Centre for Engineering Biology

Biodesign Challenge 2017

An insider view of the biodesign challenge

Aug 4, 2017 

This year I was delighted to attend the grand finale (Summit) of the Biodesign Challenge on 22-23 June at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. I had been an instructor for the participating University of Edinburgh teams in this global student competition that explores the future of biotechnology from a design perspective.

The 2017 Biodesign Challenge involved 24 colleges and universities from seven countries who collectively developed over 200 creative products or narratives. Over the two-day Summit we heard about 21 of those novel ideas largely aimed at solving current or future global challenges such as food security, waste management, sustainable energy and/or material production. The student concepts were incredibly diverse and included hands-on biomaterial optimization and development, new architectural concepts inspired by biological systems, and even genetically engineered organisms for garbage degradation.

My favourite session featured the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg (Assistant Professor of Art and technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), who highlighted how biological experimentation can be used to raise awareness of social injustice. As an exemplar she used her ‘Stranger Visions’ project in which DNA samples from cigarette butts and chewing gum discarded on the street were extracted and used to render the facial phenotypes of their owners. She used this 'forensic DNA phenotyping' technique to create a variation of the portraits of Chelsea Manning, the controversially imprisoned whistle-blower convicted of violations of the US Espionage Act. Heather called for more self-reflection and scepticism about the promises so often made by biotechnology yet rarely delivered: we need alternative visions for biotechnological future. This message echoed the reactions of most participants to the talk by an industry sponsor of the Summit, and was a great forwarding note for the project of the University of Edinburgh.

In Edinburgh’s project entitled “UK2029”, three design students – Joe Raven, Eva Auer, and Sean Greaves – explore a hypothetical UK society 10 years after Brexit, where biotechnology is ubiquitous and genetic engineering a grass-root strategy to invent, merchandise, and protest social injustice. Their narratives were carefully constructed with three representative ‘future innovations’ illustrating both the positive and negative consequences of ‘DIY Bio’. Their presentation was received very positively, one judge commenting that it was the only project of the competition for which social context and impacts were critically examined without bias. Another judge suggested that the project could be a great prompt to invoke public discussion about the social implications of DIY Bio and synthetic biology. The project received the runner-up prize, one of the three prizes awarded during the Summit.

This was the first year that the University of Edinburgh had participated in the Biodesign Challenge. UK2029 was chosen out of seven projects developed by interdisciplinary teams of post- and undergraduate students from Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Product Design, and Design Informatics. Under the guidance of five instructors (Dr Naomi Nakayama from SBS, Dr Larissa Pschetz from ECA, and research assistants Bettina Nissen, Anais Moisy and myself), each team went through rigorous rounds of brainstorming to create and improve a bioinnovation product or concept that could in theory be realised within the next decade but would change, or challenge, the way we communicate about biology?,

Throughout the semester the teams carried out media and scientific literature studies, user surveys, and consulted researchers with expertise on the subjects. The resulting projects were very diverse, imaginative and scientifically grounded and included a removable womb, an aroma scanner and printer, and a human-pet microbiota-sharing machine. Every week there was a guest speaker who introduced different aspects of biotechnology and bio-art; SynthSys members Jane Calvert, Alistair Elfick, Louise Horsfall, and Elise Cachat participated in the Challenge as guest speakers/tutors and local judges.

As a student of biology, I was struck by the freedom in the presentation format in the Biodesign Challenge. I learned a lot from the way design, art, and architecture students engage with their audience through visuals and objects to convey their project idea. In particular their use of videos and animation made their ideas clearer and more visually appealing than the typical scientific presentation. The talks were often accompanied by intermittent passages of read essays or critiques, emphasising how phrasing and literary style can help to get across a message. All these observations will help me improve my own academic and outreach communications. 

I also noticed that for the projects involving hands-on experiments, the ideas were more open and exploratory and the scientific narrative less glorifying. It was refreshing to see that a major outcome could be a failure and progress could sometimes be made by accident. Being an instructor gave me unique opportunities to interact with the very interdisciplinary student and instructor teams within Edinburgh and at the Summit. At the same time, I cannot help wondering how much fun it would have been if I were a team member and developed a project with design and art students myself.


By Eric Thorand, Biodesign Challenge scientific tutor/instructor

PhD student in Molecular and Cell Biology, School of Biological Sciences 


Photo: The runners up award being presented to the Edinburgh team: Joe Raven, Eva Auer, and Sean Greaves


For further information the following websites are useful

Biodesign Challenge

UK2029 documentation

UK2029 project