Fiction Driven Symbiosis of Science and Design

by Geert Lebens, 13 January 2016

An open letter to plee for the societal importance of speculative design.

For decades technology and fiction are closely related to each other. Both operate separately for most of the time, but they influence each other instantaneously. Fiction has the power to use the imagination for mapping the needs of the future human being and a future society. On the other hand scientists develop the technology of the future and gain new insights in how biology, physics, chemistry etc. work and how we can use these insights to our advantage. Both fields often meet each other in movies, like ‘A Trip to The Moon’ (1902) by George Méliès and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1969) by Stanley Kubrick, or in art, like in the Futurists movement or the work of the Russian constructivists El Lissitzky or Kazimir Malevič, which for a short period in time represented the visual identity of the progressive socialist movement, after the Russian Revolution. Constructivists used the visual language of an industrialized society and the metaphor of a machine for a socialist society, where everyone is of equal importance in keeping society running. This political visual culture was used to design new technologies into products. The demands of an ideology, born from fiction, were shaped into the designs that brought the new technologies to the people. Every since the industrial revolution and the birth of product design we see that craftsmen, architects, artist and designers add their vision on what society needs to new technologies, shaping the physicality of human technological and societal advances.

These days modern society keeps rapidly advancing. New technologies are being developed in exponential increasing speed, constructing new infrastructures like the internet, telecommunication, infra-red technology and GPS. We find ourselves in this new period in time where information became the most important currency. Information is power. Resulting in a vast growing technological evolution. As scientists keep developing research faster, causing new technologies to become part of our daily lives even faster, is there still enough time for society to figure out if our new inventions are ethically responsible? Will we still have an overview of what kind of social shifts they can cause in society? This is the reason why we need fiction, debates, philosophy and speculation. We often find philosophers or anthropologists to criticize technological revolutions, this only takes place using words. The designers on the other hand, use a visual language. Today communication takes place on such a high speed that the interest of the audience you want to involve in the debate is easily lost if things become too complex. Besides that, a visual language can trigger emotion by other means to be involved into the experience. Designers have the ability to catch the effect of future designs in objects, giving us a preview of what to expect in the future. The debate will include an experience where people can discuss the many different effects a new technology can have on human behavior and personal interpretation. Creating a spectrum of possibilities from where we can choose a collective direction for future technology to evolve into.

Benjamin H. Bratton’s Lecture at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver; The Stack: Design and Geopolitics in the Age of Planetary-Scale Computation.


Design in the evolution of human technology always existed from raw materials, added in factories and were used to shape parts out of it, creating an object as well as waste. Like a sculptor taking material from a marble stone revealing a perfect shape, but has cut away more material than what is left in the end result. This is an artificial way of creating when compared to biology. Science, or rather biology has given us more insight into growing processes, resulting in experimental interception to gain control over these processes. During the second half of the twentieth century we started learning about how to control and use cells, tissue, bacteria, mold, fungi and other organisms to grow into biomaterials. Al of a sudden the design field completely changed. Technology stayed in labs for a long time, but designers also proved to be true innovators by enhancing new ideas for application of these new technologies. And for the first time in history, designers use actual living materials, creating parts, products and even architecture out of living biomaterials. Changing the entire process of creation. There will be no waste materials, because the shape we desire will be simply grown out of a programmed or conducted living material.

If that isn’t revolutionary enough, these biomaterials have got the potentials to become hybrid. This means, living materials are being processed, making it possible for the material to adapt to their assigned environment. Knowing the effects of the environment on biomaterials, we can use them to control a design’s reaction to environmental behaviour. Examples are already to be found in concepts for clothing or to create an hospitable environment for life on other planets or in objects that filter polluted air with organisms that live from breathing in carbon dioxide to transform it into oxygen. These techniques even take advantage from the fact that these organisms have to be fed and produce waste. Matching up organisms that eat each other’s waste, we can create self sufficient biomaterials with hybrid possibilities. One of the world’s most important laboratories is the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA.

Neri Oxman’s TED talk; Design at the intersection of technology and biology. via ted.com: “Designer and architect Neri Oxman is leading the search for ways in which digital fabrication technologies can interact with the biological world. Working at the intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology, her lab is pioneering a new age of symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, our products and even our buildings.”


All over the world we can find these institutes and labs, inhabiting interdisciplinary teams existing from scientists, designers and even artists who experiment with these new materials. In addition to speculists, often designers and artists, who try to design and conceptualize new contexts for appliance of these new materials and production techniques. Mapping out projects taking place across the world shows almost endless ideas for future designs and use. Massive appliance of these new possibilities can have huge consequences for geology and ecology. Since we name the period in time that’s ruled by men as the ‘Anthropocene’ we could say, this period is over or taking a radical turn. When we compare modern and future technologies like bio-engineering, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and the growing possibilities for human enhancement of the inner body, it seems we are losing interest in changing the environment on our behalf. Instead we use our bodies to adept to our environment, in order to improve our well being and living standards. Combine this observation with the fact that information and data, intangible currencies, take over value of physical objects. Contemporary human well being is established by a global economy which is even less supported by physical values. Money is degraded to data, ran through computer programmes and information and intelligence has become the favorite product for the economic powers to feed the economy with. In our modern economy a bank’s money reserves are almost entirely transformed from physical money and gold into, investments, sharings and loans.

Bernhard Hopfengärtner’s project “75000 Futures”: a book that contains 240 stock charts, the visualization of data produced by computers of the Wall Street stock market, during the 2010 flash crash. The charts where collected and named by a company that streams realtime market data. The Crash was considered as the first stock market crash caused by algorithmic trading, a system of high frequency trading. The system was designed to react on trading climates it created from analysing market data, journalism, Twitter, weather forecasts and other big data. Read more about this project at Hopfengärtners website.


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images from: www.berndhopfengaertner.net

These kind of drastic changes ask for new systems, wether political, economic, ethical or infrastructural. These systems have to be designed. Often these kind of systematical problems are discussed by politicians, filosophers, anthropologists and economists. But when we analyze the nature of these by technological advancement caused problems, we see that societal behavior and values are often caused by the shape of it’s ‘hardware’. Or to put it in other words: physical objects decide a lot how we use our technologies, something therefore the designer is responsible for. The designer influences behavior and therefore society. A design or an object such as a piece of art gives the user or an audience an experience of emotion, self awareness, contextual awareness and cognitive awareness. This power of the object combined with the strategic and creative mind of the author and a strong concept is an effective tool for creating interaction between the idea’s intends and society’s collective and individual experience. The goal of these designs can be: creating debate, creating awareness (such as for political statements) or as a powerful research tool. Common names for these kinds of art and design projects are ‘Speculative Design’ and ‘Design Fiction’. These new design fields are ironically each products demanded by a technological change in society themselves.

View tip: The Creeping Garden (2014); a documentary about the ostensible Plasmodial Slime Moulds and how they help us to understand complex growing and behavioral systems of everyday life and how they inspire us in creating the future. The black sheep of biology in a unique light, a high quality cinematic experience by the hands of Jasper Sharp and Tim Grabham. The Creeping Garden is a cinematic masterpiece, showing a tiny organism’s tremendous influence on human behavior, intelligent systems, information technology, music, artistic processes and more!


Slowly, but even faster, our lives and it’s requirements, it’s infrastructure and it’s utensils, change drastic. Designers are highly responsible for the physicality of the future. For them the use of fiction and speculation are very important design tools. These designers need a space in these developments. One that can put technologies in contexts, whether developed or not jet, and let consumers understand it’s values and open a debate to determine these values in a context of society and culture. However we must be careful not to think for, but to think as a our future generation and learn to take responsibility for our findings and actions.


  • Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, The MIT Press 2013
  • Synthetic Aesthetics, Alexandra Daisey Ginsberg, Jane Calvert, Pablo Schyfter, Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy, The MIT Press 2014
  • The Stack, Benjamin H. Bratton, The MIT Press 2015


  • Bernhard Hopfengärtner
  • Dunne & Raby
  • Koert van Mensvoort and Next Nature Network
  • Metahaven
  • Teresa van Dongen
  • Thought Collider
  • Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen


  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology / MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA)
  • Royal College of Art, London (UK)
  • The Center for Design and Geopolitics, University of California, San Diego (USA)
  • Global Future 2045 (RUSSIA)