Collaborating constructively for sustainable biotechnology

Ensuring emerging technologies foster the creation of a sustainable future requires new forms of assessment and governance - with a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration.

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By Nicholas Matthews, Carrie Cizauskas, Donovan Layton, Laurence Stamford and Philip Shapira

Emerging technologies are often promoted as a means for more sustainable development, for example, by decarbonising production and consumption practices. However, while these technologies may tackle some environmental issues (e.g. reducing greenhouse gas emissions), they can often ignore or exacerbate sustainability issues in other sectors. For example, methods to alleviate climate change often result in shifting burdens to other environmental features such as water or soil health, or creating adverse socio-economic burdens for the workers growing the feedstocks. There is, indeed, no free lunch.

The development and application of technology will no doubt play crucial roles in working towards a sustainable future. However, it is important to avoid naïve dependence on technological “fixes” to solve our complex, global sustainability challenges. All technological change involves trade-offs, which in turn invoke difficult choices. Difficult choices require informed and considered decision-making.

To address this complexity, we previously proposed a new framework for Constructive Sustainability Assessment (CSA). This methodology combines deliberative workshops with analytical sustainability assessments, in an iterative and collaborative process, to support organisations and companies that wish to integrate sustainability into their decision-making.

A collaborative approach

In our recent paper, published in Scientific Reports, we describe the application of CSA in a company setting as part of an industry-university collaboration.

A collaborative approach was critical for the success of this research project. The University researchers were able to share their research expertise while acting as coordinators of company workshopping and data collection. Meanwhile, the active engagement of diverse company stakeholders in the research allowed for data sharing and collaborative modelling. These methods also enabled the results to be communicated and deliberated upon inside the company over time, creating tailored impacts based on organisational engagement and priorities.

Our findings

The organisation concerned, Zymergen, is a science and material innovation company. Synthetic biology, biotechnology, and engineering biology research are utilised by the company to enable the application of engineering and computational approaches to biological systems. Along with application areas in health, energy, food, and agriculture, these new approaches to biotechnology promise to expand the range of chemicals and materials that can be produced from biomass rather than fossil fuels.

For this analysis, we considered the case of nylon production, an important polymer with a wide range of applications. Almost all nylon is currently derived from fossil fuels, but there is interest in producing nylon from biomass as a more sustainable alternative.

Our results, summarised in the table below, highlight the potential for reduced greenhouse gas emissions when converting to biomass-derived nylon. However, we also identified and mapped potential trade-offs and ambiguities involved in a transition from fossil-based to biomass-based production processes.

Summary of the results of the study across five sustainability dimensions.

The deliberative nature of this process enabled the exploration of the results and the open discussion of such trade-offs. The resulting dialogue highlighted potential avenues through which sustainability could be better integrated into company decision-making, such as through considering a wider range of parameters in microorganism design.

Future directions

While our approach may be effective for informing and supporting sustainable decision-making in companies, the major systemic barriers that remain in place became overtly clear as the research progressed. In particular, production and consumption of products derived from fossil fuels remains the norm, and governments have thus far been tentative in instituting destabilising measures such as carbon taxes. The broader ecosystem of funders, clients, competitors, consumers, and regulators also exhibit a significant influence on what companies can and cannot do with respect to sustainability.

Transitioning to more sustainable modes of production and consumption cannot be achieved by individual organisations acting in isolation. Internal efforts to align company practices with sustainability goals must be complemented by broader system-wide efforts. This will require greater attention to collaborative, whole-society engagement and deliberation, and difficult decisions by political leaders. Initiating CSA-like approaches across sectors could prove a promising avenue, with combined results feeding into higher-level decision-making to facilitate and guide the transition to a sustainable future.

Nicholas Matthews

PhD Researcher, The University of Manchester

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