June 14, 2018

Garments of interdependence: Natsai Audrey Chieza on fashion, design, and synthetic biology

Faber Futures
Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks, 2017. Design-led protocol development for bacteria pigmented textiles and garments. Photo courtesy of IMMATTERS Studio.

This interview is sponsored by Ginkgo Bioworks, whose team members look to nature for ways to replace technology with biology. Learn more about Ginkgo’s creative residency and its innovative approach to designing custom microbes for customers across multiple markets. The content is purely the work of the author.

Synthetic biology is poised to change almost every industry you can imagine. But part of its power to change is increasingly coming from an unlikely place: design.

No one knows this better than Natsai Audrey Chieza, Founder of Faber Futures and Co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks’ Ginkgo Creative Residency. With one foot in the world of design and another in the world of synthetic biology, Natsai occupies a uniquely interdisciplinary position doing a sort of work that isn’t often done: finding out how design and biology are co-dependent strategies for innovation, and helping others act on that immense potential.

Faber Futures

Natsai Audrey Chieza, Founder & Director of Faber Futures.

Design for an interdependent world

In a world is being radically reshaped by the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution and the ecological threats of climate change and human-driven activity, Faber Futures explores and builds transformative models for production and consumption – working alongside nature to create a path towards a sustainable future. By fusing design thinking with living biological systems, Faber Futures helps synthetic biologists understand how and where their technology fits into the broader context of society—a question that, even for the most groundbreaking innovations, does not always have obvious answers. Natsai believes that design thinking can help with that.

“Design brings in a different point of view rooted in how society, systems and products interface with one another,” she says. “Successful design is able to innovate processes, production models and even our own thinking in response to cultural and socio-economic contexts, and our preferred futures. Being able to think about synthetic biology as an emerging part of that continuum is thrilling.”

Faber Futures

Project Coelicolor: Random by Design 2015, IDEO Fortnights Residency.

In practice, this means helping consumer biotechnology startups and even early-stage researchers to understand how their intervention relates to the societies they are engineering biology for. In an increasingly values-driven consumer landscape where sustainability and social equity are catalysing new ventures across industries, for Natsai design thinking helps to map out unique opportunities for biology-driven intervention to enable that shift. It means that what can be designed at the DNA level can be determined with much larger scales of interactions in mind.  It means mapping the landscape of an existing industry to understand where it might be transformed by synthetic biology. It means being able to identify applications for a technology that may not be realized through conventional thinking—or may not even exist yet.

Return of impact driven R&D, a new way of thinking, a pragmatic tool to save the environment

Take the textile and materials industry, for example, where Natsai’s professional roots lie. As she pointed out in her 2017 TED talk, the process of dyeing textiles is highly pollutive and water-intensive. Through her work with the Ward Lab at University College London, Natsai developed methods of dying fabric with streptomyces bacteria that are far less pollutive and water-intensive than the traditional approach.

Natsai piloted Ginkgo Bioworks’ residency with the Ginkgo x Faber Futures Residency last summer, bringing her project to its foundry to scale elements of her fabric dyeing protocols. Her dyeing process has serious sustainable implications: it currently requires less than 7 ounces of water to dye a 2-pound piece of silk. For context, a cotton T-shirt requires 700 gallons of water to make, with 140 gallons (20%) used in the dyeing process alone.

While this tech is very impressive in its potential, Natsai believes that the emphasis should be less about disruption than positive transformation. Natsai predicts that synthetic biology is going to find its way into a wide variety of industries that traditionally lack this sort of long-term R&D. We will be seeing the use of microbes to dispose of waste products, synthesize renewable versions of existing materials, and enable groundbreaking new ways of making things.

Faber Futures

Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks, 2017. Design-led protocol development for bacteria pigmented textiles and garments. Photography by IMMATTERS Studio.

Faber Futures

Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks, 2017. Design-led protocol development for bacteria pigmented textiles and garments. Photography by IMMATTERS Studio.

Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks, 2017. Design-led protocol development for bacteria pigmented textiles and garments. Photography by IMMATTERS Studio.

Tip of an iceberg, the mighty context

One reason why she sees this change on the horizon is that people will it. She points out that public pressure is becoming an increasingly important political force pushing industries and governments towards the right direction when it comes to making fundamental changes to human activity in aid of the environment. It is certainly true that a new generation of consumers favors companies with sustainable and socially responsible practices. By involving designers from the earliest stages of a product’s development, these sort of considerations can be built into the product at every step. This, says Natsai, is where real value will be determined in the future.

“Just as people don’t need to understand the inner workings of the technologies that underpin consumer electronics to adopt their use, their engagement with technologies like synthetic biology will be based on the value it can provide. Designers are very good at teasing out and refining what that could mean to different people.”

“And when something can shift from a tangible proof of concept to a scalable system of biofabrication, that’s when real change can emerge. That’s what we are excited about because that’s what counts.”

Natsai Audrey Chieza will be speaking at SynBioBeta 2018, The Global Synthetic Biology Summit, in San Francisco on October 1–3 (part of Synthetic Biology Week). Register now to receive your early bird discount.

This feature was sponsored by Ginkgo Bioworks, whose team members look to nature for ways to replace technology with biology. Learn more about Ginkgo’s creative residency and its innovative approach to designing custom microbes for customers across multiple markets.

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