Citizen science is a new form of altruistic innovation

Citizen science is a new form of altruistic innovation

At the dawn of the third millennium, our societies are experiencing a major upheaval linked to perils on the living conditions of humanity. The extraction of fossil fuels and raw materials causes climatic disturbances generated by human actions. We entered the era of the Anthropocene with the same force as we crossed the wall of sound. Exactly fifteen years ago, Paul Crutzen and his colleagues recognised the dazzling passage in another geohistorical era:  

 

“The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet.”

Crutzen PJ (2002) Geology of mankind — The Anthropocene. Nature 415: 23.

 

This means that the influence of human activities on the terrestrial system is more influential than the natural cycle of the terrestrial system itself. What has been missing is a high-order conceptual framework of the Earth evolution within which the Anthropocene can be compared with other changes in Earth history. Now for the first time, researchers have developed a mathematical equation to describe the impact of human activity on the earth: people are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces. And while some, myself included, are still trying to cope with the shock, a new question arises: how could we guide our society into a new era of production where objects get shaped by organisms? Should it be the scientists, researchers and politicians themselves who decide what to do next? Or could we organise a form of ‘citizen science’, in which the civil society is actively involved to assert itself as innovative and fundamental by addressing those world problems?

In search for those answers, I got involved in the biolab ReaGent in 2015 and received a bio-technological training by other members, focussed on the development of growing materials with mycelium (the root-structure of mushrooms). Since then, we’ve been experimenting a lot with living organisms, in an empirical and creative way, to investigate their potential. The other highly trained members of the bio lab considered me as equal. As a matter of fact, their attitude enabled me, as an architect, to build up confidence in a completely different scientific field: microbiology. Indeed, equality and cross-disciplinarily are the key factors for radical innovation.

It’s a movement of citizen scientists that hack biology, often referred to as biohackers. Citizen science is “a form of research collaboration involving members of the public in scientific research projects to address real-world problems.” (Wiggins & Crowston, 2011). The idea is that citizens can produce scientific data of equal value than the data collected by the scientists. Citizen science often involves scientific work on massive scales unattainable or too labour intensive for individual research teams and has been booming in the recent decades (Simons M., 2016). Examples of Do-It-Yourself biology emerged in Europe around 2008, like La Paillasse in Paris, BiologiGaragen in Copenhagen. While in Belgium it only started recently in 2013 with DIYbio in Nivel and in 2015 with ReaGent in Ghent. DIY biologists are a growing biotechnological movement that contribute to biology and life science from outside the university, but with extensive research training from academia or corporations. The labs are often built in basements or kitchens and provide mentorship to citizens with little or no formal training.

 
ReaGent lab, Ghent, Belgium

ReaGent lab, Ghent, Belgium

 

On the other hand, over the past decades, we’ve noticed that the European cities have known a rapid growth of the service and knowledge economy. In an effort to make the cities attractive for a living, we have driven the factories out of the cities. And so, cities turned into places of consumption, without production. That is quite problematic. We should reorganise the physical production at the local level again via networks of micro-factories that can also operate in the city. Local interdisciplinary micro-factories, at the intersection of biology, design and fabrication could relocate the physical production of grown materials in cities. A shift is happening from the extraction of materials (indeed impossible in cities) towards the biological growth of materials. This new manufacturing paradigm will have an influence on our cities and jobs. The production also needs to be linked with global flows of knowledge on a worldwide scale. Recognised by José Ramos and Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation as “cosmo-localization”, which describes “the dynamic potentials of the globally distributed knowledge commons in conjunction with emerging capacity for localized production of value”.

Citizen scientists design solutions for openness and sharing between individuals, organizations, and universities by uniting diverse groups of stakeholders that come together to discuss the technical options of biologically grown design. It’s hybrid and might include experts, politicians, technicians and philosophers, because the questions and problems raised are not merely scientific questions, but do also have ethical, political and economical aspects. New forms of cooperatives with open source strategies and constant participation of all members are developed. This cooperation, in which the yield is low, should not be interpreted as a counteraction to the pursuit of profit of capitalist entrepreneurs, as in the Marxist conception of cooperatives. It rather aims at a joint production for the benefit of the quality and aesthetics of the produced materials. The goal is not to compete with wealthy production units of the free market, but to provide a scientific alternative for the continuing need of change and innovation. Although we like to believe that humans are the cleverest specie on earth, innovation is not something that was invented by humans. Biohackers understood it and are often exploring natures innovative design strategies by distilling the morphological and metabolic production principle of biologically grown organisms.

Slime mold, finding the fastest way to the food source.

Slime mold, finding the fastest way to the food source.

I have the feeling that the actions of peer biohackers and citizen scientists are driven by a sense of empathy. Accurately observing subtle social and environmental needs help us to define what others, including living and non-living matter, might require to overcome the world problems. It’s an emotional awareness that is maybe perceived as contradictory to the scientific domain in which we’re manoeuvring. But as a matter of fact, that skill underlies the reasons why we refuse to be a ‘passive’ audience waiting to hear the top-down scientific and political developments. Instead, we try to actively participate in the understanding of biologically grown organisms and relate those natural solutions to man-made design.