In 2013, I returned to the Design Interactions department at London's Royal College of Art to begin a practice-based PhD exploring dreams of better futures. I'm delighted to have submitted my thesis, BETTER: Navigating Imaginaries in Design and Synthetic Biology to Question “Better”, in August 2017, which I defend in November.
Designers, engineers, marketers, politicians, and scientists all craft motivating visions of better futures. In some of these, “better” will be delivered by science and technology; in others, the consumption of designed things will better us or the world. “Better” has become a contemporary version of progress, shed of some of its philosophical baggage. But better is not a universal good or a verified measure: it is imbued with politics and values. And better will not be delivered equally, if at all. “What is better?”, “Whose better?”, and “Who decides?” are questions with great implications for the way we live and hope to live.
At a time when social, economic, and environmental conditions place in question the dominant paradigms of better defined by globalisation and technology, Better, a PhD by project, investigates some of the powerful dreams triggered by a banal word and develops critical design techniques to find new ways to ask better questions. This thesis contends that the “dream of better” is so influential in advanced technological societies that it is what science and technology studies scholars term a sociotechnical imaginary. The imaginary is used as a critical design tool to examine better, revealing links between design and the emerging technoscience of synthetic biology and other ideological spaces, like Silicon Valley. As a young field, synthetic biology offers a space to test and expand critical design’s potential.
The practical research includes six critical design projects that engage with synthetic biology and its vision-making processes, using techniques from designed fictions to curation. The written thesis comprises six chapters informed throughout by commentary on the practice.
The first chapter looks at the influence of dominant concepts of better on design, separating design’s intrinsic optimism from engineering and market-led ideas of the optimum and optimisation. It situates critical design practice as an optimistic activity, seeking alternative meanings of better.
The next three chapters track how the imaginary of better has shaped synthetic biology and the field’s evolving culture of design. Meanings of better have proliferated since 1999, as synthetic biology’s visionaries promise to better biology, better the world, and even to better nature itself. But resistance has revealed the existence of alternative betters.
Chapter Five explores critical design’s examination of synthetic biology’s dreams of betters. Recognising the mutual colonisation of critical design and synthetic biology, which is contributing to the emerging platform of biodesign, the chapter discusses how navigating imaginaries can improve future critical practice. It encourages framing technoscience within society, rather than placing society downstream of it.
Chapter Six proposes that the social imaginary itself can be a critical design object. Designing “critical imaginaries” can open up our understanding of better, offering a process to reimagine the world. The critical imaginary is not a utopian effort to produce prescriptive visions of how the world ought to be. It is a heterotopian design technique to include diverse views and generate worlds that could be made, asking “what ought the world to be?”