Science and design – could they advance each other?
MIT Media Lab directors Joi Ito favours an “antidisciplinary” approach towards scientific contributions to science through design. When it comes to creativity, science and design are often seen as opposites – one based on indisputable data, the other often a matter of trends and fashion. The idea that they could nurture one another seems rather far-fetched to most people. Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, though, decries this common perception*. He reckons that the fusion of design and science could fundamentally advance both. He believes that “by bringing together design and science we can produce a rigorous, but flexible approach that will allow us to explore, understand and contribute to science in an antidisciplinary way.
“Antidisciplinary” was one of the first words Ito learned when he joined the Media Lab in 2011.* He was struck by it when it was referenced in the requirements of a job ad for a new faculty position. Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is about working in spaces that do not fit into any existing academic discipline. With a fusion of design and science he hopes that “perhaps we can design something that is both rigorous enough, engaging enough, and antidisciplinary enough not only to survive, but to thrive.”
Ito feels the organisation of science into different drawers and boxes makes it increasingly harder to tackle the world’s issues. Science has become “a complex mosaic of so many different disciplines that often we don’t recognize when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and our microscopes are set so differently.“
Now, what has all of that to do with design?
Design has become such a household word that it can mean almost anything to anybody. Still, taken seriously, design embodies important ideas and practices. In Ito’s world, thinking about the future of science in the context of design as well as design in the context of science might be worthwhile.
Design has evolved from the design of objects both physical and immaterial, to the design of systems, to the design of complex adaptive-systems, he argues. This evolution is now shifting the role of designers: “they are no longer the central planner, but rather participants within the systems they exist in. This is a fundamental shift – one that requires a new set of values.” Systems, though, that are under-represented in the scope of governmental or entrepreneurial work such as the microbial system and the environment, have suffered and still present significant challenges for designers.
MIT professors Neri Oxman and Meejin Yoon teach a class called “Design Across Scales”, where they discuss design at levels ranging from the microbial to the astrophysical. While it is impossible for designers and scientists to predict the outcome of complex self-adaptive systems it is possible for scientists to perceive, understand, and take responsibility for their intervention within these systems, Ito believes. Also, by seeing themselves as “participant”, scientists can become aware of the systems in which they operate. “This would be much more of a design whose outcome we cannot fully control – more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development than designing a robot or a car.”
Ito sees MIT Professor Kevin Esvelt as an example for the kind of designer he means. Esvelt describes himself as an “evolutionary sculptor” and is working on ways of editing the genes of populations of organisms such as the rodent that carries Lyme disease and the mosquito that carries malaria, with the goal of making them resistant to pathogens.
The specific technology – CRISPR gene drive – allows the editing of genes in such a way that when carrier organisms are released into the wild all of their offspring and their offspring’s offspring will inherit the same alteration, leading towards the effective elimination of parasitic diseases such as malaria, Lyme and others. Such an edit is embedded into the general population, rather than into an individual organism. In that way the whole ecosystem is affected. “To be clear: part of what’s novel here is considering the effects of a design on all of the systems that touch it”, concludes Ito.
As a result Ito sees the separation between the artificial and the organic merging, as can be seen by observing the cooperation between science and engineering. Work in this field focuses on things such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, where the problems are massively complex. “These problems exceed our ability to stay within the domain of the artificial, and make it nearly impossible for us to divide them into existing disciplines. We are finding that we are more and more able to deploy directly into the domain of ‘nature’ and in many ways ‘design nature’”, says Ito.
Scientists find that they must increasingly depend on nature to guide them through the complexity that is the modern scientific world. “By redirecting the development of modern design to the future of science, we believe that a new kind of design and a new kind of science may emerge” concludes Ito, “and in fact is already emerging.”