A naked lightbulb glows against a dark green background. Source iStock.

+ Any technology considered in isolation will not deliver the desired changes for society, unless serious efforts and discussions about the socio-economic forces shaping technology are underway.

This article was co-authored by Markus Schmidt and Simone Fuchs.

If economic imperatives produce synthetic biology products that are deliberately engineered to fail — as they did with the products of the past — then a future world full of engineered living artefacts (bio-facts) risks being dominated by self-reproducing ‘bio-spam’. 

Near-term speculative applications of this new branch of science include a host of exciting oddities. There are gourds that will be programmed to grow into full-fledged houses. There are trees that will form useful structures such as bridges or towers. There are bacteria that, when applied to façades, will capture CO2 from the air and heal concrete cracks. And there are the bio-robots that seek out pests such as flies, snails and rats to convert their bodies into sustainable bio-electricity. 

All of these applications belong to the visionary repertoire of forward-looking synthetic biologists with a fondness for eco-friendly technological solutions. Some believe that the impact of synthetic biology will be so fundamental that we can hardly imagine how it will impact our cities, our technologies and our everyday life. Sociologists call such scenarios our "memory of the future". But although they talk about the future, they actually reveal much more about the present. 

This is easier to understand and accept when we look at previous visions of the future. The 1950s for example, were a time of great enthusiasm for science and engineering. It was a high point for science in society, when people from all walks of life trusted researchers and believed in their fabulous predictions that soon we would have flying cars, live in sea cities, or own small nuclear reactors providing energy too cheap to meter. 

These visions were not only creative extrapolations of what was possible back then, they naively assumed that technology would be used exclusively for the benefit of all people and the environment. We now know that the applications of technology are much more complicated than that. 

Today’s synthetic biology visionaries remind us of Adolf Chaillet, the engineer who designed the hundred years light bulb, which has been glowing continuously since 1901. Dark forces however soon dimmed high hopes for the electric age, and the age of electrical plenty was shattered in 1924 by the Phoebus cartel, formed by Osram, Philips and General Electric. Their aim was very simple:  to significantly reduce and homogenise the life span of light bulbs. 

In 1932 Bernard London gave a speech about how planned obsolescence could end the economic depression. Within the space of a decade the promise of bountiful light had been replaced by built-in obsolescence. Other companies have followed suit with products characterised by decreasing life spans including nylon stockings, car tyres, printers and iPods. These products, made with built-in kill switches, not only cause frustration in consumers but also contribute to the excessive amounts of (fossil) energy used by western nations and create mountains of hazardous waste in Africa and China. 

Any technology considered in isolation, even one as advanced as synthetic biology, will not deliver the desired changes for society, unless serious efforts and discussions about the socio-economic forces shaping technology are underway. 

Scientists and engineers have a responsibility when it comes to the societal ramifications of their work. Some say we need a radical openness while others empower citizens by promoting the democratisation of biotechnology resulting in do-it-yourself biology or bio-hacking clubs. 

Whatever strategy is taken, a responsive environment needs a constructive and participatory debate about how we want to define and reach our goals. After all, if microbes could be designed to obey commands - then who exactly is calling the shots?