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Human Centred Design (HCD): 

When we think of the concept of a tree of life we remind ourselves of how an organization or human network can draw upon and disseminate knowledge repositories such as online clouds in the same manner a tree stores water and sustains living organisms along many roots and branches that grow over decades, even centuries (AskNature Team, 2016).  We know human interactions at both the local and global level tend to be complex and interdependent.  

This website is our online cloud through which we disseminate insights on the daily life applications of our thematic research areas.  Our Human Centred Design space is managed and facilitated by our partner, Global Ectropy.  

Each project showcase is a habitat patch for cross-pollination of ideas and technology transfer.  We engage using dual feedback loops focused on maximizing relevance and the utility of technical information exchanges. 


The safety of the production and consumption of manufactured goods is of primary importance.  Embedding ecological sustainability principles into our industrialization systems will enable healthy economic growth that sustains the tree of life for current and future generations.

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Frameworks for biosafety & biosecurity:

Innovation is fun when we are safe.  Knowing the new bio-economy products and services we create will lead to improvement of both our health and the planetary ecology is an exciting conceptual realm in which we can pursue infinite abundance.  Bio-economic growth is largely driven by biotechnology.  There are many different tools we can use within biotechnology so it helps to have frameworks via which we can anticipate the types of problems we need to prevent.  

First Diagram: Yeh KB, Monagin C, & Fletcher J. (2017). Promoting scientific transparency to facilitate the safe and open international exchange of biological materials and electronic data. Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease, 2(4:57). p. 1-11, Figure 2. doi:10.3390/tropicalmed2040057

Second Diagram: Toda M, Njeru I, Zurovac D, Kareko D, O-Tipo S, Mwau M, et al. (2017). Understanding mSOS: A qualitative study examining the implementation of a text-messaging outbreak alert system in rural Kenya. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0179408. Figure 1. 


clarifying issues, contexts and perspectives in biotechnology: 

Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is a new field and, like any new endeavor, there are risks and benefits.  The overall goal of biological sciences is to increase our understanding of life and living organisms. 

  • We know cells are present in living organisms but what controls the way in which genetic signals are transmitted from one cell to another?

  • Is it possible to for us to design textiles that behave more like living organisms that signal if there are problems in our sugar levels or other health indicators in our sweat?

  • Can a car or metallic machine be programmed to decompose and fully recycle itself safely into the earth after we no longer want to use the machine?


These are the types of questions driving the emergence and growth of the synthetic biology field. 


Better Science = Better Designs = Better Societies

Science is inherently about solving problems in a way that improves society.  Climate Change and the prevalence of toxic chemicals are two of the most pressing and current global challenges.  Preventing environmental degradation is critical for the prevention of diseases and the enhancement of sustainability.  Finding solutions to these challenges will require for us humans to change our production systems at the molecular level.  There are many scientific disciplines (including social sciences), each with researchers who are working on a different piece of the puzzle.  As a result, it is important to distinguish between molecular biology, systems biology, synthetic biology and biotechnology.  Understanding the distinction helps us understand the Human Centered Design issues that need to be addressed in theoretical research, applied research, product development and safety planning. 


We know that problems such as climate change and the proliferation of toxic chemicals can be resolved if we design human systems in a manner that mimics biological (some say organic) systems. Biomimcry is the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modelled on biological entities and processes.  Here is an overview of new scientific disciplines that enable biomimcry:

Living trees have branches that grow.  Similarly, scientific knowledge and the study of science has many branches that grow and evolve.  The roots of biomimcry as a scientific discipline come from combining knowledge found in the branches we know as biology (the study of living organisms), ecology (the study of organic systems), chemistry (the study of chemical interactions and reactions), engineering (the study of efficient structures and built systems), computers (the study of information technology), mathematics (the study of quantitative relationships and models), physics (the study of atomic interactions, dynamics of force and motion), arts/architecture (the study of design, creativity and esthetics), sociology (the study of human behavior in social systems), and business (the study of trade and commercial exchanges).


Many are familiar with the main stem of molecular biology which focuses on the structure and functions of macromolecules (DNA, RNA, proteins, nucleic acids).  Molecular biology has its biochemistry roots in the mid 1800's with Mendel's quest to understand the dynamics of genetic heredity, but, started molecular biology officially as a concept coined in 1938  by Warren Weaver.  Weaver, a mathematician and expert in machine translation,  proposed the application of physics and chemistry as tools for understanding biological processes.  One thing that is inherent in biological studies is the examination of diversity.  Just like every human hand (even for identical twins) has unique fingerprints, there are unique characteristics to species (even the same species) in different parts of the world.  As a result, collaborative research is an imperative because no single individual or organization can understand or analyze all forms of biological life.  With this background it becomes easy to understand the forms of the knowledge branches we have today (systems biology, synthetic biology, biotechnology).  Examining problems from a molecular biology perspective would lead one to ask questions such as: What are the interactions that govern the interaction of genetic information both within and between cells? What are the physicochemical properties that enable living matter to self-organise and perform activities such as protein synthesis (how cells use RNA to transcribe and translate the DNA information in proteins to make amino-acids and peptides) and genetic inheritance (how cells use RNA to transcribe and translate the DNA information that governs if a living organism is a plant, insect, bird, four legged animal, two legged animal, tall or short person, etc)? The goal of molecular biology is to increase our understanding of these macromolecular dynamics so that we can design better systems and materials. 


Systems biology is a multidisciplinary field focused on scientific through computational and mathematical modelling of the interactions within biological systems in order to gain a holistic understanding (how parts and systems fit together) of biological components (organism, tissue, or cell). Examining problems from a systems biology perspective would lead one to ask questions such as: What are the common mathematical algorithms found in the interactions that govern the interaction of genetic information both within and between cells? What multiscale network dynamics of the physicochemical properties that enable living matter to self-organise and perform activities such as protein synthesis (how cells use RNA to transcribe and translate the DNA information in proteins to make amino-acids and peptides) and genetic inheritance (how cells use RNA to transcribe and translate the DNA information that governs if a living organism is a plant, insect, bird, four legged animal, two legged animal, tall or short person, etc)? Applied research connections between molecular biology and systems biology include the use of molecular data to: (a) develop phylogenetic trees (classification of species based on their common evolutionary ancestry); (b) understand the relationship between environmental triggers and  genetic adaptations or mutations, as well as, (c) develop software that enables evolutionary genetics computations by multiple users across different platforms. The goal of systems biology is to increase our understanding of how to compute and model these dynamics so that we can design better systems and materials. 


By contrast, synthetic biology, while also multidisciplinary, focuses on the use of standardised building blocks to build a specific functionality within an organism or even designing an organism to suit a particular need. The SynBio approach has more of an engineering focus in that we attempt to identify and create standardised biological coding that can be replicated and reassembled (synthesized) to produce enhanced biological systems and even new biological components. Examining problems from a systems biology perspective would lead one to ask questions such as: What are the common building blocks (bio bricks) found in the interactions that govern the interaction of genetic information both within and between cells? What standardised coding mechanisms control the physicochemical properties that enable living matter to self-organise and perform activities such as protein synthesis (how cells use RNA to transcribe and translate the DNA information in proteins to make amino-acids and peptides) and genetic inheritance (how cells use RNA to transcribe and translate the DNA information that governs if a living organism is a plant, insect, bird, four legged animal, two legged animal, tall or short person, etc)? Applied research connections between molecular biology and synthetic biology include: (a) developing algorithms that replicate evolutionary phenotype processes so that we can better understand variations in phylogenetic trees; (b) using molecular data from fossils in artificial intelligence computations that aggregate and integrate data to synthetically reproduce the phylogenetic tree spanning of mammalian species such as the African white-tailed hamster; and, (c) developing mathematical models to analyze how nucleic recombination occurs within natural genetic maize hybrids or through viral infections such as Hepatitis B or bacterial infections with a common bacteria such as Neisseria which is found in gonorrhea and meningitis.  The goal synthetic biology is to increase our understanding of how to build these dynamics so that we can design better systems and materials. 

Biotechnology enters the picture when we focus on the development of commercial and industrial products or services using the knowledge gained from molecular biology, systems biology and synthetic biology. 


Those interested in a deeper understanding of the issues can read the following articles:


Morange, M. (2009).  A new revolution? The place of systems biology and synthetic biology in the history of biology. EMBO Reports, 10(Suppl 1). p. S50-S53. doi:10.1038/embor.2009.156


Serrano, L. (2007). Synthetic biology: promises and challenges. Molecular Systems Biology, 3(158). doi:10.1038/msb4100202


Is Building Natural Components a Problem?

Some would argue that synbio is too far reaching and that we should not attempt to alter the natural state of things by building nature.  However, humans have by definition been altering the natural state of things for as long as we have existed.  We learned to control fire and then to control electricity.  Through social media, we can instantly talk to strangers across continents, yet we are not born with a natural body function called long distance communication. We have built airplanes that enable us to fly yet we are not born with wings and ships that enable us to cross oceans even though we do not have fins. We build dams to alter the natural flow of rivers and water. Our vaccines and medical devices enable us to extend life and overcome diseases to which we do not have a natural resistance (e.g. small pox, measles and more recently Ebola and malaria). Many of the foods we enjoy as staples today began as genetic modifications we call hybridization. And, although terminator genes to stop food crops from growing if one does not pay a license fee is indeed neither appetizing nor humane, the flip side reality is that climate change is forcing us to make genetic alterations that improve crop yields in order to continue to guarantee food security across the world.


Unfortunately, the same research and technology yields both outcomes so the danger lies in our failure to effectively and equitably manage our use of technology rather than in the technology itself. 


Hence, the challenge of synthetic biology is not the undertaking of a new field.  As a collective human race, we have successfully developed many new fields over the centuries.  The challenge of synthetic biology is the effective management of unknown risks as we explore the benefits that can be derived from genetic alterations. Moral decisions will inevitably be required along with culturally appropriate value judgements 


Social Reflection Example: If a discovery made for cosmetic surgery can save a child's life, should the discovery be used? What if the discovery involves genetic cloning?  We have no predetermined answers to these questions.  What we do know is that synbio discussions need to become as much a part of our daily parlance as the use of social media has become.  Awareness and daily parlance will enable us to build consensus about what we want and do not want synthetic biology to be used for.


The social sciences are critical to helping us create a scientific consensus around the use and application of synthetic biology in different cultural contexts and situations.  The language of biology and ecology are creeping into business and transforming the way in which we conceive of manufacturing.  Business models are now focusing on ecosystem design and we are studying biology to learn how to better design technology.  Planning for the Bioeconomy transition across  Africa has begun as seen in the Bakubung Workshop Final Report.  The answers to the above questions will not emerge overnight but rather over decades of examination and deliberation.  In the interim, we can have a glimpse at current synthetic biology innovation in order to begin to understand the benefits that can be derived from the use of bio bricks. 

Discovering New Ways of Learning and Understanding:

As we explore genetic and molecular dynamics so that we can create new medicines, industrial materials and production systems, it helps to have both an understanding of why we are turning to biomimcry as well as a vision for how we will use our newly found knowledge to solve problems.

Bio-economy and biotechnological developments have transboundary ramifications.  We may think the cleanup of chemical toxins is working well on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria only to discover there are negative side-effects on the Ugandan side or vice-versa.  Pests like the Fall Armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda, seem to have rapid deployment mechanisms that enable them to invade most of the African continent within a period of months.  Contagious diseases like cholera and Ebola can spread voraciously if not quickly contained.  Climate change, rapid industrialization and reduced transport times exacerbate all these problems.


Instead of waiting for problems to occur, we are better served through pro-active dialogue.  Although the rate of planetary level environmental damage and associated health risks have been increasing​, there is still time to intervene and reverse these trends.  The African continent has enormous potential for sustainable industrial growth, but, we must first address the existing challenges​.


On June 27, 2018, CSTI and ICCA were delighted to host members of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and a delegation of faculty and participants (students in civilian universities) from Zimbabwe National Defence University.  Countries represented included: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi and Pakistan.   


CSTI partners shared information. Prof. Shem Wandiga (FRSC, EBS), Managing Trustee for CSTI and Ag. Director ICCA explained the history of both institutions as well as  the importance of creating linkages between advanced scientific research and applied research solutions to the complex challenges we are facing as a result of climate change and the proliferation of chemical toxins.   Dr. Daniel Olago of ICCA explained the need for evidence based analysis of the geological changes and risk factors resulting from climate change (e.g. flooding, water table depletion, soil erosion gullies).   Dr Maggie Opondo of ICCA heralded the capacity building benefits as well as the harmonization of community knowledge and scientific knowledge that have developed through regional data sharing initiatives such as IIED.   Dr Robert Karanja of Villgro focused on transborder biomedical research collaboration and the use of centers of excellence as the frontline  respondents for rapid crisis interventions to disease outbreaks.

Dr Martha Induli of KIRDI explained the importance of biochemical analysis and environmental safety measures within the context of sustainable industrialization as well as efficient management of limited natural resources.  Mr Eric Kariuki, Co-Founder of The Kijiji, expressed gratitude for the ability to convene and discuss pathways for developing enabling safety frameworks through which Micro-Small and Midsized Enterprises (MSMEs) could drive economic growth through biotechnology innovation. Mr Collins Owino of CEBIB explained the biotechnology opportunities for MSMEs in greater depth by highlighting synthetic biology and bioinformatics as the new tools for sustainable industrialization.  After the discussion, Dr George Obiero, Director of CEBIB, showed delegates the bioinformatics laboratory.  CSTI, ICCA and CEBIB are able to maintain cost-effective operations by leveraging multi-disciplinary resources through partnerships and virtual networks.  CSTI also maintains an active partnership with the diverse talent pool at the Kenya National Academy of Sciences


Ms. Cecilia Wandiga, Founder of Global Ectropy and CSTI Trustee Board Member shared lessons learned from U.S. biotechnology innovation such as the use of blockchain ledgers for enhanced supply chain traceability across borders along with the importance of structured collaboration through citizen science-academic initiatives like University of Nairobi's Living Lab.  She also explained the importance of blue-economy (water activities) research and opportunities for military-civilian collaboration in the scientific exploration of lake bed and river bed systems and KMFRI's environmental management activities.  Local manufacturing growth through the use of 3D printing technologies and guided design incubation for SMEs through University of Nairobi's C4D Lab was another discussion topic.   On the scientific research side, CSTI's partnership micro-science with Rina King at RADMASTE and Prof. John Bradley at University of Witwaterstrand in South Africa enables affordable small scale laboratories young Kenyan scientists, students and citizen scientists who do not have access to or cannot afford a full scale laboratory, or, would like to perform on-site testing while in the field.  The presentation ended with an invitation for continued dialogue on civilian-military rapid response mechanisms that can contain threats arising from the inadvertent or deliberate biotechnological hazards.

Although those not familiar with military culture might find it hard to believe, the conversation tone was very cordial and intellectual.  Just like military leaders in Western countries, African military leaders are very concerned about climate change as well as issues pertaining to the spread of diseases and toxic chemicals. 


First of all the aforementioned conditions are not good for the health of personnel  (yes, soldiers are real humans with families and the ability to tell good jokes).


Second, there is enough daily work for military forces without warfare and the above conditions create destabilizing environments that can lead to unpredictable conflicts.


During the Q&A, biotechnology and biosecurity were discussed from the perspective of opportunities to enhance civilian safety.  


Common points of interest included:

  • Water hyacinth is beyond a bothersome plant, it impedes safe transportation, fisher people die stranded in the mats. 

  • On problems like the recent contaminated sugar scandal in Kenya we need to get better at ascertaining immediately if the source of the problem was food tampering or toxic soils where the sugarcane was grown. 

  • Gene knockout sequencing and synthetic biology have a lot of great potential to solve pressing problems but we also need an emergency response system to contain problems if something goes wrong accidentally or deliberately.

  • Malaria, cholera and ebola (many others too) are mass impact diseases that need to be eradicated. 

  • Floods and droughts are now quite predictable but we need better civilian-military coordination on emergency response mechanisms.

  • Improving scientific literacy and issues awareness through STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) was of keen interest. 


Examples of existing military-civilian collaboration in Kenya include: 


Innovation Hubs are another shared interest.  Military forces are very early adopters of new technologies and many military inventions and / or innovations end up benefiting civilians as well.


Kenya Ministry of Defence has received an innovation Award and Patent for Defence Forces mobile field kitchen (DEFKITCH). DEFKITCH uses an environmental friendly diesel burner which not only combats firewood consumption and deforestation, but also reduces the cost of fuel for cooking characterized by efficient use of diesel fuel for cooking


As a result, innovation R&D is always a topic of keen interest to military personnel.  All civilians present enjoyed their jokes. 


Our favourite funny comment (after explaining the need to find insect protein in response to forecasted diminished plant proteins): 


Question: So you call this biotechnology new but we are going back to doing the same things we did 500yrs ago without "bio-technology"? 


Answer: Yes but we could not program genes on computers.  


Ah! (Everyone laughing) 

We hope this overview has encouraged you to think about the national, regional and international safety issues that need to be considered as part of Human Centered Design in biotechnology.  Some of the lovely bacteria and viruses mentioned in the overview are not the type we want to have as common household guests.  We have spent decades of medical and scientific research to stop the spread of these bacteria and viruses both within and across borders. 


Previously, the cost of laboratory and analytical equipment kept the molecular biology research realm confined to the elite international research laboratories.  Micro-computing and protein sequencing (e.g. qPCR) have disrupted the elite research model by making laboratory and analytical equipment available to a wide spectrum of researchers, some who may not be formally trained in scientific research and biosafety protocols.  Others may have limited training or lack daily supervision from senior experienced scientists.  The rapid and ubiquitous spread of synthetic biology researchers necessitates planing for transboundary issues.  MIQE guidelines are a start but we need more international standards, particularly for mass consumption industrial materials and applications.


The more we plan for the avoidance and reduction of problems, the more biotechnological innovation can proliferate in a way that improves both human and planetary life.


Feel free to let CSTI know about your top  security concerns regarding biotechnology and synthetic biology... 


Oshiorenoya Agabi explains why Biology is Technology - how we are using molecular biology and synthetic biology to address the industrial problems we currently face

Leading design firm IDEO interviews African designers with a vision of how Design Thinking and Human Centered Design is a philosophy we need to embrace in order to solve problems as well as create a better future designed by Africans for African people.

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