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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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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Francine Houben: culture and nature in landscape design

Designers love to build prototypes. So do architects. Let’s imagine the farmer to be one of such prototypes. “He prospers only insofar as he understands the land and by its management maintains the bounty. So too with the man who builds. If an architect is perceptive to the processes of nature, to materials, and to forms, his creations will be appropriate to the place; they will satisfy the needs of social process and shelter, be expressive and endure.”

Vincenzo and I went to a lovely lecture by Francine Houben, an architect who loves and builds for people. The lecture series, organized by Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and held at spacious National Gallery of Canada Auditorium, feature such prominent architects as Edouard Francois – the author of Flower Tower; Gregory Burgess – the proponent of architecture as a social, healing, and ecological art; and other inspiring urban innovators.

The Forum Lecture Series kicked off with an inspirational quote by Wim Wenders “If Buildings Could Talk … ”

… some of them would sound like Shakespeare.
Others would speak like the Financial Times,
yet others would praise God, or Allah.
Some would just whisper,
some would loudly sing their own praises,
while others would modestly mumble a few words
and really have nothing to say.
Some are plain dead and don’t speak anymore…

Buildings are like people, in fact.
Old and young, male and female,
ugly and beautiful, fat and skinny,
ambitious and lazy, rich and poor,
clinging to the past
or reaching out to the future.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a metaphor.
Buildings DO speak to us!
They have messages. Of course.
Some really WANT a constant dialogue with us.
Some rather listen carefully first.
And you have probably noticed:
Some of them like us a lot, some less
and some not at all.

What a perfect introduction to Miss Houben’s lecture about buildings “that are eager to welcome, to help, to be of service”.  The famous Library of Delft University of Technology has brought Francine an international recognition in 1998.  Her reasons for undertaking the project seemed to revolve around the issue of public spaces and natural settings that would welcome people to walk, feed on sunlight, and enjoy the company of each other.

TU Delft Library


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RuBisCo, Doom, Google Chrome: Unlikely connections?

I have a tendency to use my bed as a great place for lengthy lights-out conversations, especially when it is 39°C outside, and the only effective way to fall asleep is by sprawling on a window ledge in a precarious position. And I’m glad nights like these exist. I’m also glad I have a husband, who continuously stimulates my mind and questions my ramblings.

A while back, I wrote a post about how optimize rather than maximize strategy in nature should be an essential part of Life’s Principles Circle. However, after reading Tim McGee’s thoughts on Resilience vs. Efficiency, my train of thought slightly modified its path and headed toward the crossroads.

Form follows function is one of those elegant phrases, which fell victim to overuse by designers and engineers. Optimize rather than maximize is also not as straightforward of a phrase as I thought at first. Seems, elegant phrases always have a danger of being misinterpreted for the lack of appropriate context.

Tim gave an excellent example of the importance of context in nature:

The most plentiful protein on earth RuBisCo, is not overly ‘efficient’ at capturing CO2, but does an effective job given the context. In fact some genetic engineers are trying to figure out how to increase the efficiency of RuBisCo, and I wonder if as a result it would lower the resilience of the photosynthetic system as whole?

So, RuBisCo is:

  1. The most abundant protein on earth (40-60% of plant leaf protein content)
  2. The only link between inorganic and organic carbon (turns over more than trillion tons of carbon dioxide each year)
  3. One of the most painfully slowest enzymes known

Does that mean, that if genetic engineers find a way to speed up RuBisCo, they may find a way to increase plant production? Eradicate famine?

Now, here’s a question that I would like to ask:

Why is it, that nature – over millions of years of intensive selection process – failed to increase the rate of carbon fixation to improve efficiency? Did it just find an answer at random through mutation – and that answer may be far from the best possible – but the mutations required to find better solutions were so unlikely, so out of range, that it got stuck optimizing RuBisCo rather then finding a more efficient solution?

Also, if genetic engineers truly wish to improve the rate of plant production, doesn’t it make sense to look for a completely separate solution? The chances of RuBisCo being improved are very slim – nature was all R&D about it over a much greater period of time.

This is where the conversation with my husband comes in

Myk is a game programmer, interested in memory allocation and optimization in games. He basically wants games to run faster, so you don’t have to be subjected to a sight of patchy Elf Paladin (while he is busy loading himself), when all you want is to get a new quest and be on your way.

The conversation I had with him at 2 a.m. was about the difference between memory allocation in offline games – where the environment is extremely predictable and static – and memory allocation in internet browsers  – where the environment is unpredictable and dynamic. Think, scripted scenario in Doom vs. what-the-hell-did-i-click-to-end-up-here scenario on internet.

I thought it was a perfect example of optimization vs. resilience in the world of computer science. Web browsers employ a much slower, dispersed (but much less vulnerable to disruption) memory allocation algorithms, whereas game designers always strive for a much more compact, efficient solution, which also is more prone to disruption.

Unlikely comparison? Not so much, when it comes to optimization algorithms. In Doom, you are pretty much predetermined to end up in the web of this adorable brainy spider. In contrast, you really never know where you'll end up in the forest of google interwebs. Funny, how today I started reading an article about tar sands of Alberta and ended up reading about William Windsor the Royal Goat and his daily diet. If you're interested in connection, it went like this: Tar sands – Tar percentage in cigarrettes – Daily acceptable amount of tar in human diet – Royal goat and his ration of two cigarettes per day, which he eats.

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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.

Review of EcoCradle: From a mushroom cloud to a mushroom corner

There aren’t too many products that feel the need to reassure you that they are, in fact, packaging. EcoCradle is an exception. As I opened the parcel, generously sent to me by Ecovative marketing department, I caught a faint scent of honey seasoned cereal. Definitely not your usual sterile polystyrene whiff.

ORNILUX – an insulated glass that reduces bird collisions and is inspired by a spider web. I put it against a black plate so the special ultraviolet reflective coating is more visible. More about this in one of the upcoming posts. Brought to Biomimicry Education Summit by Dorna.

The madness started at the Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland. To be even more precise – with Dorna Schroeter pouring out samples of really cool products on to the table in the conference room of Botanical Gardens. EcoCradle packaging wasn’t one of them, but the whole lunchtime biomaterial orgy gave me an idea for the upcoming Undergraduate Biomimicry Challenge. Instead of simply showing the students a powerpoint presentation filled with rockstar examples, such as WhalePower wind turbines, or sea sponge solar cells, why not spice it up with real examples they can touch and test right there in a classroom?

Industrial designers are used to hands-on workshops and charrettes. There is a reason why we are said to have been found lying under the table – not because we are drunk, but because we are looking at how the legs are attached to the tabletop.

As soon as I returned to Ottawa, I started dialling numbers and firing off emails to companies that might be interested in sending me some of their material samples. And, ta-da! my first sample has arrived in the mail yesterday, smelling of fresh steel-cut oats.

My mother always says about cosmetics, "do not put it on your face, if you are not prepared to eat it", I'm starting to think this phrase could be extended toward food packaging as well. EcoCradle mushroom packaging with freshly cut rosemary and oregano.

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Balanza Verde: Life’s Principles approach to product development

The last post was mainly about a possible long term-solution for the challenges presented by an existing waste management system in Lota, Chile. This approach will employ a well organized recycling centre – consisting of localized transfer stations – bringing formal and informal waste management sectors together and fostering education programs for the community.

But how do we get there? Let’s start collaborating with future decision makers of Lota – children.

Miki Seltzer, myself, Samantha Serrer, and Cote Casanueva with 8th grade students of Escuela Adventista and Professor Isaías Irán Barra Barra. Photo by: Camila Núñez Benítez

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