Niche Construction – Deep Ecological ConceptPosted: March 19, 2012
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).
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 (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 fitness.
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.