What is synthetic biology and what's its potential? These stories explain

what is synthetic biology

The Bio Stories project aims to inspire narratives around synthetic biology and the role it could play in the future. Image: Toby Coulson

Natsai Audrey Chieza
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Faber Futures
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  • Synthetic biology is the engineering and redesign of biological systems and could have a range of applications in modern day life.
  • However, despite its benefits, there is limited understanding about the potential that synthetic biology offers.
  • The Bio Stories projects aims to solicit context-based narratives around the technology, to clarify what it is at stake when it advances.

Simply put, synthetic biology is the engineering and redesign of biological systems that do not already exist in nature, but which could have a range of applications in everything from therapeutics to conservation to manufacturing.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum convened the Global Future Council on Synthetic Biology in a bid to articulate how the technology could benefit people and the planet, as well as to define values that would enable effective, equitable and ethical outcomes in its implementation.

The council’s work interrogates the assumptions driving the visions of a world changed by synthetic biology to ensure that future developments distribute resources, capacities and benefits equitably across the world. This ambition requires that advances in synthetic biology have values at the core, states the council.

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But clarifying those values requires us to examine entrenched framings that render synthetic biology impenetrable and exclusionary to many stakeholder groups and knowledge-makers. In doing so, it places limits on how we imagine its possibilities.

To address this, the Bio Stories project aims to solicit new context-based narratives about our relationship with the living world to clarify what is at stake in the ways that synthetic biology can be advanced.

The project puts forward a multiplicity of ideas, metaphors and values that emerged from the knowledge-diverse stakeholders it engaged – many of whose experiences and viewpoints have been previously marginalised in global discussions about synthetic biology.

In publishing the Bio Stories project report, we offer new stories about the possibilities for synthetic biology, inclusive stakeholder engagement tools and analytical methods, as well as recommendations for creating a world in which we can all flourish.

synthetic biology - bio stories
BIO STORIES (Eindhoven), Prototype Forum #2: MISSION, 2021. Image: Max Kneefel

Dialogues around topic of synthetic biology

The Bio Stories project has been developed by Faber Futures for the World Economic Forum, in order to create a space for inclusive storytelling in the field of synthetic biology. It is designed to catalyze moments of reciprocal dialogue to reveal how, what and why we design with the building blocks of life.

To expand the kinds of stakeholders who have the opportunity to shape the future of the field, Bio Stories crafts connections and establishes common ground between scientists, farmers, designers, investors, community leaders, artists, entrepreneurs and others.

Each stakeholder provides an artefact as a conversational entry point. Artefacts ranging from tissue culture incubators through to carved radishes and jars of soil prompt dialogue and make tangible otherwise complex and nuanced relationships with nature.

In these exchanges, stakeholders discuss different perspectives and approaches to the living world, sharing global and multidisciplinary accounts of what issues arise from the ways synthetic biology interacts with society.

A wild mushroom collected by Chido Govera at a local park Image: Chido Govera

Narratives about our changing relationships with nature

Bio Stories are plural and iterative. Of the myriad tales that could emerge from the project’s dialogue methodology, this iteration offers two: Museum of Symbiosis, a speculative fiction by Claire L Evans, and Dialogue Synthesis, an anthropological account by Dr Melissa Salm.

Museum of Symbiosis curates the artefacts and insights from the dialogues into a fictional story. In its hopeful near future, humanity has learned to govern, innovate and educate in sync with nature, and with respect for people and planet.

As a counterpart to the Museum of Symbiosis, Dialogue Synthesis systematically reviews the ways of thinking, knowing and working with nature and biotechnology illuminated through the dialogues.

Both stories are rooted in the careful observation of the conversations and the artefacts that ground them, precisely and respectfully interpreting the dialogues into relational Bio Stories.

An image of a cannabis leaf used in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province to relieve asthma symptoms. Image: jcomp via Freepik

Synthetic biology firmly on global agenda

Synthetic biology is now firmly on the global agenda as a technology that can reshape our relationships with the living world via bio-based products with applications across health and well-being, food and feed, industrial chemicals and biofuels.

Bio Stories contextualizes these opportunities into narratives that reveal what we prioritize as being key to continued human development. These stories are powerful because they provide a theatre in which to imagine the kind of a world we wish for, and the policy areas with which they interact.

These narratives also give us space to explore how we might distribute agency, resources and power in order to enact the radical change required to meet the most pressing challenges of the 21st century – climate change, biodiversity loss and global inequity.

synthetic biology on global agenda
BIO STORIES Stakeholder Mapping Diagram, Faber Futures in collaboration with World Economic Forum. Image: Faber Futures

Toolkit to facilitate storytelling in synthetic biology

Beyond storytelling, BIO STORIES is a collection of tools, spaces, and frameworks that actively empower storytelling in synthetic biology. The project leans into design to not only expand who sits at the table, but to enable sharing and engagement across plural perspectives.

Methods for inclusive stakeholder engagement developed by Faber Futures are made transparent as an invitation to others to take the project further and tell their own stories of their unique contexts. Those methods include instructions, diagrams and helpful steers to consider when mapping stakeholders, curating dialogues and hosting artefact-led conversations. Bespoke infrastructure to encourage conversation — furniture and place-making textiles — were designed to be readily fabricated and assembled to hold space for dialogues in various settings.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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