2018/09/12: From crops to cattle, developing and refining living organisms through selective breeding is a 10,000-year-old practice. Industrial fermentation is a well-honed tool for converting biology into foodstuffs or commodity compounds. Major global industries routinely transform biomass into flat-pack furniture, cotton T-shirts, and vanilla flavourings.
However, biodesign fans are today repackaging biodesign, describing it as an ecological remedy, a technological breakthrough, an economic opportunity, and a manufacturing and industrial revolution. For this issue, we question whether biodesign can deliver the accompanying social transformation that those dreams imply, and explore how it might otherwise begin to challenge modern industrial, social, and economic paradigms.
Whether it’s Bolt Threads’ biosilk plastic, other companies’ promises of lab-grown “clean” meat ousting ecologically-damaging factory farming, or the development of less toxic textile-dyeing processes to mitigate the impact of fast fashion, drop-in replacements serve to make us feel better for our polluting lifestyles. However, what remains unresolved is the space in which these alternatives still operate in—the capitalist system that demands continual growth—no matter the costs. The over-consumption that industrial design is predicated upon today is under increasing scrutiny.
By designing with biology, start-ups like Bolt Threads can potentially challenge how consumer products are made, their life cycles, and enhance the performance of materials that could improve product lifespans.
Scaling these technologies to reduce environmental impact, these new bioindustrialists still need to access the same instruments of capital and consumption that inhibit systemic change. Herein lies the uncomfortable paradox: whose role is it to link new industrial processes with systemic economic, social, and political change?