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Synthetic Biology (Synbio) Governance Workshop: Future Forward - some insights

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

A futurist makes forecasts and predictions about what might happen to human society, technology, the economy and other key systems in the future. So what a great opportunity to meet and network with the best at the Dubai Future Forum, the world’s largest gathering of futurists! To kickstart the forum we hosted a design thinking workshop on the governance of Synthetic Biology. Specifically we had one question – What should the future of Synthetic Biology governance look like? The group worked with the team from Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government.

The purpose of this design thinking workshop was to get the futurists from various disciplines to engage in some provocative discussions.

  • How aware were the participants of SynBio applications that were being used in daily products?

  • Which entity did they think should be responsible (in the government)?

  • What did they think the impact will be on humans and how should we react?

We spent two fantastic hours in collaborative work and as one participant said at the end, “I am not sure I can answer the questions. There is so much more we need to consider, there are no easy answers.” Often the space of public value is messy. There are no easy answers. The problems are wicked!

Our first exercise was simple. Create a “human” using the resources provided and complete the sentence “I am human because…….” I loved the creativity! I gave them a prompt – I am human because I love to dance. But, what was astonishing – was that the group was more philosophical. They said things like….I am human because I err. I am human because I think. I am human because I can form relationships. It looked like humanness was an intangible quality, not easy to measure and in a group of 30+ people, only three answers were similar.

After a brief background of SynBio, which also looked at the confluence of this new tech and AI, which were accelerating developments in the field, we went into the next task. The participants looked at 14 SynBio curated scenarios and assessed their own awareness and who they felt should be responsible for governance. This was a much tougher exercise. Many of the participants felt that there were no easy answers. While we focused on governments, one participant pointed out that we should also include other institutions – non-profits, academia and research bodies. Right now much of governance (like AI) is being done bottom up. Governments are rather late to the governance party and the space is very fragmented.

When you look at the history of SynBio governance, it is a bit surprising as currently much of regulatory oversight falls under purview of food (and by extension bio-diversity), or bioweapons. Yet SynBio will touch almost each of our lives multiple times in our daily routine. It is estimated that it will account for 1/3 of the global output by 2030. What was interesting, was that participants identified many more more agencies to be tasked with the responsibility of SynBio!!!

We switched to group work. Groups now had to rank the top three scenarios as needing the most governance and the top three scenarios as being most beneficial to humankind. Here generally with few exceptions we found the top three beneficial scenarios were also those that required the most governance!

Finally the groups were asked whether we should distinguish between naturally born humans and those augmented or modified by SynBio or AI. Of the six groups, only one group said yes. One group said not now but maybe later and the rest said No! In fact one participant talked about how colonization of Africa had led to breeding taller and bigger individuals for labour. He said, “How can we distinguish between that type of genetic selection and SynBio? Should we? Would it be fair?” Another participant said we may need to develop norms when we should differentiate and when we should not (like in sports). Hence it was clear – that we were at a tipping point and there was plenty of work to do. It was also very sobering to realise we could not define a natural born human or even what a human was. The basics were not clear!

We humans had so much in common but we tend to focus on differences and let competitiveness get in the way of collaboration!

Upon his recent visit to space, William Shatner (the original Captain Kirk) said in his recent book Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder,

“It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered...The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness...Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna … things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.”

We plan to do a few more workshops. Please watch out for more announcements if you would like to join or host a workshop.

Melodena Stephens and Amal Alahmadi


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