Launch of BioEcoJust Open Horizon Scanning

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh & Amos T. Taylor –

(originally published on the FFRC department BLOG University of Turku 24.9.2018 )

A key part of any high-quality futures research project is active horizon scanning. In our work for the BioEcoJust project, we have made it part of our research design to continually seek, analyze and share new information regarding our focal topic − the bioeconomy. Up until this point, we have only shared our horizon scanning items and future insights within our small futures team. One could argue that doing so is wise in the competitive world of research − moats not bridges. We however believe that being open with our horizon scanning outcomes will contribute to our project’s societal impact while also doing important sharing work within the research community of the larger Academy of Finland BioFutures 2025 programme.

Earlier this week, we decided we would pilot a more open horizon scanning process. This is the first instalment. Our goal is to share the top three to five most interesting items we find every week on the FFRC blog. Because establishing an active new communication channel would cost us a lot of valuable research time, we see this strategy as a win-win for our project and for the FFRC community. Our research efforts win because we will be forced to further synthesize our analysis of our items found through horizon scanning. And society wins because what we share could lead to new and productive actions, perspectives, and insights. Furthermore, we invite readers to share any items you find that you think our project will find useful.

Because you are joining us midway in our horizon scanning journey, you will probably need a brief introduction to the sensemaking tools we’ve created so far. There are three main tools:

  • The human-technology-nature triangle. We find the longstanding and dynamic relationships among humans, technology, and nature are useful for making sense of the motivations behind various bioeconomy activities.
  • Three Socio-Technological Domains. We’ve identified three indicative socio-technological domains: forestry, soil, and algae. These do not comprehensively capture all activity in innovative activity in the bioeconomy, but do convey some of the variation and depth of this activity. Forestry refers to all efforts to better manage and generate more value from forests. Soil refers to all efforts to leverage soil’s capacities to capture carbon as a way to address climate change (e.g. regenerative agriculture). Algae refers to many efforts surrounding the use simple living systems to produce chemicals, foods, fuels, and materials for human consumption.
  • Five BioWorlds. Building on the Scenarios as Worldmaking (see Balcom Raleigh et al. 2018), we have identified five worlds or worldview archetypes that various actors in the bioeconomy occupy. Each BioWorld has different characterizations of the human-technology-nature These BioWorlds are Bio-Utilisation, Bio-Mimicry, Bio-Upgrade, Bio-Recovery and Bio-Equality. The first two are hopefully self-evident. Bio-Upgrade refers to actors and activities engaging in upgrading lifeforms. Bio-Recovery refers to applying radical technology to restoring degraded or destroyed ecosystems. Bio-Equality refers to actors advocating for equal status for all living beings.

These and other emerging sensemaking tools produced from our past horizon scanning efforts feed into the present and future horizons scanning work we are doing. On one level, they serve as attractors for information − for example, we may see a headline and think, “this could be useful because it could be part of BioMimicry world.” On another level, they can be applied while interpreting an item for its future potentials. While discussing the launch of this open horizon scanning series of blog posts, we decided we’d start by losely applying the following framework to produce brief ‘first takes’ about what we’re seeing in what we share with our readers. For each item we share, we will generally include the following elements:

  1. The found horizon scanning item, a brief description, and a short header capturing its essence.
  2. How the item relates to other items we’ve encountered;
  3. How it relates to our existing sense-making tools (e.g. BioWorlds, Human-Technology-Nature Triangle, Three Tech Domains)
  4. Potential futures we interpret from the item.

Before we present our first five items, we ought to mention that our project is concerned with the year 2125. If you find it tough to imagine, think of the great-grandchildren of today’s three-year old children. These descendents will be in their 20s and 30s in 100-some years. Close your eyes and let that sink in for a minute before you continue.

Now, without further ado, here is this week’s top five BioEcoJust horizon scanning items:

1. Milk from Bioreactors

Orispää, Oili (2018) Maitoa ilman lehmää ja munia ilman kanaa – suomalaiset keksivät, miten maailman kasvavaa väestöä ruokitaan. 19.9.2018, accessed 20.9.2018.

This news item is about the work of researcher Lauri Reuter at VTT who has successfully produced milk proteins via bioreactors and microbes. This is an example for the Bio-Upgrade world and also linked to to the concept of bio-based production, in this case, of food. It is similar to the YCombinator story we saw earlier about the rising startup theme of cellular agriculture and the DARPA-funded 10 thousand molecules research project which aims to find a way to make 10 thousand useful chemicals via bio-based means.

2. DNA for Data Storage

Hyde, Embriette (2018) From magnetic tape to the “DNA hard drive:” entering the next frontier with DNA data storage. SynBioBeta 16.9.2018, accessed 17.9.2018.

This is a fascinating example of BioMimicry world (plus some parts of BioUpgrade, although they the purpose of this technology is not improve existing lifeforms but rather to create a data storage technology using a one of life’s core concepts − DNA. One of the entrepreneurs interviewed claims there could be a commercially available DNA storage product in 10 years.

3. Inequality and the biosphere

Hamann, Maike – Kevin Berry – Tomas Chaigneau – Tracie Curry – Robert Heilmayr –  Patrik J.G. Henriksson – Jonas Hentati-Sundberg – Amir Jina – Emilie Lindkvist – Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado – Emmi Nieminen – Mat´ıas Piaggio – Jiangxiao Qiu – Juan C. Rocha – Caroline Schill – Alon Shepon – Andrew R. Tilman – Inge van den Bijgaart – Tong Wu (2018) Inequality and the Biosphere. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 43.

Amos noticed this item late in the week. It is an academic article that defines inequality in terms of society and the biosphere, then digs into the interactions among these concepts. We find it highly valuable to our development of the BioEquality world as it discusses interactions among human society and the natural living world. As an aside, the authors “define the biosphere broadly as the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships in the thin layer of life between the Earth’s crust and outer space” − which really puts things in perspective.

4. Other Species recruited to help humans sense impacts of the melting ice sheets

Culliford, Elizabeth – Jackson, Lucas (2018) Harsh climate: The struggle to track global sea level rise. Reuters Graphics 20.9.2018, accessed 21.9.2018.

This item describes some of the key technologies being used to track impacts of global warming on Greenland’s ice and glaciers through NASA’s OMG program. Biomimicry world partially appears in the form of the sensor strategy used by the research team–human made robots are not nearly as agile swimmers as seals, halibut, or small ’unicorn’ whales. Biorecovery world partly appears as the recently launched space-based monitoring satellite that will provide highly precise data about the Earth’s two ice sheets. The future potentials here include humans increasing their use of other species to monitor planetary systems and future high resolution datasets for verifying and modeling climate change and rising sea level.

5. Large-Scale Walls vs. Large-Scale Complexity

Wolovick, M. J. and Moore, J. C. (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere, Vol. 12, 2955−2967.

Geo-engineering offers solutions to climate change at giant scales intended to tackle global problems at their natural and geological source. In a recent proposition to avert the impending Antarctic glacial collapse that has been noted to be the largest contributor to future sea level rise, scientists Wolovick & Moore (2018) suggest innovations to mitigate the degradation and melting of the Thwarties Glacier in West Antarctica, echoing the idea presented in this post on WEForum. This we might understand as a contingency plan to slow the melting ice contributing to sea rise that threatens human habitat along coastal areas of the globe. It could be seen as linked to the BioRecovery world as human technology is applied to preserve an ecosystem, but it is perhaps more a part of the BioUtility world as humans intervene on natural processes to meet its own agenda − human habitat preservation. In practice, the proposal is an innovative way to stop the ice shelf from breaking away by artificially cooling and anchoring its edges. As an example of radical innovation to mitigate disasters, it signals new forms of resilient engineering that are evocative of coming times. There are ethical questions however, can engineering at such a scale work? At what cost? In the coming future will these projects become commonplace to avert the multitude of threats due to climate change? As China instructs its armies to plant trees at a gigantic scale to improve air quality, and engineers in Norway attempt to capture carbon from the air and store it in caves underground are we moving to a new level of scaled up innovation for planetary protection? This item also reminds us of other ‘walls’ in popular discourse: the walls built to block human migration flows. As Sassen (2018) argues, human migration is fundamentally caused by loss of habitat. Going to the symbolic level, a simple human technology − walls − are being proposed as safeguards against changes wrought by deep changes in the behavior of complex Earth systems. This observation begs the question: Are there alternative metaphors to walls that can serve us better in addressing these multifaceted challenges?

That’s our list for this week. We hope it gave you a taste of our thinking here in the BioEcoJust futures team. We welcome your feedback − particularly about how the above items remind you of items you’ve seen or if you see additional future potentials in the horizon scanning items. Please send your remarks to nabara (a) and Nick will pass them on to our team.

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh
MA, Project Researcher 

Amos T. Taylor
MA, Project Researcher

Orginially published on the official FFRC blog:

Launch of BioEcoJust Open Horizon Scanning

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