It is becoming increasingly accepted that co-operation is more common than competition in the biological world. Dayna Baumeister and Robyn Klein have written about this multiple times and ecology research is diving deeply into how organisms “facilitate” conditions and relationships for one another. Survival of the fittest was always meant to be interpreted as the “best fit” to a particular condition, not the best at killing competition.
As the innovation landscape continues to get more and more complex, new relationships are emerging that seem counter intuitive at first glance and could be a sign of the changes to come in the future. The Green Tea Party is a real thing. It is a partnership between conservative political groups and eco-green groups. In Georgia they played a role in forcing local energy utilities to integrate more solar into the energy mix. This win is enormous as part of a broader energy shift, but the emerging relationships might be even greater. The Huffington Post states that the conservative group even went against the Koch brothers, the wealthy billionaires who were instrumental in the creation of the original Tea Party.
Scott Smith, the Changeist, has a brilliant essay on the emerging trend of “hippies and libertarians” becoming unlikely allies. This highlights to me, that as the innovation ecosystem matures it will become increasingly complex and require unique relationships to navigate pathways to change and creation of value. If that isn’t biomimicry, I’m not sure what is…
The amazing image above shows how much can happen in a city over 26 years. We know cities are growing at amazing rates, but these images are poor at capturing any tensions of over stretched infrastructure that struggles to keep pace. Slow development is never desirable in urban growth, but it is hard not to see dystopic visuals of urban decay as the cities struggle to pay their own environmental bills.
Conversations about ecosystem development as a strategy for solving human environmental crises are clearly not new. In a paper from 1969 recently sent to me by Bruce Hinds there is a rich account of the previous thinking and inspiration that has as of yet translated into human innovation. Some of the language and concepts in the paper are clearly out of date, as most of the resilience theory work and C.S. Hollings was not yet integrated, but at the core there are some really key concepts.
Core Trends of Ecosystem Succession
Exploring Wicked Problems with Design Thinking
Last year, along with Jonathan Hoss and Karen Maxwell, I looked into the topic of flooding in Australia. The project was focused on using design thinking to identify and begin to solve wicked problems that were arising through climate change.
Wicked problems are deeply complex problems where the stakes are high enough that it is dangerous to be wrong, and yet no solution is possible without raising a further “higher level” problem. Richard Buchanan defines them (read the full article here) with specific properties where there is always more than one explanation for why the problem exists and that there is no opportunity for prototyping potential solutions, therefore only a one shot opportunity for intervention.
The paper is fantastic as it discusses why designers tend to be drawn to these particular solutions, possibly actively revealing them through design thinking methodologies.
Wicked Problems Caused by Environmental Disasters
For the project Jon, Karen and I ended up exploring insurance, strange but true, as a topic where large issues were being raised that were placing pressure on a wide variety of stakeholders. As you can see in the presentation below that sets up the project, specific regions in Queensland; Roma and Emerald, were so heavily affected by the floods that the insurance company that paid out the most claims, Suncorp, then decided they would no longer support ongoing coverage without mitigation against future damage being developed. A wicked problem emerged as tensions between Government, Insurance Companies, Residents affected by the drought, and other Taxpayers where all at conflict over responsibility and appropriate calls to action.
The results include individuals with damaged homes being repaired at their own expense, all at high risk of repeat damage with no course for preventing it.
Fast forward a year from the project, and there are only now beginning to be stirrings of a solution to the problem. The insurance embargo placed on the region has said to have worked, according to the insurance companies, by forcing the government to act. While nothing specific has happened just yet, it is very intriguing to be able to watch the issues arise when trying to solve a specific wicked problem.
Parallel to our project, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York, causing far more damage economically. But the problems that arose have never quite scaled to the level of a wicked problem that could not be solved. While much debate is under way still about how best to manage future scenarios, clear action is being taken to mitigate future damage, whilst previous damage is being resolved. While I understand there are many homes yet to be fully repaired, and families still struggling to recover, there is a tremendous amount of proactive work being done to prevent future damage. Visit the USGS website and there is plenty of information about how data gathered will be used to predict storms and ultimately inform future projects.
Visually Communicating Context for Wicked Problems
Ok, so my mind has just been blown. We all know flexible electronics are on their way. It isn’t all that innovative to imagine, but heck, when you actually see a picture of a super thin conductive surface working, it is pretty amazing.
Lightweight and Indestructible
Nature just posted a huge article on a thin film sensory material with impressive images of it floating to the ground like a feather, or pressed into the roof of a mouth (cast) to take up the exact form and gather information. It is hard not to get excited! The image with the feather is amazing for the concept that future electronics could be extremely tough, not because they are built out of bullet proof material, but because it is so light it will never fall hard enough to break. Now that is some divergent thinking.
Smart Surfaces Everywhere
Stuart Candy is the “Sceptical Futuryst”, which is a superb resource of content, opinions, case studies and process. I’ve just begun to go through the site in detail as Stuart is soon to be in Toronto at OCAD University, which is really great news. Below is a great example of futures thinking and design fiction presenting concepts to encourage dialogue away from accepted “norms”.
It’s not only that permanence need not be assumed, but impermanence can actually be embraced.
The above quote is from Stuart explaining the core thesis that the team of collaborators to used to imagine a future capital city of Australia that moves around the country, engaging different communities and encouraging ecological stimulus that can diffuse through the region.
NOTE: Am struggling to embed the document – click here to read.
Decentralized and Distributed
In biomimicry, “decentralized and distributed” is a principle that plays out in many ways. Most recently I was in discussions around materials development that spoke of active feedback/response that would allow function to be integrated physically. Previous to the natural model the thinking had focused on centralized digital sensor to process to action models which were too complex.
The model above of distributed politics, raises a number of amazing discussions. In Toronto there are huge tensions currently over the mayor, with a strong divide between downtown and outer suburb residents. Many debates have re-arisen over the success or failure of the most recent amalgamation that was meant to transform Toronto into a united and efficient single community. Perhaps literal physical flexibility would break down some of these walls?
In America there are huge issues of right and left, but also tensions between the north and south. Could physical transition and engagement encourage interactions that break down these divides? What if Washington was capable of moving every 4 years?
Great case study of design futures / fiction – and an intriguing connection to biomimicry. Very intriguing discussion to add to the Urban Ecology explorations.
The video below is fantastic. Paul Root Wolpe makes the case that humans are just beginning to understand how complex the world truly is, and that singularity, ie a turning point at which human control over the natural world will change everything, is highly unlikely in the near future.
Great little snippet at a perfect time for anyone investigating forecasting and futures methodologies (which has been my focus of summer) as it challenges the simplistic projections of the future that occur if proposals are built on top of highly reductive world views.
The maker revolution has promised utopia, while delivering a lot of really fun plastic objects and throwaway toys. The big projects, such as open source farm machinery, are occurring but they are much harder to access than tips on printing high definition Yodas. But I think a definition of utopia might be a society that competes over who can make the best replication of a Star Wars character.
Then someone, Cody Wilson in this case, comes along and really disrupts the system. His company, Defence Distributed, released designs for a working hand gun that can be completely printed from a 3D printing machine. I assumed he was an angry crank looking to disrupt the system, but in the interview above it is remarkable how self aware, articulate and deliberate his actions are. And it is remarkable how confused and conflicted I am from what I am hearing.
In essence, if anything can be made, what is the role of centralized control? What does this disrupt, what does this enable? I can not wrap my head around it.
Matt Ratto runs the Critical Making lab at the University of Toronto, where they explore a wide array of fantastic concepts and he is interviewed as the “counter-argument”, but in reality he is also in an interesting situation of having to agree with some of the principles of autonomy and manufacturing. Matt is working with local authorities to help reveal the complexities and consequences involved. In Canada there is a specific law on guns having a certain amount of metal in them so that they can be found through metal detection. A plastic printed gun is therefore illegal for being undetectable, and yet obviously difficult to trace.
I thoroughly recommend setting some time to listen to the full interview, it is highly revealing. It will take me quite a while to fully process the implications of what is emerging.
At the Urban Ecologies conference in Toronto on June 20 – 21, I presented with Bruce Hinds and Ian Clarke on Information and Complexity in Urban Ecology.
Sponsored by Autodesk, our research has focussed on biology and ecology as sources of inspiration for building science. As software becomes increasingly sophisticated in gathering and processing data, there is tension on how this will influence the design and management of buildings. If any information can be collected, what should be collected, and what is the purpose?
In our short review presentation we outlined our own evolution of inspiration and how we see it impacting the built environment.
Organism – Barrel Cactus
For today’s workshop at the Urban Ecologies Conference at OCAD University, we are running a workshop on Ecosystem Succession and Urban Ecology. More information will be coming, but here is the presentation as a resource for the participants of the workshop:
June has totally snuck up on me, so sincere apologies for not sharing this sooner, but there is an excellent Urban Ecologies conference in Toronto this summer at OCAD University from June 20 – 21st.
In the topic of Regenerating Cities, I will be doing a presentation with Bruce Hinds and Ian Clarke, and running a workshop with Bruce Hinds and Jamie Miller. Key topics being explored are homeostasis and resilience as goals for the built environment, with the workshop focusing on the skin of the city. I’ve included the proposals below, and while there may be some changes, especially considering the presentation and workshops are far to brief to cover everything we hoped, I think it gives you a heads up into the research we have been doing.
All research was supported by Autodesk who supported Bruce and I and our students to really experiment with ideas around the built environment. I’ll be sharing more in the future, so stay tuned.
Let me know if you have any questions – hope to see some of you in Toronto – or maybe there are opportunities to play with some of these ideas elsewhere in the world? Let me know!