Synenergene

Introduction

Emerging technologies are expected to alter our lives and environments in substantial ways. One example of an emerging technology is synthetic biology. This new engineering science of life moves beyond “reading” and “writing” DNA to the design and synthesis of complete living cells and biological systems with functions that do not exist in nature. Synthetic biology holds great promise for innovation in fields as diverse as healthcare, sustainable energy, sustainable production, ecological services. Simultaneously, it may proliferate risks for humans, animals and the environment, and invoke dilemmas with respect to issues such as equality, autonomy and identity. Synthetic biology may more and more become a subject of public controversy.

Societal impact

The question is how to deal with this potential variety of impacts as a society. Synthetic biology does not merely happen to us—it is a technology in the making. This requires reflection and dialogue, aimed at mutual learning about future scenarios, and about values and viewpoints amongst the actors involved and society as a whole. The European Commission decided to fund a Mobilisation and Mutual Learning Action Program aimed at further developing the European dialogue: the SYNENERGENE project. Within the context of this project, a team from the Athena Institute collaborated with over 20 EU partners to develop reflection tools, processes and platforms, and carry out a range of reflection and dialogue activities throughout Europe.

Methods

Several reflection and dialogue tools were developed, tested and applied for a variety of target groups. The tools in themselves can be perceived as generating societal valorization. The set of tools includes:

  • iGEM Guide to the Future. Canvas that helps young synthetic biology students to anticipate future impacts, reflect on ethical and societal issues and orient their project work in the famous international Synbio competition iGEM to societal valorization (developed and applied in 16 teams, together with the Rathenau Institute; available here.
  • Frame Reflection Lab. Hybrid learning environment that helps diverse social actors such as scientists, policymakers, citizens to become aware of their own value perspective in relation to those of others (developed and applied in five workshops with researchers, two workshops with general citizens, six workshops with students, six workshops with secondary school students; available here
  • Theatrical Debate. Semi-improvised participatory theatre format that enables the audience to become spect-actors in experimenting with the societal future of synthetic biology on stage (developed and applied in six public performances).
The development and application of the tools was directly aimed at impact. The project intended the mobilisation and mutual learning of the actors involved in synthetic biology itself or the associated societal debate. Over the course of the SYNENERGENE project itself, the application of the tools stimulated, broadened and deepened the reflection processes of the participants involved.

The iGEM guide has become one of the main resources for human practices. The Frame Reflection Lab and the Theatrical Debate were presented at a variety of conferences bringing together professionals from science education, science centers and museums, and public engagement in science. The Frame Reflection Lab is enlisted in a virtual learning catalogue for resources and activities on synthetic biology. The theatrical debate is more difficult to practice yourself, because it requires advanced participatory theatre skills. However, the performance can still be hired from the involved theatre company, Mens in de Maak.