‘The most striking things we have been producing is people’ – Notes on innovation

How far should people be empowered – and in what kinds of ways? Through my research, which involves enabling different kinds of people to make creative contributions to anything from the development of new technologies to attempts to solve environmental problems, I have become aware of the increasing rhetoric around people as co-experimenters/co-innovators/co-researchers. It is interesting to hear from ‘grassroots’ activists such as the ‘open design’ front that governments are opposed to ‘open innovation’, while, more and more, politicians describe co-innovation as a citizen’s duty. This contradiction was fully enacted at the ‘Futur En Seine’ festival in Paris or, at least, on the day I attended. Unfortunately, I had made a mistake while setting my watch, so I turned up on British time, which meant, I missed the first two or so presentations. Luckily, the presentations I caught were very relevant to the debate. The first one I caught, sitting next to a giant humming projector, was by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms on the ideas behind – and the activities of – the FabLab project (see above video for a similar presentation).

As far as I understand, FabLabs are part of the outreach of the Center for Bits and Atoms. The labs are installed in places all over the world with some equipment and mentors, but, rather than seek to teach people how to produce identical stuff with identical tools, their aim is to work with already available materials and techniques, in order to produce truly local technology. Gershenfeld explained the reason why the programme was put into place as wishing to provide a model which offers true empowerment. FabLabs, he noted, should especially be considered as a better model of development, in the sense that the widely-used ‘aid – education – business’ model does not seem to work. By contrast, FabLabs offer a model that could be described as: empowerment, education, problem-solving, job-creation, in(ter)vention. The important thing, Gershenfeld emphasised, is to focus on humans, not products. As he put it: ‘the most striking things we have been producing is people’.

The take on ‘producing people’ was relayed by Bror Salmelin from the European Commission. His super-fast presentation was difficult to follow in detail, but I managed to catch the main ideas. These are also boiled down to (to stick with his cooking metaphor) at the beginning of the following video as the necessity to involve ‘all players’ to form a ‘new societal contract between individuals, businesses and society as a whole’:

At the Futur En Seine conference, Salmelin started by painting a picture of lack: current lack of skills, of networks, of connectivity (it was not clear whether he was talking about the internet or innovation in general). He contined by reporting that the commission had come to the conclusion that expert/science based innovation ‘is not mainstream anymore’. The consequence had to be a re-think, but one that required ‘courage’ on the part of the government (and potentially everyone else involved) not only in terms of governance, but in terms of funding and creating the right environments and networks. Half-way through the presentation the tentativeness gave way to appeals to curiosity and exporation and to pleas to ‘make things happen’.

The reason for citizens to participate, according to Salmelin, should be to move away from the status of user/consumer/object of innovation to a more active form of consumer who co-shapes the products and services s/he wants. The benefits were both sold as giving citizen-consumers more control over innovation through their input, but also as benefitting European economic health. The idea that came across was that capturing citizen-innovation (= maximising the use of ‘national intellectual capital’) would lead to a ‘more sustainable world’. The subsequent panel, consisting of all presenters from that particular session, brought out even more strongly the duty of citizen to become part of, as Salmelin put it, ‘living labs’. Many designers agreed that everyone needed to take responsibility for the future to help figure out how to make it more sustainable, to change unhelpful systems.

As part of the same post-talk discussion, I also noticed other means with which the need to participate was supported. Examples include the creation of paranoia through phrases such as ‘Who owns your data and can capitalise on it? Regulation is not enough – please participate!’, and the appeals to responsibility and choice (the motto of the festival read: ‘Et vous, le futur, vous le voulez comment?’ And you, how would you like the future to look?)

There are so many interesting things in the current discussions around innovation that one could fill at least one entire book  (most probably, they have been written already). What I started probing during the festival was the tension between ‘experimentation’ and ‘open innovation’ being seen as both as grassroots-developments (by designers and some politicians and academics) and as ‘top-driven’ (mostly by other academics and politicians): where does the imperative to innovate come from? And who benefits from it? Another question is: what kinds of ‘system change’ is aimed for, and what kind of changes will be tolerated? If the imperative to innovate is top-driven or dependent on existing structures, is innovation merely there as a last resort to keep the overall ‘unhelpful’ system alive?

This problem was particularly evident in the ‘Open Design’ workshop I attended, where most of the energy seemed diverted into determining how to fit open innovation models within existing economic models/funding structures, and, of course, into devising ways of making processes more transparent in the face of copyright: how can money be made from open design? How can the economy in general profit from it? A strong trend appeared to be the investment in a maker-centred (neo-medieval?) model, in which the designers offer the blueprint for the product, the customer downloads it and takes it to the maker, pays the maker, and the maker shares the profit with the designer. Another model was to create income by producing limited editions (as physical products) which would attract design afficionados who are willing to pay for exclusivity. This is not to say that open design is full of misguided idealists who unknowingly aid capitalism in spreading further out of control. But there are issues that are currently not being debated enough. As one workshop participant put it: there is a difference between a community model and a business model. How can we invent truly sustainable systems?

Some useful thoughts on the ‘knowledge economy’ can be found in a lecture and article by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. Although she focuses on how academic research is affected by the ‘paradigm for innovation’, many parallels can be drawn with other areas in terms of managing ‘innovative’ output and the artificual creation of conditions for innovation.

Questions around innovations also surfaced during a panel on synthetic biology. The event, entitled ‘We Neet to Talk About Synthia’ was part of the art-science workshop ‘Synthesis’, a collaboration between UCL and Arts Catalyst. (Some bits of the event can be found as videos here.) I remember being very happy about the kinds of questions that got raised. In fact, I was so happy that I ended up with about 30 pages of notes (not A4, mind you).

The evening began with a short introduction by social scientist Jane Calvert, who is also part of the Synthetic Aesthetics project, based at the universities of Edinburgh and Stanford. Two more discussants (Alistair Elfick and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg) were part of this project. The first part of the discussion mainly took place between scientist John Ward, engineer Alistair Elfick, artist Oron Catts – and, later, the audience.

Synthetic biology had already come up in the context of ‘open design’ at the Futur En Seine conference. An example mentioned was the iGEM competition, which also resurfaced during the ‘Synthia’ event. At the Paris debate, Neil Gerschenfeld said that he does not believe that we are going to “outbiology our biology’ through experimentation with synthetic life. A similar idea was expressed by John Ward who, after giving a brief (and refreshingly clear) overview of his research, stated that ‘we are not going to replace anything in technology (or nature), but complement what is there’. ‘What is there’ was further illustrated by Alistair Elfick: he explained that there are currently about 20,000 known molecules ‘made by nature’, but about 30,000 potentially existing molecules that have yet to be found or synthesized.

The most disturbing aspect for most audience members, judging by the questions, seemed to be what Oron Catts dubbed the ‘paradigm of engineering’ that appears to dominate experimentation with all levels of life from the ‘nano’ to the ‘geo’ (via neuro, bio etc). Politicians, scientists and engineers appeared to see life as too much as in need of instrumentalisation, in order to end up, as Elfick phrased it, ‘hopefully doing useful things for mankind’. Not only was this ‘engineering mindset’ regarded as problematic in terms of its human-centredness, but also in terms of its generation of an illusion of control over nature: it seems easier to focus on engineering problems/solutions than to address how these problems arrive in the first place. Also, it was feared that humans were being engineered in the process, either literally or as a side-effect. There was a sense of alarm about a ‘flatness of value’ of life that was being introduced into society.

Elfick and Ward tried to counter these concerns in different ways: Elfick argued that ‘we have already been using life in a very instrumental way’, so using life-forms for our own good should be seen as more of a natural continuation, rather than a drastic step or paradigm shift; Ward emphasised that he hoped to gain a better understanding of natural processes through his research, in order to advance the development away from an oil-based economy towards something more renewable. Catts, on the other hand, suggested that to apply real engineering principles to biology is very much a new field/mindset.

Audience probing also led to the topic of funding: who is pouring money into synthetic biology? What ‘products’ are expected from researchers? As one audience member put it: ‘will we see things designed on purpose under the capitalist system?’ In other words, will we have innovation for innovation’s sake, to cater to the most promising markets rather than to the greater good? Ward answered this question after some hesitation. He was ‘not sure what to make of that’. He stated that he is usually more concerned with finding out how creative/innovative we can be. To him, there were potentially radical applications – from the practical to the decorative. He mentioned the example of melanin control, which could be used to produce decorative patterns on your body, but also to alter your body in radical ways. Elfick described how research money came from different sources in different countries: in the UK mainly from research councils, in the US, a lot of ‘oil money’ and corporate money was funding the research.

Standardisation and the elimination of ‘imperfection’ was another topic addressed by both panellists and audience. Elfick proposed that standardising was connected to the drive to make things accessible. Ward reminded that everything in biology evolves through imperfect replication and that noone wanted to engineer this capacity away. As for accidental releases of ‘powerful things out there that close down the possibility for ‘imperfect life” (audience member quote), Ward believed that ‘there are systems in place that keep things in check, that make sure nothing happens’. Elfick stated that it was the challenge to work with biological organisms that evolve, instead of working with predictable, stable things that attracted him to the subject in the first place. And there are indeed, considerable challenges (for examples of synthetic biology challenges, check out ‘Five hard truths for synthetic biology’ by Roberta Kwok in nature news).

The concern about a potential elimination of imperfection was also extended into engineering society. Here, Catts referred to the latent desire to find biological evidence for containing behavioural misfits (i.e. political dissidents?). Elfick rejected this idea by pointing to the ‘big gap between modifying microbes and modifying humans’. Also raised was the question of perfection and of beauty: what do the scientists and engineers view as beautiful. This difficult question was tackled by Elfick who hopes that current research would ‘create things that are as beautiful as the ones we are working with. It would be nice to engineer the environment around us as pleasant as possible, for instance, without monoculture’.

Due to technical problems, the Q & A had to stop early, although some questions kept being debated over drinks before the second set of presentations. At the beginning of the evening, Oron Catts had mentioned the difficult role of the artist working with science and technology: while having the duty to contribute to creating ‘cultural language for things that are happening in labs’, the artist is also exploiting this to profit from it. The three artist who presented their work in the second half of the event negotiated this tension in different ways.

The first artist, Tuur Van Balen, began by announcing his interest in ‘stuff we cannot quite predict’. One of his questions was: ‘how do we know what direction is forward/sideways’. His project ‘Pigeon D’Or’ addressed this in a rather humorous way: what if pigeons became real technologies and part of architecture? Would people interact with pigeons differently if they shat soap – and, if yes, how? What effects on city living would this engineered ‘technology’ have?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King discussed their project E.chromi, their ‘infiltration’ of the international iGEM student competition for synthetic biology. The research-and-critique-in-one they presented consisted of engineered bacteria that can identify and signal pollutants in water through colour changes. The latter half of their presentation showed how what kind of consequences their invention might have: from yoghurt that colours stool if a particular disease is present in the body to terrorist groups fighting the patenting of particular ‘colours’.

Last on was Andy Gracie and his ‘Quest for drosophilia titanus’: to breed fruit flies that can live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Inspired by sources such as NASA’s investment in astrobiology and experiments in the direction of terraforming, he decided to embark on a project that would explore the possibilities of and for life – and that simultaneouly asked how far you can follow the scientific method and still end up with art. Relating some rather grim anecdotes from the experimentation phase (note: I’m so glad I’m not a fruit fly, whether inside or outside of a laboratory!), he offered his experimental set-up, including mutated fruit flies and lab diary, for inspection by the audience.

No more organised debate followed, instead the discussion was continued at the individual ‘artist tables’. One question that remained for many at the end of the event was: what more can be said or done at this point? Do we have to wait until new technologies are developed to a stage where they are a radical new step – or can we somehow influence how technology is being conceived?


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