Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution?

** The article was originally published in Vol. 1 of FIELDS An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Please cite as follows: (A. Iouguina, 2013). Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution? FIELDS – An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Carleton University: Ottawa, ON.

Social innovation or Natural coevolution?

Biological inspiration is transforming many of the ways we think about innovation. Its commercial and theoretical applications are already influencing various industries and academic institutions. Fermanian Business and Economic Institute of Point Loma Nazarene University has devised The Da Vinci Index, which measures research and industrial activities inspired by solutions found in nature. The Index is compiled based on the number of patents issued, scholarly articles published, the number of grants issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) in USA, and the value of those grants for any given period. The reading of 1052 in the third quarter of 2012 relative to the 100 Index level of 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past 12 years (Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, 2012).

Index of 1,052 in **third quarter of 2012 relative to 100 index level of the *fourth quarter 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past twelve years.

Index of 1,052 in **third quarter of 2012 relative to 100 index level of the *fourth quarter 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past twelve years.

Social innovation implies a paradigm change

Innovation is essential for society, because it is the principal mechanism by which societies create and sustain competitive advantage. According to various sources, social innovation implies a paradigm change, or, in other words, it challenges an assembly of beliefs – possessed by an individual, a group or a civilization – that defend as certain and makes them set against the acceptance of other possibilities.

“Social innovations are changes in the cultural, normative or regulative structures [or classes] of the society which enhance its collective power resources and improve its economic and social performance” (Heiscala, 2007). For Heiscala, ‘Social innovation’ means ‘change in at least one of the following three social structures: cultural, normative and regulative.

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Open your mind to a world of complex challenges

Did I mention there is a Canadian Science Policy Conference happening in Ottawa right now? Did you know, hardly any designers ever attend such conferences? Opening night – and I happened on one lone industrial designer from Montreal. When I mentioned my affiliation with the trade, he just stared at me in admiration and I could almost see his eyeballs transform into heart shapes, like in cartoons.

Events like these are a perfect opportunity to connect science and technology into one big pile of innovation strategies. Where else would a designer find an access to information on not only the key challenges and opportunities, but also explore the role of science, technology and innovation that can help address them?

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Foraging in an unstable economy or why we have to move past the Occupation of Wall Street


Foraging Theory states that animals search and obtain nutrients in a way that maximizes their energy intake E per unit time T spent foraging, producing an expression that looks something like this: E/T. Of course, there is always a seesaw play between optimizing the net rate of energy gain and conserving the most amount of energy. Here is an example:

A colony of ants is following a short trail to obtain profit (they, as a group, have found the shortest path possible to optimize their energy expenditure and maximize nutrient intake). A colony of corporations has chosen a path of greater resource depletion and energy consumption as a foraging strategy. Who survives in the end?

The Occupationist Manifesto

Occupation of Wall Street Movement is a successful demonstration of a problem, but the solution lies elsewhere and is long overdue. I am not an economist. I have a formal training in product design, in a post-industrial economy, where most of the production is being done offshore. This really makes you sit down an re-think your career path. It is either time to adapt existing foraging strategy and go into a tumbling mode, or learn the characteristics of the environment and start a saltatory search.

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Even nature needs leaders: The desire for community is a constant of human psyche

Can you imagine the string of nightmares you’d stir up if you wanted the sewer pipe in front of your house repaired and you had to call the Federal Sewer Pipe Repair Department in Washington, D.C., to make an appointment? – Kevin Kelly

Thomas Lee, Rachel Bussin, and I got into the research of urban villages a while back. Something that really drew me to this topic was the phenomenon of small communities. No, not this kind of phenomenon, but a clearly explainable set of conditions present in many small towns, that are transcended into bigger context of a city with a retained charm of closely knit community. I almost forgot about the research my colleagues and I have done last autumn, when I happened onto this post by the oh-so-inspirational Carl Hastrich. Although, reading it is an absolute must to proceed with this post, here is an excerpt from Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” book, that really drew my attention:

  1. Do simple things first.
  2. Learn to do them flawlessly.
  3. Add new layers of activity over the results of the simple tasks.
  4. Don’t change the simple things.
  5. Make the new layer work as flawlessly as the simple.
  6. Repeat, ad infinitum.
Looks like, the equivalent to this method in Life’s Principles belongs in the Integrate development with growth strategy, more specifically build from the bottom-up.

A great example of such planning was given by Sherry Ritter during one of her presentations. The paper wasp queen is responsible for reproducing and setting up the initial nest. The queen paper wasp will start building a nest by attaching a central strand to the sheltered structure. The rest of the comb is built off of this central strand. Once the queen has built several cells, she will begin to lay eggs in the bottom of each cell. These eggs will develop into either male or female larvae. Once the larvae are old enough they will build tops to close off the cell. There they will remain until they become pupae. The workers are responsible for expanding the nest and feeding the larvae.

When Thomas, Rachel, and I were setting a plan of attack, our main strategy was going to the very roots of what the community was about, starting with the very essentials of it hundreds of thousands years ago. We looked at the development of community throughout history to understand the major factors that make it successful. And, of course, what kind of designers would we be if we didn’t put it into a visual diagram?

Diagram of community development through historic periods. Inspired by Greg McInerny and Stefanie Posavec visual representation of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (I swear, purely coincidental subject matter!)

Well, so if we apply the methodology of Kevin Kelly to this diagram, we have to redraw it completely! Instead of one node birthing fairly homogeneous branches – if we equate it to city planning, The Federal Sewer Pipe Repair Department will be in black – we would take the very core of community, when tribes populated the Earth, and draw a new layer over it keeping the very principle of an underlying simplicity. Sounds great!

However, there is something in this sequence that is a bit vague.

Balanza Verde: Decentralized approach to waste management system of Lota

Students of Escuela Adventista walking through piles of garbage on one of the main streets of Lota. Children – the future of Lota – are concerned with the amount of waste on the streets of their city. Photo by: Isaías Irán Barra Barra

Centralized waste management system for decentralized city

Solid waste collection and disposal in Chile are the responsibility of municipal governments. Cities must meet certain national norms or standards set by the National Health Service, an autonomous administrative unit of the Ministry of Health responsible for administering and enforcing the national public health requirements. Since 1980, municipalities have been allowed to contract out the collection, transportation, and disposal of solid wastes to private enterprises.

HIMCE waste management truck – centralized system. Photo:

Lota was able to secure a contract with Empresa HIMCE in 2008 for the removal of solid waste and its transportation to Coronel landfill 12.5 km from Lota. The contract between the municipality and the enterprise specified frequency and extent of coverage and types of waste to be collected (i.e., residential street waste, street cleaning, industrial services). These oversized trucks come into the city, collect unsorted garbage on streets that are paved and accessible, and leave to dispose of garbage in a landfill. This system breeds improper waste disposal by the citizens of Lota and the company; lack of community engagement in the cleanup process; and aggravation of the problem after the February earthquake, when even more people had to move into temporary housing.

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