In certain European art schools these days, it’s become almost mandatory for students of design to envisage outlandish future scenarios. A means of critiquing mankind’s tragic trajectory, students are encouraged to envisage the likely products, services and experiences that would arise in an often starkly dystopian future. Some of the more chilling of these fanciful predictions latch on mercilessly to post-crash society’s crisis of confidence and latent sense of impending doom. The narratives frequently question how we fulfill our most basic of needs in a technologically advanced but economically and ecological barren world.
One such designerly, doom-laden think-piece springing out of London’s Royal College of Art is student Paul Gong’s intriguing exploration of the world-feeding possibilities through the nascent field of synthetic biology. Integrating biotechnology and product design, Gong’s project imagines a not-to-distant future where animal genetics can magically combine with our own to give us useful new abilities. Anticipating potential global food supply chain collapse, Gong’s project scenario pictures a world where food is at its scarcest, forcing surviving humans to explore previously overlooked—and more than a little unappetizing—sources of nutrition.
Inspired by hyenas, an animal with a remarkable ability to feed on anything it can scavenge, Gong speculates on how future biotechnology could have the power to create bacteria to mimic the digestive abilities of these creatures. When administered correctly, these bacteria would allow people to fill their stomachs with even the most putrid of foodstuffs without fear of poisoning.
Having thought out the scenario in some detail, Gong imagines a number of objects emerging in a supporting role to this alternate reality. The “Hyena Inhaler,” would be used prior to eating to ingest the stomach hardening bacteria. Noting our instinctual repulsion to decay, Gong also foresees the need for inventive taste and smell altering devices to make the sight and smell of rotten foodstuff bearable. As a delightful addition to his design fiction, Gong has prototyped two supporting devices for administering receptor-confusing substances (such as a genetically modified taste-bud tricking Synsepalum dulcificum, or miracle berries) to the tongue and nostrils.
Although clearly an academic thought-experiment, combining human and hyena genes may not be all that far-fetched. Gong’s project is one of a number of examples of creatives exploring the future possibilities of synthetic biotechnology since the 2010 announcements that scientists had created the first entirely synthetic living cell—a development that some hail as the beginning of a “new industrial revolution.” Other recent speculative meditations include a future in which humans give birth to dolphins and entirely new species created to survive in today’s extinction causing world.