Dialogue on design ecologies

Peter JonesDialogic Design

How rare an event to walk unexpectedly into Socratic dialogue, in process. Friday’s Media Ecology workshop at U of T, hosted by Mogens Olesen and Bob Logan, was found in Bob’s office, where he and about 7 others were in process already, and after us, 2 more walking in, into an intimately cramped space. The tight office required everyone to lean in, make contact, and attend closely. In future sessions, I would recommend alternating these informal dialogues between larger and smaller rooms to encourage the interaction that results from people having to sit on tables or stand by the door. It lends urgency and a conspiratorial air to the proceedings. Proceedings which ranged quite widely – And if you weren’t there, my reporting from notes may not make sense as a narrative flow, as it was an open dialogue. I’ve tried to capture the spirit of the dialogue here, but there may be insufficient background – that could take all day to do, if it were possible. From walking in, to ending 90 minutes later, the conversation opened a lot of topics and generated a lot more questions for later.

  • Design ecologyWhat and where are design ecologies? This was the subject of Bob’s recent seminar with Greg Van Alstyne at OCAD, as well as a paper accepted for Artifact. Questions: How do we accelerate design (of systems, products, artifacts) using an ecological approach to innovation? By ecological, we mean taking into account the structure, activity, and interactions of all meaningful participants in the environment affecting the designed system. As with studying an ecosystem, how do we observe an innovation environment to identify the elements of a “design ecology”? How do we find, study, or measure the tools, practices, social systems, and economies for innovation?
  • And ecological design – was contrasted with design ecology, since this is a well-known approach to user interface design. (Not the designing of biological ecosystems), but interface design to fit people’s work practices, as a way of understanding people’s work as an ecological system.

This led to the question of emergence in a design ecology, which relates to Bob Logan’s recent work. He states the queston to which this is the answer is:

What are the environment, elements, influences and mechanisms that give rise to new innovative products, services, systems and processes through emergent design?”

In “giving rise to” we find ideas, artifacts, or concepts emerging from the interaction of actors in the ecology, not planned or specified design functions. Emergence is described as a bottom-up creation of novelty from the ecology, as found in nature – as opposed to the top-down construction by “designers.” In this sense, an ecology is usually thought of as the ongoing fictions and interactions of people and their skills within a self-organizing environment – people and their cultures, activities, tools, processes and methods, materials, prior works, economic relationships, etc.

Without linking to all the examples, there are many uses of the term “ecology” that are consistent with socially generated, self-organized systems: industrial, organizational, service, knowledge, information – have all been defined with ecological approaches. (And there even seems to be an interdisciplinary Master’s program at TU Delft dealing with these questions in industrial ecology.)

Where design is usually considered an activity within one of these ecologies, the difference here is in the recognition that “innovation” or novelty in design “happens” as a product or outcome of interaction in a dynamic ecological system. Yes, people intend to design in an ecological system. But when you turn the designerly model upside down, looking for emergence of something greater than the sum of its designed parts, you also see they (we are all) just catalysts to processes that are already ongoing within an ecological system.

And a good question of how emergence differs from holism – in both descriptions, the resulting state cannot be explained by reductionist analysis of the constituent parts. In both there is something bigger, better, more energy available than if adding the contributing parts. This was a branching conversation that turned toward the notion that emergence is related to the novelty of innovation – like a biological system that adapts to its conditions and environment, it adapts in ways we could not design to if we wanted.  A holistic system is more related to the ecology – the whole totality of the system from which novelty (design) emerges. An emergent design cannot be neatly explained by its parts, but it emerges from an ecosystem and is a reflection of it as well.

Then we verged into how emergent systems arise in the technosphere, and so on. I will add more in a second post rather than burdening it all in this one, (as I futilely tried before.)