Selective Pressures and Design

I’ve just returned from the second workshop in the B.Specialty course from the Professional Pathways Program offered by the Biomimicry Group. There were a couple of enormous insights learned from the group working dialogue that I want to use this blog to process.

Language within biomimicry is very powerful. Within the interdisciplinary discussions it is very easy to distract and confuse when the “wrong” word is used. By wrong, I mean a word that is ill-defined that means too many (or too few) things to each individual. When used right, language becomes the connective tissue between disciplines that allows cross pollination of research and concepts.

Habitat Conditions and Selective Pressures

We were working to define the context of a project, so that we could establish exploratory research in biology. As anyone who has explored biomimicry, this is a deceptively difficult process and can easily derail and frustrate a group of people. Biology is just enormous space of investigation to enter. There is no guarantee that you will find a model that relates to your project in the time frame you have for discovering. Therefore it is crucial to build a conceptive bridge from design to biology to start the process.

In the scoping phase we often refer to this as outlining the “habitat conditions”. What are the habitat conditions of your project? What are parallel habitats in nature? Cue research.

But habitat implies the abiotic, physical context. Great for architects looking to design a condominium in the desert, searching for analogies between how nature cools and how a building could cool. Not so good for the industrial designer whose product exists “everywhere”.

Even more importantly, it limits the sorts of questions you might ask nature. Habitat conditions implies physical responses to environment that does not open a path to deeper metaphors that may be applicable to not just physical functional challenges, but also process and system related challenges.

Shout out to Karen Allen and Tim McGee

Months ago Karen and Tim introduced me to the language of selective pressures as habitat conditions. It was a juicy ah-ha moment then, but it hadn’t sunk in until the weekend. I’m also hoping one of them may read this post and edit/correct/expand any of my poor biology explanations.

Selective pressures are all the factors that influence the adaptations evolved by an organism. They are the “design constraints” that force the fitness of the organism. They are abiotic, and biotic, meaning they are pressures from the physical habitat; sun, wind, shade, soil, water, as well as from the “living” organisms; predators, prey, competitors, pollinators, all the different relationships that emerge from a complex living system.

This is a deep insight for me, because “selective pressures” has lower associations in my mind, and within the broader group we were working with on the weekend, such that I was able to find a diverse array of parallels between design and biology.

Selective pressures could therefore include characterizations of the client; how they choose ideas and how they respond to information could start discussions of feedback loops; signals and response adaptations in nature that might inform how you collaborate with your client.

Selective pressures can be used to highlight the context in which particular adaptations have emerged, or what influences specific behaviour. Investigating what selective pressures inform a super organism, like an ant or bee colony, to produce a new queen and move to a new location, might help innovative thinkers in the areas of social and organizational change.

I also like that selective pressures can be something that we can shape as designers. Instead of designing the end result, we may recognize that what is really needed, is a modification of the selective pressures to allow a new result to emerge. We don’t need a new building, we need new way of how we interact within the existing building. We don’t need to completely change the organizational structure, we may need to adjust the information flows to allow a new structure to emerge.

This dialogue suggests a journey of evolution, rather than our desire for revolution which so often rejects the historical DNA of a given scenario in a desperate bid for a blank canvas to work from. I also think there is room for a good diagram to explain this concept… but my head isn’t there yet.

How to use Selective Pressures in your Project

I’m still wrapping my head around how to apply this insight within pragmatic exercises, and am comfortable for the time being in simply knowing this will be a deep shift in how I ask questions in the future, but let me experiment with framing how this insight might apply.

When bridging design to biology, the fundamental starting point is to biologize your design questions into language that can be asked of a biologist. This is biomimicry 101, how to start a conversation with a biologist. How to search within AskNature. How to begin.

But often we project human qualities into these questions: “how does nature learn”, is a favourite of mine. There aren’t that many valuable examples of nature “learning” in the same way that humans do. What may be more interesting is understanding how properties that we might be inspired by have emerged in nature. Therefore a better question might be;

“What selective pressures create social behaviours in nature?” You could define what those social interactions might be. Examples from the weekend were birds flocking and fish schooling. What are the selective pressures that cause those organisms to evolve that behaviour? You can dive into research around what the simple rules are that enable flocking and schooling to occur, what benefits are gained from the group and what habitat conditions these behaviours have evolved in.

Or as I read over this paragraph, there is another way of looking at the question.

“What are the selective pressures for organisms to evolve processes of learning?” We might think of bears and monkeys as organisms that fit our interpretation of what learning may be, but the biggest insights are likely what influenced these organisms to have evolved relationships between parent and child that last for long periods of time and include the transfer of behaviour and information.

How can we Practice this Process?

I’m thinking of developing an exercise within the scoping stage of a biomimicry project, whereby the “designer” outlines the selective pressures that will be critical within the project. The final research questions would therefore include some of the traditional functional questions, as well as more process based questions around selective pressures. The latter would encourage more contextual investigation, moving to the “what conditions caused this function to emerge”, which may be actionable in a different way than the typical celebrated functional strategy.

I just want to finish by adding an enormous thanks to everyone who is part of this workshop. The “students” (who are all infinitely more experienced than I am) and my fellow “instructors” (who are incredible) all offer the selective pressures that challenge, support and question my ideas in a never ending experiment in how we may think differently and make an impact on how things are done in the future.

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4 Comments on “Selective Pressures and Design”

  1. Phytosleuth says:

    Ooooohhh Carl! I like it.
    ‘What conditions caused this function to emerge’ might suggest ways to upgrade or improve the conditions first so that the design can function better. ^^

    Cheers, Phytosleuth

  2. kzarsky says:

    I’m so glad you took the time to reflect on this specific topic. Many of us have practiced multiple research/due diligence exercises, but the new language of biology definitely adds a new dimension. As a result, the exercise does more to bridge in this context. Great post, Carl.

  3. […] let me take a step back. I have written previously that in a process of using biology & ecology to inspire innovation, it is important to […]

  4. […] thinking. When you look at a project through the lens of evolution, the design criteria are the selective pressures that shape how organisms adapt to their contextual conditions. It’s all biomimicry… of […]


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