Niche Construction – Deep Ecological Concept

Image source Ilya Haykinson: Beavers are ecosystem engineers that have a dramatic effect on the evolution of an ecosystem due to the scale of niche they construct for themselves.

I am currently doing a research project with Autodesk at OCAD University exploring ecological concepts within building performance. The research team, including students, graduate research assistants and my colleague Bruce Hinds are having a lot of fun diving into the deep end of ecological research.

What we are discovering is a wide range of concepts that should be more closely linked with research and practice within the built environment. We are still in the early stages of really processing and understanding these links, but I thought I needed to begin sharing some stories (warning: this is going to be a long one…).

Ecology and Building Performance

Current research from building science is slowly transitioning a building-centric view, that focuses solely on building efficiency, to an occupant-centric view, which focuses on the broader impact on the user. The emerging themes explore a deeper understanding of comfort, as well as the impacts on health and well-being. It is a rich space of exploration, with many insightful theories begging for more practical application, and to be greedy we are pushing it a little further.

Our research is exploring an eco-centric worldview, that observes at a systems level the broad relationships within the various biotic (living) elements and the abiotic (non-living) elements within the city. In order to get the creative juices flowing, we assigned papers of ecology and building science to the students and had them diagram and explore the concepts for discussion (diagrams to come in a future post).

Ecological Concepts

One of the emerging concepts that has triggered lots of discussion is niche construction. 

Niche construction is the process whereby organisms modify selective environments, thereby affecting evolution.

The researchers who we have read are  K. N. Laland, F. J. Odling-Smee, M. W. Feldman and G R. Brown, and we are inspired by niche construction’s implications that evolution is an interactive, dynamic process being pushed and pulled by organisms, not just a one way, top down process as is often implied.

Let me first explain niche construction a little deeper, and then I’ll dive into a confusing ramble of why I think this is so important.

Niche Construction

Niche construction (wikipedia overview here) is a relatively new concept, having been formally introduced in the 1980’s. The core of the theory seeks to describe in detail the evolutionary impact made by organisms as they modify the ecosystem in order to maintain their own survival. The researchers aim to catalogue the various mechanisms organisms use to make these modifications.

One example is an earth worm that chemically alters the soil in which they live, thereby increasing their fitness within the habitat. The chemical modification also makes it more habitable for other organisms, which are now able to increase in numbers. Peripheral organisms are therefore able to adapt and increase fitness in the specific habitat due to the activities of the earth worm. Therefore the earthworm by constructing it’s own niche, has been able to modify the evolution of other organisms.

Note: I hope there is an ecologist reading this paper who is willing to correct me as I try to piece together the logic. I am fully aware that I may be over simplifying, or misinterpreting some of the content.

If Evolution is Dynamic…

Ok, 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 understand the deep, driving principles that govern a successful end result, rather than a narrow insight into a specific organism’s function. My emerging understanding of selective pressures and their role in evolution has therefore been key in understanding what a nature driven design process should include. In essence, it is the process and systems level relationships that are of most value to human innovation.

Therefore, understanding this process further continues to help me frame the core lessons I want to apply within design. Niche construction therefore recognizes that at a systems level, end products must be a process, not a result fixed in stone. Organisms, occupants in the case of a building, must be able to adapt their habitat in order to increase the overall fitness. Extend this throughout the ecosystem and it is vital that building is also capable of adapting to its external habitat. Communication between buildings, and awareness within context is key for the adaptation towards increased fitness. The theory, when extended, puts humans and “animals” into greater context:

From the niche-construction perspective, evolution is based on cycles of causation and feedback; organisms drive environmental change and organism-modified environments subsequently select organisms. Nest building generates selection for nest elaboration, defense, and regulation. Niche construction is not just an end product of evolution, but a cause of evolutionary change.

Laland & Brown

Not many people truly understand what it means for a designer to operate at a systems level, for my students niche construction defines this context. They recognize their role is to foster deep, slow, sustainable change and that there are specific mechanisms and implications within ecology that can inform design process. By designing a habitat that can be modified, to foster emerging behaviours, it is possible to trigger on-going benefits and changes within the habitat. The ultimate goal is to find a better way to integrate into the broader environmental context, rather than producing hermetically sealed spaces that don’t interact with one another.

Animals do not just perturb their environments at random, they build structures that are extended phenotypes, adaptations that enhance fi“tness.

Laland & Brown

Our thinking is that designing the governing criteria within a project is more powerful than simply doing the best within the given norm. I.e. the world needs new business models and value models, which suggests that design should be focusing on systems and process that evolve end products.

The Design Stories…

We are still playing with how to develop pragmatic case studies to apply our emerging thinking, and recognize there is so much more room to explore. One insight has been the need to design buildings as laboratories that learn, rather than spaces that teach. By understanding how each individual creates their own niche, a better understanding of comfort, health and well-being can be gained which can then inform the future development of spaces.

Our students are now developing visions for what awareness might ultimately mean within designing a space. What should be made possible for the occupants to take control of their own space, and how should the broader space learn from the other buildings and spaces in the area?

On one level it sounds very simple, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. As anyone in the centre of these disciplines understands, it is actually a fundamental shift within a practice that for at least the last century has been trying to bully it’s occupants into following the defined rules. Modernist Architecture with furniture bolted in place is the obvious extreme that the design world is still trying to recover from.

Dive into the Research

Ok, I am trying to keep this discussion relatively brief, and hope that someone is keen to jump in with some comments. There is a lot more to explore, and I will check in with some of the students to see which of their diagrams I can post to show off their thinking. In the mean time, if you want to dive into the thinking further, the two key papers we have used to gain an awareness of these theories are:

Evolutionary consequences of niche construction and their implications for ecology, by  K. N. LALAND, F. J. ODLING-SMEE, AND M. W. FELDMAN

This paper has excellent introductory explanations of the concept, I’ll admit the formulas around evolutionary theory go beyond me, but this is the paper that first got us thinking.

Niche Construction, Human Behavior, and the Adaptive-Lag Hypothesis, by KEVIN N. LALAND AND GILLIAN R. BROWN

This paper is excellent and frames an exciting conversation around the impact on human behaviour and the impact human technology has on the speed or lag of our biological evolution.


4 Comments on “Niche Construction – Deep Ecological Concept”

  1. Ian Clarke says:

    Sounds like a fantastic research project. I have always been more interested in what nature can teach us about designing systems than specific extreme mechanical or morphological champions (although I love those too). The system informs us of the underlying principles of evolution. One important idea to be learned from nature is that ALL evolution is CO-evolution. Co-evolution is the concept that two species have an intimate community interaction and over time force each other to adapt and evolve. The obvious examples that are often taught in school are predator-prey relationships (competitive) or flower-pollinator relationships (mutualistic). We can often see how one species, for example the pressure of predation, selects the other species to evolve, for example to be faster, and vice versa. However, the leap in understanding is to recognize the dense cloud of sometimes thousands of other community relationships that each species experiences all at the same time. As Donella Meadows would say “beware the clouds”.

    When mapping systems we tend to simplify them so we can try to extract meaning which we can get our minds around. This is essential in the scientific process if we are to make any headway into understanding these complex systems. However, we often forget to place our mental models back into the complex system. This is where I find students, and professors, have a tough go of it. It reminds me of something out of the author Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy science fiction books. He described a species who had created the ultimate torture device. It was a machine that in one instant forced the person to experience the vastness and complexity of the entire universe – with an arrow pointing to a microscopic place within it labelled “you are here”. Nobody had ever survived this knowledge. I know this is my own experience daily when I try to grasp the infinite complexity of natural systems.

    However, we seem to be the only species blessed/cursed with this problem. Other species take perhaps the more sane route. They don’t try to grasp the immensity of the system, they just respond to the local signals. Another lesson I have learned it that all evolution is local. Each individual organism doesn’t care about evolution, it just tries to survive the best way it can. It is the aggregate of all these individual struggles that is evolution. Perhaps this is a good lesson when we think about niche construction and the built environment. Focus on the system of information feedback and designing the ability to respond to those signals. You can’t always grasp and manage the entire complexity of a system, but you can design systems that are adaptable and have the capacity to evolve. We as designers need also remember that adaptive system design means we try to give birth to a design and then try to assist it to grow up well even if that means we lose some control, we shouldn’t want it to remain an infant forever.

    Ian Clarke

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      I have been using a lot of Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references in my class, but no one (not even Bruce) gets them… so thanks for that.

      Thanks for the thoughts – there is a lot to chew on. The “awareness” of systems intrigues. How aware do we need to be, and why can’t we stay “local”? These questions are so interconnected in order to frame the work that needs to be done.

      I think the biggest issue for humans is a desire to control the outcome. The emergence you describe at the level of adapting and responding to signals is only truly possible if we let go of a certain knowledge of the result… does that loop back around to our conversation of awareness?

      • Tim McGee says:

        There is something uncomfortable about the knowledge that emergent systems can not always be predictable- that some things are in fact impossible to predict – it actually goes counter to our cognitive biases.

        Which is where the whole field of cognitive science and social behavior is interesting, because then what my read of these sciences is telling us is that to create an emergent behavior that is inherently unknown – you have to engage not directly, but indirectly through some more understandable mechanisms – to get the benefits of the unknown outcome. Create a ‘process’ that is understood and accepted as valid, regardless of if the destination is known.

        Which is why innovation is uncomfortable, and the situations when true innovation is possible is often when there are resources where no explicit requirement for the innovation was expected, or when the risk of failure is acceptable to everyone.

        But, back to your topic of niche construction, I’ll have to disagree with Ian in the specifics of co-evolution. From a geneticist standpoint you could define co-evolution very specifically as genes that co-evolve as a tightly coupled relationship. So that a change in a specific gene in species A is rapidly evolved to cause a change in a specific gene in species B. This is very much not the case for most organism relationships. I highlight this technical difference of definition between different biologists because it ends up being important in the interpretation of co-evolution as a process.

        What Ian is referring to is more akin to the idea of selective pressures, and the concept of every organism is evolving in context. What I’m referring to when I talk about co-evolution on the genetic level is how organisms over time tend towards optimizing their efficiency – sometimes they do it by tightly linking together in highly coupled relationships. These tightly coupled relationships lead to more efficient, but more brittle existence. Thus, when something changes they go extinct…inherently why 99.9% of all species go extinct is because they are evolving towards efficiency. There is some evidence that species that have mechanisms that enable them to evolve towards resilience (as defined by ecology) are slowly becoming more prevalent as the Earth cycles through mass extinction events.

  2. RISHI PANDEY says:

    that;s great but it;s not too horror it;s should be seemed as real story
    rishi pandey class – XI-D

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