Sitting here absorbing the atmosphere at the Synthetic Biology 4.0 meeting in Hong Kong, I have the strangest feeling of being transported into a Kim Stanley Robinson novel.  It’s not the cutting edge science being presented that is responsible, exciting and innovative as this is.  Neither is it the spectacular and futuristic setting, high above Clear Water Bay at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  Rather, it’s the sense of a community that has come together to redefine how science and technology are developed and used within society; coupled with the possibility that they might just succeed!

The reference to Kim Stanley Robinson comes from his Mars trilogy, where he chronicles in some depth a hypothetical convergence between science, policy, business and social concerns, in redefining how things are done in a complex and challenging future.  Although this is pure science fiction, Stanley Robinson captures what might happen if a community of visionaries, entrepreneurs and social activists come together to change the world; united by a desire to work together and a belief that anything is possible.

The analogy might be a little far fetched, but the buzz that pervades the Synthetic Biology 4.0 meeting is at least partly due to a sense of people coming together from very different backgrounds with a common purpose, and a healthy naivety when it comes to attempting the “impossible”.

And the mix of people and perspectives here is truly eclectic.  Discussions on open-source synthetic biology and the creation of genetic building blocks interleave with workshops on social impacts and posters on community regulation.  Yesterday the meeting heard from Alex Ng, a high school student on one of last year’s winning teams in iGEM—the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.  This morning, Waclaw Szybalski—credited with first coining the term “synthetic biology” in the 1970’s—addressed the meeting.  And this afternoon, Pat Mooney of the ETC group—one of the most vocal groups questioning the unconstrained development of synthetic biology—will be chairing a series of talks on social implications.

And threaded through everything is this feeling of a grass-roots movement that truly believes that it can change the world from the bottom up.

This is as important as it is exciting.  New partnerships between the developers and users of emerging technologies like synthetic biology are needed if these are to truly serve society.   The grass-roots buzz at Synthetic Biology 4.0 promises a new community-driven approach to developing effective partnerships.  But the process is fragile.  Diverse stakeholders and interest groups are still willing to sit around the table and trade ideas and concepts.  But what happens when the stakes are raised—when the possible becomes the probable?

The hope is that this new way of working together can be made as robust as possible as early as possible, so that when the commercial successes come and the tough social questions are raised, this new network of partnerships doesn’t dissolve into old factions.

An idea that only belongs in science fiction?  I hope not!

Andrew Maynard