Evolutionary design

Evolutionary design is an approach that is based on the principles of cultural evolution that can be derived from anthropological observations and archaeological evidence about human scale societies that predate the emergence of civilisations. In evolutionary design the moniker of design is replaced by the concept of evolution. Cultural evolution entails not only the evolution of collaborative relationships and supporting tools within a group, but also the evolution of collaborative relationships between groups with many cultural commonalities and also between groups with few cultural commonalities.

This article hints at the huge potential for cultural diversity at human scale in the absence of super-human scale hierarchical systems of command and control. The principles of evolutionary design have been distilled from my experiences with cultural evolution in human scale groups and between human scale groups. Evolutionary design principles are introduced in a tabular form that maps them to related Design Justice Network principles and to contrasting principles that otherwise commonly drive design in industrialised societies.

Cultural evolution in the industrial era

We have created education factories that focus almost entirely on replication. However, humans have evolved as part of highly diverse ecosystems, i.e. we have evolved to survive and thrive in highly diverse contexts, rather than as part of super human scale monocultures, i.e. nation states, transnational corporations, and physical environments dominated by industrialised agri-monocultures.

Modern industrialised societies neglect the four other evolutionary functions that operate in healthy ecosystems that include humans: understanding of the local ecosystem and the roles of the various species within it, selection of variants that increase diversity and strengthen the ecosystem against external shocks, experimentation with new variants to uncover new possibilities, and sustaining collaborations within and between species that are adapted to the characteristics of the local environment.

In the industrialised neoliberal ideology, cultural evolution is reduced to a dangerously simplistic notion of innovation:

  1. The role of selection is reduced to a simplistic optimisation problem in a single dimension, i.e. growth in the abstract sphere of monetary metrics. In a suitably designed financial system this creates a consistent bias that benefits those who start out with above average financial resources.
  2. The role of experimentation is reduced to the superficial material variability that is easily achievable via mass customisation, and it excludes any variability that might undermine the self-preservation of established institutionalised power structures (national governments and transnational corporations). Amongst other things this is achieved by systematically pushing entrepreneurs down a path of “start-up” models that hand over control to speculators, and by co-opting the most compliant and unscrupulous entrepreneurs into the speculator class.
  3. The role of sustaining collaborative relationships within living ecosystems is reduced to the perpetuation of established institutionalised human power structures.
  4. The role of human understanding of the local ecosystem, and the well-being of marginalised groups and of all the non-human inhabitants are at best secondary concerns.

The fragile economic mono-cultures that emerge from competition are prone to boom and bust cycles – the net effect is a waste of precious time and scarce resources.

The 26 evolutionary design principles in the context of design justice

The evolution of healthy ecosystems, communities, understandable companies, and trusted relationships between all participants is shaped by the limits of human scale (Schumacher. 1973, Norberg-Hodge 1991).

Instead of the traditional framing of a company or organisation as consisting of individuals, framing it as a set of binary relationships between specific people is a useful tool for understanding companies and communities as evolving systems. Egalitarian relationships shift the focus away from dangerous tribalism towards a model where collaboration between groups is as relevant as collaboration within groups.

Evolutionary design takes the widest possible context and potential limits of applicability into account, by focusing on the diversity of locally relevant perspectives across the intended scope, by emphasising minority perspectives, and by acknowledging the counter-productive role of all forms of social power gradients. The intent of evolutionary design in terms of accomodating diversity of needs corresponds to the intent of inclusive design, i.e. “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference”, including explicit recognition of neurological differences as relevant factors.

The understanding that power gradients stand in the way of transformation is fundamental, and explicitly connects the drivers of evolutionary design to the goals of design justice. Evolutionary design seeks to reestablish local egalitarian social norms similar to the most important norms that characterised the small scale societies that existed before the emergence of formal institutions of concentrated social power and written systems of record keeping, i.e. the matrix of domination.

Evolution at human scale can be described in terms of 26 design principles. The table below maps the principles of evolutionary design to the ten Design Justice Network principles and contrasts them with commonly encountered design objectives in industrialised societies.

Intentional bottom-up cultural innovation at human scale

Fast paced cultural innovation at human scale is the home turf of small software technology companies. The core components in the context of software companies have a one to one correspondence to the core components in biological systems:

  1. human organisations ➜ biological organisms
  2. platforms ➜ bioregions
  3. products ➜ species
  4. services/functions ➜ services/functions

The core activities in biological ecosystems map to software product line design and engineering streams of activities and feedback loops as follows:

The correspondence is no accident. Software companies that combine deep domain specific expertise with the capability to conduct experiments and a commitment to learning about the commonalities and variabilities of user needs, with a particular focus on marginalised and non-obvious users, operate in a quality and productivity league that differs by one or more orders of magnitude from software companies that don’t apply a software product line approach (i.e. evolutionary principles) to their work.

What is the significance of the correspondence? The practical significance of the correspondence is profound, as it provides us with a collaborative framing and terminology for evolutionary processes, including evolution guided by conscious human design and ecological interdependencies and limits, without any reference to the hyper-competitive cultural bias of neoliberalism, or the deeply misguided assumption that competitive markets are the best mechanism for “driving” cultural evolution.

The evolutionary lens allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems. Software product line engineering can be understood as a form of collaborative niche construction.

Human guided cultural evolution

No successful software company would ever organise in terms of competing teams to develop the best possible product. Quite the opposite is the case. Software companies that take a product line approach operate dedicated work-streams and teams for each of the four core activities within the evolutionary process:

  1. experimentation with variations in implementation technology choices and operational environments to better meet customer needs,
  2. platform engineering, i.e. deliberate selection of common features that are useful for specific categories/species of customers that use the product line,
  3. product engineering, i.e. replication of best engineering practices in the assembly of concrete products for specific customers,
  4. product line operations, i.e.sustaining the provision of services to customers and processing feedback from customers.

In a product line approach parallel experiments in a collaborative ecosystem replace head-on competition in a disruptive market environment as a major driver of evolution. Instead of being commodified resources and objects of financial speculation, the people and teams involved in product line evolution are part of a larger community of learning and mutual aid (Kropotkin 1902).

Successful software products that are used by many thousands or millions of customers are best thought of as a domain specific language system that complements human cognitive abilities and that facilitates and mediates collaboration and/or social competition between humans.

In a networked world with ubiquitous internet connectivity and pervasive use of Internet enabled personal devices, software plays a significant role in guiding – or even forcing – human cultural evolution. Experienced software companies develop fast paced collaborative feedback loops with customers in order to minimise misunderstandings, and to gain a deeper understanding of the commonalities and the variabilities of customer needs in specific niches and geographies, which in turn is fed into the evolutionary process that shapes the future scope and functionality of the product line.

Software product design conducted in isolation, without giving customers and marginalised groups the ability to shape the design, is a form of social engineering, whether intentional or not. All users of the Internet are familiar with the social externalities. Online social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.) dictate the possible communication and collaboration patterns, and in doing so typically maximise the “return on investment” for the owners of the platform, in the metrics of success prescribed by the neoliberal paradigm.

The huge opportunities and dangers of mediating human communication and collaboration and/or social competition via software platforms can not be overstated. The language systems that we create with the help of software can either amplify the unique human capacity for compassion and creative collaboration or they can amplify social competition and the brutal power politics that characterise primate dominance hierarchies.

The combination of experimentation and platform engineering replaces direct competition between people and companies with collaborative niche construction as the driving force of cultural evolution. The collaborative approach is much less energy intensive, it nurtures mutual trust within and between companies, and it wastes less time and genuinely scarce resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest reminder of how dependent our societies have become on software as an extension of the language system we use on a daily basis. The words we type into our devices may look familiar, but the ways in which they are processed, and who gets to see them and interpret them, are increasingly beyond our control. Similarly the words and images we are fed via our screens have been pre-processed, filtered, arranged, and decorated in ways that are largely beyond our control.

There are huge differences between the software platforms at our disposal. Whilst many software platforms encourage toxic competitive social games other software platforms are the most amazing tools for catalysing specific kinds of collaboration. As a software platform co-designer (i.e. language system co-designer) I am acutely aware of how the work of specific organisations and teams can be greatly improved for all participants, by finding ways to:

  1. reduce misunderstandings,
  2. catalyse knowledge flows and essential interactions that nurture trusted relationships and a greater level of shared understanding,
  3. reduce cognitive load, by giving users the tools to automate repeating patterns of coordination tasks according to their individual preferences, and according to dynamically evolving needs.

There is a fundamental qualitative difference between (a) software platforms that serve the neoliberal paradigm and (b) software platforms that are operated by employee owned companies and that evolve together with the communities and organisations that use the software, to catalyse communally agreed patterns of collaboration, and to automate administrative chores.

Cultural evolution in the context of ecological collapse

Understanding how software platforms evolve is important because of their role as a language system that shapes human interactions in a world of zero marginal cost communications (Rifkin 2013). Cultural evolution of course is a topic that is much bigger than software. In a dynamic world of global heating and ecological collapse, its direction will determine how much suffering human societies will experience over the coming decades, and what kind of world will be available as the starting point for ecological regeneration.

If we leave the evolution of software platforms in the hands of profit maximising corporations, the future is one of extreme paradigmatic inertia – concluding the sixth mass extinction event with the literal liquidation of the planet. If instead we rediscover the language of life at human scale, we have the chance of nurturing the evolution of human scale collaboration platforms that are attuned to the task of ecological regeneration and mutual aid rather than the task of planetary liquidation and competitive social games.

In a world of zero marginal cost communications, capital is no longer a necessary prerequisite for the development of software platforms. The world of software platforms is already a world of shiny (i.e. capitalised) candy wrappers around Open Source software. It is time to discard the wrappers and focus on evolving the substrate for human communication and creative collaboration.

Equipped with an appreciation of the human capacity for collaboration and an understanding of human cognitive limits, a very simple question can guide us towards the future:

Which of the following choices is likely to be less energy intensive?

Option A. Living life to nurture, maintain, and repair trusted relationships at human scale, by implementing prosocial principles (Atkins et al. 2019) and tailoring creative collaboration tools (the principles of evolutionary design) to local needs.

Option B. Living life competing against each other according to culturally defined rules, and having to assume that everyone has an interest in subverting the rules for personal gain.

As Joseph Tainter’s analysis of complex societies (1988) shows, collapse of hierarchical complexity “is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity”. Declining marginal returns on investments in established administrative structures ultimately result in an imperative to establish less energy intensive forms of collaborations that are more inclusive in terms of the diversity of stakeholders involved in shaping the path forward.

Decades of research and empirical evidence demonstrates that behaviourism, i.e. all forms of management based on rewards and or punishment don’t work over the medium and long term. We know that rewards and punishment only superficially and temporarily lead to perceived compliance or higher levels of performance. All forms of coercion and control, irrespective of the level of sugar coating, undermine trust and the human capacity for altruism and mutual aid.

Take a moment to reflect on the way in which abstract institutions, i.e. companies, governments, and other organisations make decisions and how these decisions affect our lives. How much do these institutions understand about the thousands and millions of people and the billions of relationships affected by their decisions? The inevitable conclusion:

The average person is more conscious of their own limits (more intelligent) than most of the institutions that we have created to operate our society.

The sweet spot of good company (human scale) lies somewhere between the collective insanity of large corporations and the individual limits of cognitive ability and experience – limited by our ability to nurture, maintain, and as needed repair trusted relationships.

Basic implications of the limits of human scale for the creation of good company:

  • Don’t look to large established institutions for advice; all hierarchical models of command and control dampen essential feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability
  • Optimise for trusted collaboration and collective intelligence at human scale
  • To build trusted eye level relationships, extend trust, but do so incrementally, one step at a time
  • As part of extending trust, share not only information about your strengths but also information about your cognitive limits and vulnerabilities
  • If you need advice, ask trusted friends and colleagues who know and genuinely understand you

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics – and we can catalyse cultural evolution in this direction with a shift towards zero capital software platforms, i.e. by leaving behind the shiny candy wrappers, and by prioritising support for mutual aid and ecological regeneration in the foundations of our digital language systems.

You may wonder which aspects of Western industrialised knowledge are worthwhile to retain (and for how long), given that cultural evolution is a dynamic process that unfolds over multiple generations. In a recent talk and subsequent Q&A Rupert Read (2021) offers valuable suggestions for cultural evolution beyond the abstract realm of software platforms.

The following sets of knowledge are good candidates for preserving and cultivating in a global knowledge commons:

  • Locally successful collaborative social operating models and traditions, which can be documented in detail, including their known scope of applicability and known limitations, and can be made available for partial or complete adoption and refinement by communities in other parts of the world that are facing similar challenges and constraints
  • Our scientific understanding of the natural world, which complements traditional forms of knowledge about local ecosystems
  • The diagnostic tools, treatment regimes, and surgical knowledge of Western medicine, which can be made available for integration into holistic approaches to well-being that are adapted to the specific contexts of local cultures and physical environments
  • The engineering knowledge that underpins our digital computation and communication technologies, which allows us to share, validate, and incrementally refine valuable knowledge globally
  • The engineering knowledge needed for local generation of electricity from renewable sources, to power essential digital technologies and to compensate for local or temporary limitations of human labour
  • The emerging de-engineering knowledge needed for creating zero-waste cycles of material resources, to reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on the mining of non-renewable resources

Any tools and sets of knowledge that are incompatible with a path of radical energy decent are likely to rapidly become legacy technologies that are only relevant from a historic perspective – to warn future generations about technological approaches that have lead to existential risks.

Conclusion

The lessons about evolutionary design as described in this article have their roots in the world of software and data intensive products, and more fundamentally, in our understanding of egalitarian human scale societies, but the scope of applicability is by no means limited to the world of data and software.

We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

“Transdisciplinary collaboration hinges on psychological safety, cultural safety, and inclusiveness. These and other human factors determine the inherent social value of a company, the wellbeing of employees, and the quality of care delivered to patients.”

Terry J Hannan, Visiting Faculty Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University, International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics

Organisations are only able to deliver valuable services to the extent that they can rely on a network of trusted relationships both within the organisation and the wider community that supports and is supported by them.

References

Atkins P. W. B. et al. 2019. Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups. Context Press.

Design Justice Network. 2018. “Design Justice Network Principles.” https://designjustice.org/read-the-principles

Kropotkin, P. 1902. Mutual Aid : A Factor of Evolution.

Norberg-Hodge, H. 1991. Ancient Futures. Local Futures.

Rifkin, J. 2013. The Zero Marginal Cost Society. St Martin’s Press.

Read R. 2021. “The G7: how they fail us, and why”. https://youtu.be/iQ0HO6NFr-8?t=1490

Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper Perennial.

SOA Manifesto. 2009. http://www.soa-manifesto.org/ 

Tainter J. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press.

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