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The Tarot Card Reader

The Synbio tarot card reading is a workshop tool designed to help designers and scientists explore the social, economic and political implications of synthetic biology.

We were invited by the Design Interactions Department at the Royal College of Art to take part in the on-going EU funded Studiolab project which is exploring the impact of Synthetic Biology on society and culture through practice-based research projects by using design as a way to imagine, test and discuss.

Within this broad remit, our early interests in the project were to explore the possibilities for new products and services at the intersection of synthetic biology and deviant globalisation – a murky world of illegal, informal and pirate economies, new patent laws, and cross-border flows of technology and expertise. We were interested in exploring the gradients of the informal economy; the grey spaces between the black market and mainstream commerce. What kinds of products and services might synthetic biology produce? How could patent law and regulatory regimes be shaped to meet the challenges of 'synbio'? How would different legal decisions operate across regional and national boundaries? How might deviant entrepreneurs exploit or evade patent law?

As part of the project, we were invited to Science Gallery Dublin, to participate in a workshop with scientists and other designers and engage further with synthetic biology. Addressing some of the themes we were exploring, we devised a scenario-planning game inspired by the cards of the tarot. We were keen for participants to situate scenarios for possible synbio products and services within a wider social, political, and economic context. The tarot cards would, we hoped, help drive world-building and scenario work in a playful, imaginative manner, while addressing some of the themes we wanted to explore further.


By substituting synthetic biology for any other emerging technology, we hope that the cards will have a broader use for anyone interested in imaginative and engaging workshop materials. 

The tarot deck comprises six categories of card: Protagonist, Location, Synbio Condition, Year, Operating Environment, and Player mission. Each category had six cards. One side of the card named a specific item, character or point, accompanied by a visual cue. The reverse side listed a couple of questions specific to the card, intended to guide thought and discussion.



For the duration of the workshop, we divided the participants into smaller teams of 3-4 members. Picking one card from each category, they worked to imagine and fill in the details of their scenario, affixing cards and annotations to a large sheet of paper. The final card chosen was their ‘mission’, with which they’d have to pull the scenario together, and present a narrative about how they might go about accomplishing their mission.



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And here's a quick glimpse of just one of the many scenarios that the groups developed:


The selected cards:
Year: 2038 / Protagonist: PhD student / Location: Beijing, China / Synbio Condition: Rising synbio counterfeiting / Operating Environment: Global wheat blight / Player mission: Acquire power

"To combat many years of violent seasonal storms, China has developed an especially  robust strain of wheat. When a global wheat blight hits the world in 2038,  the Chinese strain turns out to be almost completely resistant to the blight, whilst harvests across the US perish quickly. In order to return America to its ‘rightful place’ as the world’s leading producer of wheat based products, the Mcdonalds Corporations (who are now in charge of Americas agricultural policy) fund a Phd student to study the DNA of wheat being produced near Beijing. After years of being  seen by the US as the ‘Counterfeit Nation’ its now America’s turn to copy China."