‘Doing Engineering’: Engineering Life’s first workshop

This week Pablo Schyfter explains the motivations and outcomes of our first project workshop.

On Friday, 3 June, 2016, the ‘Engineering Life’ project held the first of its experimental interdisciplinary workshops. These events form a crucial part of our project; they are meant to be innovative: productive, rewarding, risky, challenging… and fun. This workshop hinged on interdisciplinarity and diversity. We invited social scientists, historians, philosophers, synthetic biologists, and engineers from seven institutions across four countries. Each brought distinct interests and perspectives on our topic of interest: engineering.

What is engineering?

The question is immense, almost ridiculously so. And yet, it sits at the heart of our project because it sits at the heart of what synthetic biology hopes and is trying to be. One cannot study the field without immediately recognising the vital role played by ‘engineering’ in its rhetoric, practices and ambitions. We don’t hope to answer it with any kind of finality, but we do intend to break ground in our understanding of what engineering is and does, to open new spaces for debate, and to form new relations with those practicing and those studying engineering.

‘Doing Engineering’ contributed to all of these. Our day began with introductions based on images chosen by each participant. These—which included photographs of Saturn V rockets, locomotives, characters from Kurt Vonnegut novels, and sailboats flying over the water—were meant to capture how each person views engineering. This first session supported our intuitions on the topic: there is no single starting point, no single perspective, no single approach for the question, ‘what is engineering?’ The rest of the day followed from this diverse constellation of images, ideas, claims and stories.

Social scientists then led dialogues with synthetic biologists and engineers, asking about engineering passion and imagination, hopes and challenges, successes and failures. These dialogues explored important questions through conversation, rather than presentations. Our later two sessions, which involved deeper discussion on the relationship between engineering and biology, also eschewed normal academic practice in favour of less structured debate and discussion. The result was a flood of ideas, sometimes disconnected from each other, sometimes difficult to comprehend, but always captivating and useful.

By the time that we were listening to the closing reflections, we had amassed a collection of questions and thoughts that will drive ‘Engineering Life’ further along its trajectory. What does biology/life lose by gaining engineers? Engineers are trusted, but does this change when we start engineering biology? Are engineers handmaidens to the establishment? What do we need to teach the new generation of (biological) engineers? Is it time to toss out engineering metaphors and deal with the ‘actual’ biology?

All of the things that came up, that we debated, left me more uncertain about engineering than I had been earlier that day. As one of our participants noted, he walked into the room knowing what engineering is, and left without that confidence. Unsettling, perhaps, but also encouraging, as this uncertainty can be the groundwork for future work. We had questions to answer; now we have more. We needed ideas to harness; now we have more.

What to do with engineering?

When thinking back on ‘Doing Engineering,’ I began to wonder if perhaps a better way to phrase our overarching question is, ‘what to do with engineering?’ What should social scientists, historians,

philosophers and anyone else interested in engineering do with the topic? How should we study it? Why should we study it? What should we do with what we learn?

What should synthetic biologists do with engineering? Why should they refer to it? Why and how should they model their work after it? What can they do with an identity as ‘true’ engineers?

And more broadly, what should our societies do with engineering as it grows to incorporate new forms, new aims, and new materials? How should we view it? Regulate it? Employ it?

In a sense, ‘what to do with engineering?’ forces us to think about what engineering is in terms of the lived, ‘real-world’ consequences of that identity.

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