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BioDesign Challenge: The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart

Art and Design students have once again teamed up with Lab4Living researchers to compete in the 2022 Biodesign challenge. This year the Sheffield Hallam students were the only team from the UK among 54 teams from 17 countries. They presented their project ‘The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart’, which explores the relationships between humans and pets, to an international audience and panel of art, design, and biotech experts at last week’s summit.

Biodesign Challenge is an education program and competition that is shaping the first generation of biodesigners. It partners university students with scientists, artists, and designers to envision, create, and critique transformational applications in biotech. Student projects explore how biotech might reimagine agriculture, medicine, materials, fashion, energy, architecture, and more—all while considering issues around sustainability and equity.

For the second year running, it provides an opportunity for Sheffield Hallam University students to engage in work which could have real world impact and make a positive contribution society globally. This year, Sheffield Hallam University were the only UK team to be represented at the international summit.

Research informed teaching

Students from across the Art & Design MA courses have worked in cross disciplinary teams to prepare projects in response to the BioDesign Challenge brief, with input from teaching staff in the Department of Art and Design, and researchers from Lab4Living.

Press release: Hallam students named as finalists for Biodesign Challenge 2021

Five teams presented their ideas last month at Future Us, a pop-up exhibition in Lab4Living, as part of the Future Now Festival of Creativity which showcases the work of Sheffield Hallam’s graduating students.

One team was selected by supervisors Noémie Soula (Lab4Living) and Daz Richardson (postgrad design tutor) to be represent Sheffield Hallam University at the final Summit. MA Interior Design students Basma Shishter and Charmi Sheth presented their project ‘The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart’ at the BioDesign Challenge summit, which ran from 20th to 24th June.

Illustrated child’s book cover

The Bunny with the Synthetic Heart

For their Biodesign project, Basma and Charmi focused on the relationship between humans and pets. It questions the ethics of pet keeping and speculate on a possible future scenario where people could produce their own synthetic pets using stem cell technology.

Book illustration - bunny
Illustration example: The Bunny with the Synthetic Heart

Inspiration

A starting point for Basma and Charmi was their love for animals, and exploring projects and the recent world’s first genetically modified pig heart transplant. Key inspirations were speculative design projects such as one which suggested a future where animals could be used as living dialysis machines, or Kuang-Yi Ku‘s Tiger and the penis project which proposed using synthetic biology to create organs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Their focus became the idea of questioning bioethics, and considering the role of emotion as a valuable variable in the project.

Biodesign Challenge: The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart growing embryo
The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart growing embryo

The students were guided through the project by course tutors who supported them in working with the BioDesign Challenge brief.

The most crucial role our tutors had played was help navigate us when the project got too overwhelming. 

Basma Sheshtar, MA Interior Design student

They helped the students understand and navigate the broad topic of biodesign. Charmi said:

They encouraged us with fresh ideas, perspectives and new directions 

Charmi Sheth, MA Interior Design student
Biodesign Challenge: The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart growing embryo in display case
The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart growing embryo on display at Pop Up exhibition

Final concepts

We, as a team, had gone through a variety of different ideas and concepts, but had decided on bioethics as our main point. We decided to create a speculative future that had the ability to question bioethics. In order to do so, we had investigated the relationship between humans and pets, and developed that concept into a folktale. Our goal was to educate people on the ethics of pet keeping.

Basma Sheshtar

Pop up exhibition

Biodesign Challenge: The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart embryo display case in Lab4Living living room
Bunny with the Synthetic Heart on display at pop up exhibition in the White Building

A pop-up exhibition last month in Lab4Living’s home in the White Building provided an opportunity for all the teams to showcase their work, bring scenarios to life and gather feedback and new perspectives from other students, researchers, staff and the public. 

One of our goals was for people to come up with their own conclusion if the bunny was a toy or a pet, and by interacting with the other designers, they had helped us understand their different viewpoints and arguments. Although their opinions varied, it was great to see them interact with the speculative future that we had created. 

Basma Sheshtar
Biodesign Challenge: The Bunny with a Synthetic Heart embryo display case in Lab4Living living room
Bunny with the Synthetic Heart on display at pop up exhibition in Lab4Living’s living room in the White Building

BioDesign Summit

At the livestreamed summit, viewers were be able to see the students showcase their biotech projects before an international audience and panel of 60 pioneers in art, design, and technology. There were live Q&As with judges, and talks by keynote speakers. While this and last year’s summits were held online, previous summits have taken place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Last year, Sheffield Hallam University’s team presented the Living Sponge, a dystopian futuristic fiction that uses living calcareous sponge properties to create an artificial living sponge that interacts with the external environment by collecting and purifying water. 

Further info and contacts on BioDesignChallenge Summit 2022

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