In early 2016, the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Press launched the online, open-access Journal of Design and Science (JoDS). Media Lab Director Joi Ito points to JoDS as “a new model for academic publishing,” with a staunchly antidisciplinary outlook. The journal utilizes PubPub, a new platform for open-access publishing, created by PhD candidate Travis Rich SM ’13, Thariq Shihipar, and others in the Media Lab’s Viral Communications group. In contrast to the rigidity of peer-reviewed, issue-bound academic journals, PubPub enables easy integration of rich media and data, and its extensive annotating and commenting features encourage iteration, interlinking, and participation. Not coincidentally, those are characteristics of the “new kind of design and new kind of science” JoDS will explore, as Ito describes in the inaugural essay excerpted here.

Design has evolved from the design of objects both physical and immaterial, to the design of systems, to the design of complex adaptive systems. This evolution is shifting the role of designers; they are no longer the central planner, but rather participants within the systems. This is a fundamental shift—one that requires a new set of values. […] This would be much more of a design whose outcome we cannot fully control—more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development than designing a robot or a car.

An example of this kind of design is the work of Media Lab Professor Kevin Esvelt, who describes himself as an evolutionary sculptor. He is working on ways to edit the genes of populations of organisms such as the rodent that carries Lyme disease and the mosquito that carries malaria to make them resistant to the pathogens. The specific technology— CRISPR gene drives—is a type of gene edit such that when carrier organisms are released into the wild, all of their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, and so on through the generations, will inherit the same alteration, allowing us to essentially eliminate malaria, Lyme, and other vector-borne and parasitic diseases. Crucially, the edit is embedded into the population at large, rather than the individual organism. Therefore, Esvelt’s focus is not on the gene editing or the particular organism, but on the whole ecosystem—including our health system, the biosphere, our society and its ability to think about these sorts of interventions. To be clear: part of what’s novel here is considering the effects of a design on all of the systems that touch it.

Unlike in the past, where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging. […] We are finding that we are more and more able to design and deploy directly into the domain of “nature” and in many ways “design” nature. Synthetic biology is obviously about our ability to “edit nature.” However, even artificial intelligence, which is in the digital versus natural realm, is developing its relationship to the study of the brain beyond merely a metaphorical one. We find that we must increasingly depend on nature to guide us through the complexity and the unknowability (with our current tools) that is our modern scientific world.

From Joichi Ito’s “Design and Science: Can design advance science, and can science advance design?” (Journal of Design and Science, MIT Media Lab and the MIT Press, January 30, 2016)

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