygiene Hypothesis and Graham Rook's Microbial Exposure Hypothesis, better known as the Old Friends Hypothesis.

His project asks us to reconsider ourselves as more than just our DNA, but as an highly complex co-evolved organism, part animal part conglomeration of bacteria, microbes and parasites.

The project uses a number of short films, photographs and objects to take us from an alternative present to a distant future.

The first idea explores the use of maggots to clean up wounds after surgery. If they were to be used, they would save huge amounts of money and increase a patient?s recovery rate. But for most people, maggots are disgusting and not the sort of thing we'd like keep on, or even, in our bodies despite the benefits.

In his second scenario, Michael explores biophilia clinics. These are places people could go to increase their exposure to animal dirt and microbes. Our favourite is the lamb with extra long hair that when it shakes its head exposes patients to a flurry of bateria and microbes -- that we would never normally be exposed to in our over-sanitised and hyper-clean environments -- with the intention of making our rather fragile and eroded immunue systems more robust.

Looking further into the future, Michael outlines a scenario where people voluntarily offer their bodies up for pharming. For instance, the body might be used to grow chemicals for use in medicines

In the last and most futuristic scenario, people lead an almost fully integrated existence with nature. Finger nails have mutated to pick up more dirt, an exaggeration, but necessary to make the point, and coarse facial hair is used to create cages for crickets and other insects which share our bodies and symbolise our reintegration back into nature.

Although set in the near and distant future, these are by no means predictions or forecasts, their purpose is to spark debate about how our relationship to nature might change in the face of new technological possibilities and problems with existing approaches to drugs and healthcare.

Oron Catts presented the work of the Tissue Culture & Art Project hosted by SymbioticA, the Art & Science Collaborative Research Laboratory based in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia.

Their work explores what it means to design and build objects and even products from semi-living tissue. How would we relate to objects if we knew they were made from real tissue (human as well as animal)? What does it mean for people who object to eating or using parts animals for clothing if animals are no longer harmed?

Many of their pieces use immortalised cell lines available to scientists for research. Basically, cells are extracted from humans or animals and grown in-vitro so the animal is unharmed.

This particular piece, a 'victimless leather' jacket, uses a substrate of biodegradable polymer matrix shaped like a jacket over which a living layer of tissue is grown. Like Michael's work, it?s designed to provoke debate rather than set out a plausible future.

Sandra Kemp focuses on issues of identity in relation to the face and recent technological developments. She spoke about Isabelle Dinoire, the woman who recently had a face transplant, and how when she smiles she doesn't feel as though it?s a true expression of how she feels because the creases on the transplanted face interact with her muscle structure to create a new expression.

The operation enabled her 'to return to the planet of human beings - those who have a face, a smile, facial expressions with which they communicate...

As for the face, it is not me. It will never be me ... I couldn't look at my old photographs. It was too painful. Now I have got used to it.

Now the graft has become a part of me. I am very different from before. Part of me and my identity has disappeared for ever. I keep preciously inside me the memory of what I was.'

(interview in The Time, Sat.7 July 2007, p.37)

We really like this story because it makes very clear the implications of procedures like this on our identity. Every modification to our body will bring with it unanticipated side effects on our sense of self and identity. It reminds of us of how, in our great enthusiasm and excitement for science and its promises of making everything better, very little exploration and understanding into subtle and unexpected psychological implications exists. Human error is cited as the cause of most technological disasters. Acknowledging, and designing for, human fragility is something that will personally continue to fascinate us.