Cities Community Insights

The Designer as an Evolutionary Mutagen

(Another in our continuing series of articles by participants in this fall’s Techonomy 2016 conference.)

Future Food District project, made last year for Expo Milano 2015.

The author, a seasoned designer and cities expert, created this Future Food District project last year for Expo Milano 2015. (Photo credit: Daniele Iodice)

In her Techonomy interview of not long ago, the Museum of Modern Art Design Curator Paola Antonelli states that she aims to come up with a sort of “theory of everything for design.” She writes: “When I speak of design, I deal with every endeavor that entails a creative process and has a goal….People don’t realize that design is truly all around us, not only in things, but also in interfaces and in the way streets intersect….Some people think design was born after the industrial revolution. Other people think it was born after Raymond Loewy’s stance as ‘the first professional designer.’…As far as I’m concerned, it was born when we started making our own tools in the Stone Age. I keep the definition of design pretty wide.”

Paola’s position is very interesting – so I wanted to share my two cents. Even if the idea of design has changed over the centuries, I would like to propose a generalized definition. In particular, I am interested in an operational definition that could guide our daily endeavors as designers. According to Herbert Simon, the wide-ranging social scientist who won a Nobel Prize in economics, “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals… Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

20160601 Fondazione Agnelli CRA 1_Thermal bubble

Carlo Ratti Associati, the author’s design firm, developed this personalized heating, cooling and lighting system, which follows occupants as they move around the building, like an individually-tailored environmental bubble.

If we accept the definitions above, then the role of designers becomes clearer. It is about challenging the present, introducing new and alternate possibilities, and ultimately paving the way towards the future. This is not dissimilar from Buckminster Fuller’s Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (CADS) – a systematic approach to design, “to solve problems by introducing into the environment new artifacts, the availability of which will induce their spontaneous employment by humans and thus, coincidentally, cause humans to abandon their previous problem-producing behaviors and devices.” Buckminster Fuller believed that design could pull society into a brighter future (or, as he put it in a slightly haughtier way: “I just invent, then wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented.”).

Broadly speaking, Fuller comes from an evolutionary framework for design – where beneficial changes will steer development in a positive way. In fact, biological species do essentially the same thing, on an extraordinarily long time line. Random mutations are introduced from one organism to the next, and if the mutation is successful, that organism will be more likely to reproduce. The best changes are incorporated into the species, and, over time, it evolves.

In a seminal 1863 text, Darwin Among the Machines, the Victorian author Samuel Butler proposed this basic analogy, replacing ‘organisms’ with ‘artifacts’ and allowing for the synthetic kingdom to be classified into genera and species, an evolutionary tree of objects.

Continuing the analogy, the designer becomes what, in biology, is referred to as a ‘mutagen’ – an agent that produces mutations. Specific design artifacts improve function or enable a new process, and on a broad scale can collectively drive change and development in the synthetic world. In short, I would propose that, as designers, we might consider ourselves as mutagens of the artificial world, whose aim is to accelerate the transformation of the present into how it “ought to be.”  And that might guide our daily endeavors.

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