Food for thought

Design has a major role to play in the debate about the potential of emerging technologies, putting developments into contexts that permit serious consideration of ethical and social consequences, argues Anthony Dunne

At a bio-art conference a few years ago, I came across an exhibit by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr showing a piece of ‘victimless meat’, a 3cm-wide disc of meat grown in a laboratory from cells removed from a living animal. No animals died during the production of this piece of meat. It was a classic fusion of science and art – strange and thought-provoking, but disconnected from everyday life.

I wondered how designers might deal with this subject. They might ask, what if this meat was available in a restaurant? Could you eat yourself, a lover, or someone famous? The type of debate that this shift from the abstract world of labs and galleries to an imaginary commercial context generates, engages imaginations in very different ways from art and science. Designers would naturally explore economics, materiality, ethics, aesthetics, and technology to ensure their story was plausible, but in doing so, they would also focus the debate on a very different set of issues generated by this little piece of technology.

For me, this is one of the strengths of design over art and science in relation to technology. It can pull new technological developments into imaginary, but believable, everyday situations so that we can debate the social, cultural and even ethical consequences of such technologies before they happen and try to ensure that the most desirable futures are realised. And it can do this with intelligence, wit and insight.

Over the past 20 years or so, designers have been busy figuring out how to make digital technologies relevant to our daily lives. In response to the challenges thrown up by such technologies, many new design specialisms have emerged. Interaction design is just one. Products like Apple’s iPhone and iPod show how important well-designed interactions can be for a product’s success. Most large electronics companies now have interaction design departments, there are several established interaction design courses around the world, and more and more specialist design studios.

Meanwhile, new technologies like nanotechnology and biotechnology have started to move out of the laboratory into everyday life. A weird and wonderful world is taking shape around us. But so far, design has had little contact with it, and the driving forces are purely technological and economic.

Recently, opportunities have begun to emerge for designers to get involved with these new technologies. But to take advantage of these requires a shift from thinking only of potential applications to considering their implications as well. This shift creates a need for new design roles, contexts and methods. It’s not just about designing for commercial, market-led contexts, but also for broader societal ones. It’s not just about designing products that can be consumed and used today, but also imaginary ones that might exist in years to come. And it’s not just about imagining things we desire, but also about imagining things we don’t – cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society.

In response to a brief set for Royal College of Art students about Catts’ ‘victimless meat’, James King developed a project called Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow. He examined how we might choose to give shape, texture and flavour to this new sort of food, to better remind us where it came from, in a world where traditional livestock farming has disappeared.

He suggested using a mobile animal MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) unit to scan a creature from head to toe, creating accurate cross-sectional images of its inner organs. The most interesting and aesthetically pleasing examples of anatomy would be used as templates to create moulds for the lab-grown meat. The result is a satisfyingly complicated and authentic form of food.

Everyday we hear about new developments in nanotechnology, but does anything exist between the banality of permanently clean nano-trousers and the high drama of all-consuming grey goo?

Whereas biotechnology involves working with living, but tangible, materials such as tissue and cells, nanotechnology is extremely abstract by comparison. How, as designers, can we even begin to engage with this invisible technology as ‘material’?

For a college project about nanotechnology, rather than speculating on new nano-products (which often use nanotechnology to strengthen, harden and lighten), Chris Woebken chose to investigate how nanotechnology might change the way we interact with our physical environment. He wanted to explore new sensual possibilities for nanotechnology. His project, New Sensual Interfaces, was based around objects composed of semi-organic particles, all connected and communicating. Obviously, we can’t prototype these technologies yet, so we need to explore other ways of working with them, like simulation and video scenarios.

The video he produced is not a visualisation of how nanotech will change the way things look, but of how it might affect the way we interact with them. This is clearly not a prediction of how the office of the future will look, but a design experiment to stimulate our imaginations and get us thinking more creatively about how this technology might impact on our daily lives.

These projects are not predictions, they are trying to create spaces for debate by using design to ask ‘What if?’ questions. With new technologies, posing questions is just as important as finding solutions.

Although, in many cases, we can’t design actual products yet, we shouldn’t let that stop us from getting involved. We can use design to inspire, raise awareness, stimulate discussion and provoke debate, all of which can help achieve technological futures that reflect the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be.

Anthony Dunne is Professor and head of design interactions at the Royal College of Art and partner in design group Dunne & Rab

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