Global Design Futures and Pharma Factory: The Future of Bio-molecular farming

Students of this year Global Design Futures Unit have been using speculative design to explore the future of bio-molecular farming, within the context of PharmaFactory project

This is a repost of a blog from one of our student Judy Zhu – here you can find the original post

1. Introduction

Plant Molecular farming (PMF) is the process of genetically modifying plants to make useful drugs. (Ma, J. 2013) The costs of PMF-derived product associated with maintenance, safety, storage and transport are reported to be sometimes as much as 80% lower than traditional methods, such as mammalian cell culture systems and microbial systems (Yao, Weng, Dickey, Wang, 2015). And It also has significant advantages in efficiency and scale.

While it is also facing the problem of public acceptance barriers, people have different concerns about genetically modified plants, which is also the reason for the slow and cautious process of the biomolecular product transition from the laboratory to the market.

Pharma factory is a European collaborated research project proposed and organized by molecular farming SMEs aiming to expand impact and engagement with different stakeholders, with the goal to improve the understanding of biotechnology products and reduce barriers to acceptance. And this present project for global design future (GDF) course aims to explore the future boundaries and possibilities for biomolecular medicine, using speculative design to identify the future tendency. In this process, based on the research and analyzation of current trend, drivers and signal, the provocation was proposed as a trigger to open up a critical and creative conversation about the future of biomolecular medicine. Both personal and object reactions would help to make future forecasts.

2. Current trends & Drivers

2.1 Democratisation of science and Decentralization

Figure 1: Map of Bio labs
  • Easily Accessible Knowledge

Bill Gates once derided advocates for free software, cause people at that time could not believe that there would be free knowledge and information accessible to everyone in this world. And that’s what’s happening right now. Online knowledge platform is open to all and inspires people. These easily accessible educational resources become a massive push for the democratization of science.

  • DIY Biotechnology

The attempt to improve the understanding and share knowledge of biotech within public led to the birth of biohackers’ community. They built platforms with open resource information, online courses, shared research projects to engage people. A growing number of bio labs worldwide are financed to provide equipment for research and education. And some of them are conceiving and developing new open-source protocols and experimentation in medication, especially for some chronic decease such as Diabetes with the hope for independence from pharmaceuticals monopolies.

  • New Digital Socialism

Same social cooperations also happened in the digital world. Half of all web pages in the world today are running free Apache software, which is open source, community created (Kelly, 2016, p. 141). These DIY Biotechnology laboratories are very similar to the development of technology in the process of democratization of science. And in the other aspect, it also means decentralization. Talking about digital technologies, in his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly uses the perspective of biological science logic to look at the progress of technology and make predictions about future trends. Unlike political socialism, he uses New Digital Socialism to describe ‘a spectrum of attitude, techniques, and tools that promote collaboration, sharing, aggregation, coordination and hocracy, and a host of other newly enabled types of social cooperation.’ (2016, p.138)

New Digital Socialism is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralisation. It is decentralisation extreme. (2016, p.137)

Technology is a driver to promote the process of decentralization. Now, Blockchain could be used in the decentralization of currency, and it can also serve as a tool for decentralizing other centralized organizations. The future concept of decentralized AI is as simple as a blockchain (Dickson, 2018)The current trend in DIY bio laboratories is the same as the new electronic socialism, but now they are at the early stage.

2.2 The challenge of regulation

With recent radical breakthroughs in all manners of medicine domains from gene tech to AI tech, regulatory science has struggled to keep pace with the development of new technology. A statement (2018) from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb acknowledged that the FDA’s traditional approach to overseeing certain healthcare products did not align with the types of innovations being developed. Meanwhile, it could lead to the problem of cost and efficiency in the process.

“Indeed, stewarding a new biologic to market now requires some 10 to 15 years, and the associated costs have skyrocketed to an average of more than USD 2.5 billion when out-of-pocket and opportunity costs are factored in, largely because evermore stringent regulatory requirements have increased the length, complexity and volume of clinical trials per marketing application.” (PharmaBoardroom, 2018)

Regulatory issue is a global challenge, and many regulatory now have established information communication channels to disseminate consistent facts about drugs and how to regulate them and ensure information transparency.

However, faced with new problems brought by new technologies, such as the environmental impact of biotechnology, how would regulators effectively evaluate it and ensure the safety? If the pharmaceutical architecture changes under the influence of future technology and social environment to form a decentralized pharmaceutical system, how would regulators assess new stakeholders?

2.3 Shortage of Medicine

Some people claim that Brexit is the cause of Britain’s recent drug shortage, but in fact, it is a global problem. According to the WHO report (2016), ‘shortages of essential drugs are becoming increasingly frequent globally, burdening health systems with additional costs and posing risks to the health of patients who fail to receive the medicines they need, and it also prompts international concern about the long-term supply of key medicines.’ But according to projections, the global population will grow by 18% over the next 20 years.

The increasing demand for medical care makes people try to seek the development of technology to solve the problem. But technology can’t solve anything, and there are concerns about the ethical and environmental implications.

3. Think by making

Based on the research, a series of narratives and fictional prototypes have been created to trigger more discussion about biomolecular medicine. There are two experiments in this section. The first is group work, and the second is individual work. It also reflects the iterative process of my thinking in this section.

3.1 Experiment 1 _ Pre-Discover

In the Pharma Factory project, it aims to reduce public acceptance barriers of biomolecular medicine, and it is related to people’s opinion. And then I had questions: how do people think about it? What is people’s view? Based on these question, I came up with a provocation to gather people’s opinion and explore the future relationship between human and genetically modified plant.

What if genetically modified plants become your medical devices?

What if genetically modified (GM) plants become the source of your medicine which could continuously supply medicine for you? Especially for some diseases that require enzyme replacement therapy, such as MPS VI, GM plants can produce and provide enzymes that patients lack. In a sense, it becomes part of your body, replacing what you require. What happens to the value of GM plants when it becomes a medical device that you rely on for survival? What do you think about it?

Design concept:

The theme of this speculative design is to the symbiotic relationship between human and GM plant in the future. In 2039, genetically modified plants as medical devices have been normalized. Imagine you have been told you have a chronic illness that requires enzyme replacement. Instead of taking a bunch of pills and going to the hospital for treatment once a week, you choose to personalize your genetically modified plants as your medical partner. As the picture shows, based on your health data, the scientist would design your personalize GM plant, and then it would be placed in the container with a purifying device at the bottom. You call it Sensi, and it would provide your daily essential medicine for you. In turn, you care for Sensi by ensuring it has the essential elements to thrive; sunlight, water, food and above all love. The more care and love you provide to Sensi the better quality medicine Sensi will produce for you.


The first round feedback was from our peer group, and the second round feedback section was a meeting with people from other discipline and our tutors.

In general, the majority of feedback was positive. As a speculative product design, we are creating a suspension of disbelief and design a fiction that people are actually endorsing genetically modified plant. We got a lot of advice to help us enrich the scenario and improve our artifact.

3.2 Signal from the public’s opinion

From experiment 1, I collected some insightful reaction and conversation from people. Based on this feedback and the personas information provided by our tutor, I could understand the public perspective of Biotechnology medicine more, and then analyzed the views of different personas and summarised it into the following seven aspects:

  • Information communication barrier
  • Environmental impacts
  • Influence of ethic and faith
  • Equality / Inequality, Class divisions
  • Safety and efficacy of medicines
  • Cost & business control
  • Regulation problem

Generally, people have a positive attitude and expectation to the efficacy of biomolecular (BM) medicine, especially for some diseases that are currently not effectively treated. Meanwhile, they also have concerns about the impact of environment, ethic and faith. And the consensus is that regulation is going to be a huge global challenge. There is an information barrier between the public, experts (scientists, biohackers, doctors) and the media.

They need a platform or channel to communicate the correct information and trustworthy objective evaluation perspective in a common language (easy and understandable).

What is interesting is the debate around equality and inequality. Some people think that BM drugs may be able to reduce inequality if it could cure many diseases. While others believe that if it is driven by profit, then it is not available for everyone, which might increase the gap between rich and poor.

3.3 Possible future trend

Based on the drivers of change and signal, I could propose these possible future trends of bimolecular medicine in the advanced technology society. In overall, with emerging technology, people tend to be independent of centralized control which could be seen from the current trends and drivers of the democratization of science and decentralization.

#1 Foster the democratization of science by promoting information sharing through technology

People empower themselves in a way by sharing information and building communicate channel to gain more knowledge about biotech. It is essential and precondition that can promote and accelerate the development process of the following trend.

#2 Decentralised medical research, open source projects become mainstream

With the open democratization of science and the decentralization, in the future, biohacking communities would be independent of the pharmaceutical monopoly, and their open source research projects will become the mainstream of breaking into human diseases.

#3 Transparency in the medical research process

Transparency in drug research information helps regulators evaluate drugs and ensure fair pricing.

#4 PMF pharmaceutical model could respond to the shortage of medicine problem

PMF pharmaceutical model can reduce costs, improve efficiency and increase the scale.

#5 Regulation is a huge challenge for the entire global environment

Faced with the challenges brought by new technologies, new pharmaceutical structures, and new members of the market, regulators will become more cooperative, develop more efficient audit processes, and diversity standards.

3.4 Experiment 2 _ Individual design iteration

Based on the research I mentioned before, the second experiment aims to explore the boundaries and possibilities of bio-molecular farming medicine. The artifact is used as a provocation to stimulate audiences to generate their opinion about this. For this goal, I designed a fiction of an extremely centralized industry.

What if the bio-molecular pharmaceutical industry is monopolized?

How does the government health care system coordinate the market? What should regulators do about it? How do you think about the boundaries and possibilities of plant molecular farming SMEs?

Design concept:

This a TV news report about a protest event, people are protesting against the monopoly of bio-molecular drugs. Only the rich can afford expensive treatment with GM drugs, while the poor can only accept chemical medicines with strong side effects and low efficacy, or buy cheaper biological molecular drugs without quality assurance through the black market, People protested to demand that the government take the issue seriously.Video: final outcome

TV news report content:

Title: Protest for BM medicare monopoly block London

Anchor _ Jane Adams:

Welcome to the night news at ten.

There were large protests in central London today, and several transport hubs were suspended. The event was a protest against the bio-molecular medicine monopoly.

They said millions died of some chronic diseases, while governments and drug companies blocked access to low-cost bio-molecular medication.

Well, with me now are Tim Sievers as Patient Representative, Sarah Smith, a manager from Lambeth community bio lab, and an AI Robert Expert — Alexa, What do you think about this

Patient Representative _ Tim Sievers:

Medicare is a human right! But now, only rich people can afford the bio-molecular medication. We can’t buy it and just waiting to die. So we demand that should be covered by NHS.

Community bio lab _ Sarah Smith:

We suggest that the government should consider working with local community bio labs to design a regulated pharmaceutical system where medicines are affordable to those in need, and the development of effective new treatments could be financed appropriately.

AI Robert Expert _ Alexa:

There have been some cases of counterfeit bio-molecular drugs from black markets worldwide. These drugs are illegal and may be harmful to the patient’s health. While pharmaceutical companies set high prices in order to recoup the costs of research and development and incentivize further research, and the gov cannot simply make it into the NHS. For the high-sounding idea that gov should work with community bio labs, regulators will face huge challenges and institutional reforms.


Due to the limited time, I did not collect enough feedback before the article was published. But I also got some interesting questions from a few conversations, such as what is the role of community biohacking labs in the industry? If they cooperate with decentralized technologies like blockchain and Internet of things, can they achieve self-regulation in laboratories? What are the future service trends for the regulator? What impact will it have on the future of the patent system in the medical area?

And Suggestions for improvement of the artifact

  • improvements in written language
  • the background needs to be more comprehensive

Personally, I look forward to further conversation with different stakeholder. And feedback from different perspectives would help to develop my artifact.

4. Reflection

In this project, we put our mind into the future scenario, looking for possible, plausible, probable and preferable futures based on the signal we found. I have a deeper understanding of speculative design through experiments.

In the beginning, my thinking logic did not change, and I still regarded speculative design as a service design to solve problems. As I reflected on my mistake, I rethought the different between speculative design and service design.

For service design, it is highly structured to encompass the complexity of the organization and its multi-channel interactions with stakeholders. And designer solves the problem with user-centric processes and methods to understand the needs of users of a particular service ecosystem.

While the speculative design is designer-led, with artifact and scenarios describing the possible future to stimulate conversation, the resulting discussion is collaborative in nature, but the creation of a vision for the future is primarily the designer’s personal interpretation of current signals and trends. The role of the designer in the speculative project enables this practice to develop without a strictly formalized approach. It aims to explore more possibilities in the future, more like finding problems rather than solving them.

When the two come together, we apply a Research through Design methodology to envision key design trends based on detailed primary and secondary research. The addition of speculative design enables designers to consider service strategies in a non-static state and provide a long-term perspective on services. And we can debate and examine advanced thinking in the field of service design from different aspect including in culture, management, innovation, creativity and policy.

  • Explore possibilities for future theme
  • Promote understanding of values
  • Discuss new service models and impacts on existing ones by analyzing and discussing changes in future theme states
  • Through the analysis of service models, to provide the client with a new dimension for future strategy formulation.

How can we integrate speculative service design?

Antonio Iadarola and his partner Antonio Starnino (2018) gave a good answer in their article. They believe that the next step to full integration is a two-stage design approach:

1. Pre-discover — expanding the field of research and helping to construct ideas

Before discover and define stage, it allows the designers to know what to study and Identify what they don’t know. At this stage, creating future scenarios is a very powerful tool for introducing new discussions to the team and organization.

2. Pre-develop — extend the idea generation and development process using “what-if” problems

Before the develop phase, between the first diamond and the second diamond, it could help designers to consider the long term system vision while addressing the direct needs of the user.

In general, it is a great study experience for me to broaden my horizons and look at design trends on a global scale. Research through design methodology has affected how I have approached topics and my way of thinking and studying the long-term impact of the project. Also, through the experimentation process, many professional feedbacks let me know how to better convey my design concept to the audience through the artifact.


Dickson, B. (2018). The case for decentralized artificial intelligence. [online] TechTalks. Available at:[Accessed 16 May 2019].

Kelly, K. (2016) The inevitable. New York: Viking Press

Medical Technology (2018) AI in med tech: how should it be regulated?Available at: (Accessed: 16 May 2019).

Ma, J. K.-C., Drake, P. M. W. and Christou, P. (2003) ‘Genetic modifcation: The production of recombinant pharmaceutical proteins in plants’, Nature Reviews Genetics, 4(10), pp. 794–805. doi: 10.1038/nrg1177.

PharmaBoardroom (2018) Disruptive Trends in Pharma Regulation. Available at: (Accessed: 16 May 2019).

Starnino, A., Ladarola, A. (2018) Speculative Design and Service Design: A False Dichotomy. Available at: (Accessed: 16 May 2019).

WHO (2016) Medicines shortages. Available at: (Accessed: 16 May 2019).

Yao, J., Weng, Y., Dickey, A. and Yueju Wang, K. Plants as factories for human pharmaceuticals: applications and challenges. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2015, 16, 28549- 28565.