Today the world of design is in a position to benefit enormously from advances in sciences, mathematics and particularly, geometry—probably not in a way that many designers think.
As humans we are remarkably good at conceiving the world as a collection of objects, their geometric attributes, and the ways they can be taken apart and re-assembled to do spectacular things (either perform marvelous tasks for us, or provide an aesthetic spectacle, or both). This way of designing underlies much of our powerful technology—yet as modern science reminds us, it’s an incomplete way. Critical systemic effects have to be integrated into the process of design, without which we are likely to trigger operational failures and even disasters.
Today we are experiencing just these kinds of failures in large-scale systems like ecology. As designers (of any kind) we must learn to manage environments not just as collections of objects, but also as connected fields with essential features of geometric organization, extending dynamically through time as well as space. This is a key lesson from the relatively recent understanding of the dynamics of “complex adaptive systems,” and from applications in fields like biology and ecology.
At issue is not just avoiding failures. Though our designs can certainly be impressive, nature’s “designs” routinely put us humans to shame. No aircraft can maneuver as nimbly as an eagle (or a fruit fly, for that matter), and no supercomputer can do what an ordinary human brain does. The sophistication and power of these designs lies in their complex geometric structures, and more particularly, in the processes by which those structures are evolved and transformed within groupings or systems.
The ecosystem of a coral reef requires continuous mutual adaptation of individuals and species, like Yolanda Reef in Ras Muhammad nature park, Sinai, Egypt.
Photo: Mikhail Rogov, Wikimedia Commons.
With apologies to real estate agents, we’d like to say that the three most important factors in design are scale, scale, and scale. One reason is that many of the worst environmental design blunders of the 20th century have been mistakes of scale — especially our failures to come to terms with the linked nature of scales, ranging from small to large. The cumulative consequence of these failures is that the scales of the built environment have become highly fragmented, and (for reasons we detail here) this is not a good thing. Can we correct this shortcoming?
Most designers know something about “fractals,” those beautiful patterns that mathematicians like Benoît Mandelbrot have described in precise structural detail. In essence, fractals are patterns of elements that are “self-similar” at different scales. They repeat a similar geometric pattern in many different sizes. We see fractal patterns almost everywhere in nature: in the graceful repetition at different scales of the fronds of ferns, or the branching patterns of veins, or the more random-appearing (but repetitive at different scales) patterns of clouds or coastlines.
Figure 1. The beautiful structure of fractals, patterns that are repeated and sometimes rotated or otherwise transformed at different scales. Left, a natural example of ice crystals (Photo: Schnobby@wikimediacommons). Right, a computer-generated fractal coral reef that, helped by color and shading effects, could be mistaken for a natural scene (Photo: Prokofiev@wikimediacommons).
The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole. Not only is this definition more accurate, it’s also crucial for achieving an adaptive design.
Let’s talk about the important implications of this distinction between assembly and transformation.
Why is it scientifically wrong to say that design is the “composition” of essentially unrelated elements? Because nothing that works as a complete system is really “essentially unrelated” — though the sciences used to operate more or less successfully from that abstract premise, and much of technology still does. By contrast, the sciences of the last century have taught us more and more about the essential inter-relatedness of the Universe, from the largest scales of the space-time continuum, to the push-pull world of the quantum. In the biological sciences, we’ve come to understand the multi-layered, historical interdependence of systems, especially evident in the web-like relationships of ecological systems. Wherever we look in nature, we find vast and intricate networks of connections.
Looked at in a certain way, the human environment is a kind of massive delivery system for critically useful information.
It gives us information about obvious concerns, like where we are, where we need to go, where we might find food, where to look ou…