"Scenarios for the future of synthetic biology"

It is always tempting to extend technological trends to predict grand futures.  Yet predictions usually fail, either because one can never have sufficient information about the state of the world or simply because of surprise.  One method to address the inherent uncertainty in understanding future events is to explicitly delineate one's ignorance through the use of scenarios.  While I am no expert in developing scenarios, I  have always found my experiences with the Global Business Network and Bio-era in developing stories to be extremely useful in identifying what I don't know.

Bio-era has recently published a feature commentary in Industrial Biotechnology, "Scenarios for the future of synthetic biology" (for PDFs, follow the link).  Here is a brief excerpt:

The rapid evolution of biological engineering raises challenging questions about the future economic, social, and environmental consequences of the use of this technology.  Considering these broad issues requires an explicit acknowledgement of uncertainty: We can imagine many possible futures, but we cannot predict how events will actually unfold. Formal scenarios can provide a useful, structured basis for considering plausible future circumstances—enabling us to more easily identify key implications and any choices or policy considerations we might need to take either now or in the future.

Efforts at technology forecasting have, at best, a poor record.  Early predictions of the future of the computer industry envisioned the need for only a handful of large computers to meet all conceivable computing needs. In 1980, the US government and other analysts foresaw a boom in synthetic fuels that never materialized. Scientists and governments over several decades vastly underestimated the difficulty of developing practical fusion reactors. Early assessments of the cost of sequencing the human genome turned out to be too high by almost an order of magnitude. In each of these cases, significant economic and policy decisions were premised on predictions of the future that proved to be far off the mark.

...Each of the four stories presented here represents a plausible path to an uncertain future.  They are not predictions about the future, nor should they be understood as more plausible than other possible futures. Our modest hope, is that they might usefully serve to provoke consideration of the complex implications that accompany the introduction and diffusion of powerful new technologies that will inevitably lead to far-reaching policy decisions made under conditions of fundamental uncertainty.

"Scenarios for the future of synthetic biology", Stephen Aldrich, James Newcomb, Robert Carlson.  Industrial Biotechnology.  March 1, 2008, 4(1): 39-49.  doi:10.1089/ind.2008.039.