On the Power of Networks

Essay by Jay Lloyd: “A mosquito net made from lemons, a workout shirt that feeds sweat to cyanobacteria to generate electricity, a water filter using moss from the Andes—and a slime mold that produces eerie electronic music. For a few days in late June, I logged on to help judge the Biodesign Challenge, a seven-year-old competition where high school and college students showcase designs that use biotechnology to address real problems. Fifty-six teams from 18 countries presented their creations—some practical, others purely speculative.

The competition is, by design, cautiously optimistic about the potential for technology to solve problems such as plastic pollution or malaria or sexually transmitted diseases. This caution manifests in an emphasis on ethics as a first principle in design: many problems the students seek to solve are the results of previous “solutions” gone wrong. Underlying this is a conviction that technology can help build a world that not only works better but is also more just. The biodesign worldview starts with research to understand problems in context, then imagines a design for a biology-based solution, and often envisions how that technology could transform today’s power dynamics. Two projects this year speculated about using mRNA to reduce systemic racism and global inequality. 

The Biodesign Challenge is a profoundly hopeful exercise in future-building, but the tensions inherent in this theory of change became clear at the awards ceremony, which coincided with the Supreme Court’s announcement of the reversal of Roe v. Wade, ending the right to abortion at the national level. The ceremony took place under a cloud, and these entrancing proposals for an imagined biofuture sharply juxtaposed with the results of the blunt exercise of political power. 

Clearly, networks of people devoted to a cause can be formidable forces for change—and it’s possible that Biodesign Challenge itself could become such a network in the future. The group consists of more than 100 teachers and judges—artists, scientists, social scientists, and people from the biotech industry—and the challengers themselves, who Zoom in from Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Savannah, Cincinnati, Turkey, and elsewhere. As biotechnology matures around the world, it will be applied by networks of people who have determined which problems need to be addressed…(More)”.