The Dream of Better

Project + Writing
2013

PhD by Practice, Design Interactions, Royal College of Art.
Supervisor: Anthony Dunne.

How are visions of ‘better’ futures shaped? The PhD research is investigating the role of design in the construction and communication of hope around the future, and through practice-based research, is developing experimental design approaches that test whether design could take a more active, critical—and even guiding role—in our understanding of a ‘better future’.

With the assumption of progress comes the dream of ‘better’: technological progress inevitably looks forwards, focused towards a future state of imagined perfection. A relatively new phenomenon, the idea of a better future has become a useful fiction, a model state where the world in general, and us as individuals, are transformed via technology. This space of promise is then made more likely through policy, funding and innovation. But how are these ideas shaped? As scientists, policymakers, economists, activists, designers, consumers and individuals, we hold very different expectations. What is the future that we each imagine? In design, promise has become so implicit as to be invisible: we assume that design itself makes things better, from consumer products to the utopias of urban planning. What role—positive and negative—has design taken in shaping the idea of better?

The research addresses these questions through review of the role of design in significant past technologies, then focuses on the emerging technology of synthetic biology as a case study. Transforming biology into a twenty-first century design discipline, synthetic biology’s supporters aim to ‘make the world better’. Speculations are driven by scientific and economic agendas; promises can appear indistinguishable from reality. How are these beliefs defined and evaluated? Whose ‘better’ ultimately shapes our common future?

As a developing field with little precedent for design, synthetic biology provides a valuable space to test and expand design’s potential. Beginning with scoping collaborations with synthetic biology centres, the practice-based research explores how design could do more than predict, communicate or even critique futures, but investigate, open up, and even influence. Experimental design objects and interventions will be the outcomes of these case studies. Their deployment will be used to test whether more radical forms of design have a useful role ‘upstream,’ where visions of futures are being defined by scientists, policymakers, industry, the media, philosophers, ethicists and others. How might broader uses of design help identify and give form to alternative understandings of ‘better’, contributing to building new visions and ideals?