Constructing Sustainable Technologies: The Case of Synthetic Biology

Student thesis: Phd


Governing the emergence of technologies in society is a complex endeavour, one that has been much studied yet remains without satisfactory answers. Given the urgent sustainability challenges faced by society and the significant role that science, technology, and innovation are expected to play in tackling them, the desire to exert control on emerging technologies is more pressing than ever. While a considerable volume of relevant research has been undertaken on this issue drawing from a range of academic disciplines, philosophical positions, and methodological traditions, much of it takes place in silos, precluding holistic insights. This thesis takes an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach to ask how emerging technologies can be governed in line with the sustainability needs of society. Empirical insights are derived from the emerging technological paradigm of synthetic biology. Four journal-style research papers make up the body of the thesis. The first paper develops a conceptual framework for Constructive Sustainability Assessment (CSA) which aligns analytical sustainability assessment approaches with technology assessment and responsible research and innovation. CSA provides a means through which the sustainability implications of new technologies can be evaluated early in their development. In the second paper, CSA is operationalised as part of an industry-based action research study in the field of synthetic biology. The synthetic biology-enabled production of bio-based nylon is found to provide potential benefits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions but have detrimental impacts in terms of several other environmental and social aspects. This paper demonstrates how the CSA approach can shed light on the impacts of new technologies at an early stage and potentially feed these findings into company decision-making. The third paper explores the barriers and opportunities revealed through testing CSA in the context of a company and discusses how the Silicon Valley-style business practices employed could be better aligned with sustainable development. Lastly, the fourth paper draws on the policy mix literature to investigate the role that sustainability has played in policy interventions supporting synthetic biology in the UK. While the sustainability agenda has played an important role in making the case for government support, this has failed to translate into policy development and implementation. At the core of the thesis is the argument that while controlling new technologies will always be challenging, approaches such as CSA can help. The findings also suggest that we should avoid taking the sustainability potential of new technologies at face value. Furthermore, greater clarity is needed from those promoting new technologies concerning promised sustainability benefits while mechanisms are also needed for citizens to more clearly specify their sustainability priorities. Finally, three sets of recommendations are identified for research, policy, and practice: i) to critically assess the sustainability of emerging technologies, ii) to specify sustainability claims and needs, and iii) to reshape the socio-technical landscape for sustainable technologies.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPhilip Shapira (Supervisor) & Laurence Stamford (Supervisor)


  • innovation
  • emerging technology
  • synthetic biology
  • sustainable development
  • sustainability transitions
  • sustainability assessment

Cite this