Design and Evolution


Image courtesy Wikimedia.

This post is not about creationism or intelligent design. It’s about product design and how, at the macroscopic, societal level, design seems to be a component of a global evolutionary process. It’s drawn largely from the work of a recent graduate student of mine.

Dr. Damian Rogers did his PhD studies under my supervision*. His research sought to describe a process for the early stages of designing that is inspired by natural systems and genetics. His thesis is available here; this post is about one tiny sliver of his work that I actually collaborated on, and which fits nicely with some of my own research.

Every significant design process model focuses on the activities of designers themselves. Although many of them are quite specific, they invariably treat everything else in the world as some relatively vaguely defined “situation,” a context from which some data may be used to inform the design activities, and precious little more than that. What Damian did was step back from that process and think of it as a “black box” system element in the larger and more complex system of society.

We ended up describing a looping process where the introduction of a new design intervention** both is motivated by and consequently alters society. The alterations to society drive the next iteration of design intervention. Most importantly, this loop is uncontrolled by intentional forces of designers, organizations, and governments. Put another way: imperfections in the current state of affairs drive design, which results in some intervention that changes things, which brings up new imperfections that drive more design, and so on.

The key observation of this loop is that no one can predict and control the full extent of changes that result from a design intervention, especially in the long term. Henry Ford could have never predicted the extent to which the automobile has become a defining feature of modern society; Galileo had no idea what his application of the telescope to astronomy would lead to; Alexander Fleming could have never dreamed that his discovery of penicillin would have led to a world where we fear antibiotic resistant “super bugs.” Designed interventions surely are intended to address some imperfections in the world, but there’s no way to foresee the unintended consequences of an intervention, let alone control them.

What’s more, we can’t even identify, let alone measure, all the state variables of the world we’re really need to begin to design a proper intervention; the problem is just too complex. So what happens is we try to capture the most significant variables, design an intervention, and the study the new situation. We can use the differences to help spot variables we’d not noticed before, or had noticed but thought were irrelevant. So not only does the world change, but the way we determine its imperfections changes too. And, of course, the interventions themselves change over time as we understand things better and better. As products change over generations, those changes are driven by changes in the world, changes in the basic building blocks from which successive generations of products can be made, and changes in how the designers themselves (who are after all parts of “the world”) work, think, and act.

A successful intervention will propagate widely; an unsuccessful one will fade away. Touch screens, automatic transmissions, ballpoint pens, antibiotics, paper clips, pizza, beer, zippers,… the list of successful interventions is as wide and deep as society itself. It’s harder to list the failures, largely because by definition they’re not ubiquitous, but one can still find them: the Ford Edsel, betamax tapes, phrenology, sporks, and paintings on velvet are some examples. Still other interventions were once successful, but are now gone (or nearly so) because something better has come along: dot matrix printers, the Palm Pilot, the Volkswagen Beetle (today, it’s really Golf with a different body on it), corded telephones, fountain pens, tube-based televisions,….

So, while one can (at least in principle) control the development of an intervention during its development, one really has very little control over what will drive the next generation/version/update of the intervention, because those drivers will come from the environment. Indeed, it is the environment that sets the stage for an intervention’s success or failure, given the designers’ ability to alter the intervention over successive generations.

Now bundle the designers, the intervention-generating processes and facilities, and the intervention itself all together in a “black box” encapsulated system. This is not unreasonable from society’s point of view. Apple, for instance, can well be thought of as an abstract entity that is such an encapsulated system. Materials and information go into it; computers and mobile devices and software come out of it. If they’re bought and used to a sufficient degree, even more such devices and software come into existence. If they are not bought and used, they quickly vanish, perhaps leaving behind traces of themselves (the OS X menubar being fixed to the top of the screen, for instance, which came from pre-linux-based versions of the Apple operating system) over long periods and significant other design changes.

It’s a lot like natural evolution.

In fact, we think, it’s a very close analogy to evolution.

Think of a design intervention (say, the iPhone, generation 5) as a species of organism in an environment (society). There’s lots of other species (other smartphones) in the same environment all vying for resources (users) by which they continue to exist. If they are successful, more come into being (manufacturing of the iPhones is like iPhone reproduction). The environment changes as a result of all those iPhones being out there, competing for resources against all those other smartphones. At some point, a mutation in the iPhone occurs, and the iPhone generation 6 is born. That mutation is the design and development of the iPhone 6, which occurs within the “black box” of the Apple, such that it’s next cycle of reproduction (manufacturing) leads to the introduction of iPhone 6’s into the environment.

In this way, we can think of the design of the iPhone 6 as its DNA, and of the rest of the Apple “black box” as the “biochemistry” needed for actual iPhone 6’s to come into existence.

Of course, the iPhone isn’t the only intervention whose existence forms a feedback loop with the world. Every intervention does that. And since it’s the same world into which all these interventions go, the effects they produce are even less predictable. There’s just too many variables.

This too is like evolution. In an ecosystem, there are hundreds if not millions of species that all interact with their environments, changing everything as they live and, in turn, setting the stage for changes (mutations) in the organisms themselves.

Remember, we’re not talking about how a design evolves in-house as part of an iterative and recursive design process. We’re talking about a much larger loop, one that takes the design process as a single encapsulated step, one that loops around once for each overall change in an intervention that is put on the market and that changes the world as a result. In this large loop, there is no overarching control – no one and no group can control how the world will change as a result of new design interventions.

I think it’s very important that designers learn about this, not because I think Damian and I are “all that,” but because we honestly think we have the best description of the way things seem to be happening, and designers are too often too limited in their considerations. Virtually all the designers I’ve even heard of, let alone met, have no vision at all of the breadth and scope of the impact their work can have on society. This is also true for virtually all “entrepreneurs;” they have no interest in anything other than generating a “successful product,” where success is invariably only measured in narrow economic terms. There are a few luminaries (Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee, for instance) who at least knew that the big picture was there. Unfortunately, not even they could see it well because we simply lack the understanding, the research, the knowledge of it.

Considering how powerful systems thinking and analysis is becoming these days, we are quickly reaching a point where we can start to examine more closely what our design interventions actually do out there in the real world. We’ll need to do that, to learn to model what does happen, before we can even think of trying to predict what might happen because of some new intervention before it’s introduced into the wild. But we need to try, because the benefits will be enormous.

* Using the phrase “under my supervision,” though technically correct, is an exaggeration. He did all the heavy lifting himself. All I did was provide an support net, a little advice, and no where near enough funding (thanks for that, Stephen Harper, ya dumb yutz!)

** I don’t like thinking in terms of the design of products and services. I prefer to think, per Herbert Simon, about interventions that are designed to bring about preferred states.


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