The Design Enzyme

In biology, enzymes are defined as a class of proteins that catalyze or increase the rate of a chemical reaction. They do this by lowering the activation energy of the reaction — that is, the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction.  Through this process (see image above), substrates (molecules that enter the chemical reaction) come together at the active site of an enzyme where the enzyme helps convert them into products. Importantly, the enzyme itself is not consumed by the reactions they catalyze nor disturb the chemical equilibrium of the reactions taking place. However, it is important to note that the performance of the enzyme can depend on various factors: inhibitors slow enzyme activity, activators enhance activity, cofactors activate enzymes, and particular cellular conditions (pH, temperature, etc.) may be required for the enzyme to function in the first place. Simplistically and in keeping with the example of the enzymatic reaction above, the formula for the chemical reaction could look something like this:

S1 + S2 + E ⇌ ES1S2–> E + P

Where S1 = Substrate 1; S2 = Substrate 2; E = Enzyme; and P = Product.

In thinking about design thinking and the metaphors of science as my colleague and mentor Cameron Norman has in his Censemaking Blog, I started thinking about how an enzyme makes for a wonderful way of describing a designer/design thinker (used interchangeably here). This is a rather loose metaphor, but bear with me.

In keeping with what I have described above, design thinkers can help facilitate or even accelerate a design process. “Substrates” such as things like people, policies, or physical environments or even concepts such as empowerment, participation, and respect, are convened or infused by a designer in order to create a design solution to a particular problem. However, the designer can be influenced and dependent on other factors such as stakeholders, co-designers, or policies that determine whether or not the design process can take place effectively, if at all. As a consideration, it may be that certain conditions or substrates may be essential to the reaction otherwise the process may flop or may not even be regarded having been guided by “design thinking”. In the end, a product or solution is developed. Unlike an actual enzyme however, I’d like to think that the designer is much more versatile and able to catalyze different types of reactions and able to produce unique design solutions using what substrates it has available. Being adaptable and flexible to the various contexts and substrates within a particular design process seems like a critical quality of a designer in catalyzing a meaningful reaction. In some ways, enzymes can somewhat exhibit these qualities:

since enzymes are rather flexible structures, the active site is continually reshaped by interactions with the substrate as the substrate interacts with the enzyme.[29] As a result, the substrate does not simply bind to a rigid active site; the amino acid side chains which make up the active site are molded into the precise positions that enable the enzyme to perform its catalytic function. In some cases, such as glycosidases, the substrate molecule also changes shape slightly as it enters the active site.[30] The active site continues to change until the substrate is completely bound, at which point the final shape and charge is determined.[31] Induced fit may enhance the fidelity of molecular recognition in the presence of competition and noise via the conformational proofreading mechanism .[32]

– Wikipedia

So maybe the enzymatic reaction for a design thinking process could be something like:

S1 + S2 + D ⇌ DS1S2 –> D + So

Where S1 = Substrate 1; S2 = Substrate 2; D = Designer; and So = Solution.

Anyways, just some biochem for you to consider.

2 thoughts on “The Design Enzyme

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *