Creativity and Eco-Mimicry

John Wood's notes for a talk as part of the Wild New Territories exhibition on 7th October 2012
The talk was given at Canada House, London and the exhibition was at Camley Street Natural Park

The Big Context

Arguably, while human beings may always have lived in perilous times, the danger has never been higher than it is today. Species extinction rates are running at more than 100 times the natural background rate, largely because of mankind’s attempts to change its habitat, rather than adapt to it. For more than ten thousand years we have sought to turn away from ‘natural’ biodiversities and to replace it with farming methods that artificially reduce biological diversity. This has led to human population growth, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, over-hunting, and climate change. Some scientists, such as E. O. Wilson, warn that the rate of species loss could rise to 10,000 times the background rate over the next few decades. This would mean that as many as half of the world’s species may become extinct by 2100. Richard Leakey’s term ‘6th Extinction’ (Leakey & Lewin, 1996) gives us a 600 million years background story for our current plight. While this may reassure us that major extinctions are not, at least, unprecedented, some experts believe that a continued rate of even ten times the background levels could make the Earth inhospitable to humans.

The Myth of Creative Genius

dali-self-portrait.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg concavenator-corcovatus-1.png
Salvador Dali - epitomy of creative genius? square-50cm-spacer.jpg Corcavenator Corcovatus - extinct 130 million years ago

One of the problems with the modern idea of ‘creativity’ is that it become part of the culture of competitive advantage, rather than a way to adapt to new situations. When it is applied to market forces we tend to speak of ‘disruptive innovation’ or ‘disruptive technologies’ that will help to differentiate between winners and losers in the commercial world. Redefining creativity is not a simple step. The destructive and egoistic models that we inherited from the Romantics remain part of the popular culture. After the Enlightenment it came to valorize individual power, originality, and - to be blunt - arrogance. David Hume (1711-1776) and others, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), strongly admired the notion of ‘genius’ as someone who is so extraordinarily self-styled and unfathomable that he would struggle to adapt to the ‘normal’ world around him. This also echoes Nietzsche's idea of 'Der Übermensch', which developed in the 1880’s. This theory asserted that Homo Sapiens has the potential to create a New Order, provided there is a sufficient will to power, and a readiness to reject societal ideals and moral codes. In the 20th century, inspired by psychoanalysis and by concepts such as 'positive self-regard' (Rogers, 1951), 'presentation of self' (Goffman, 1959), and 'self-actualisation' (Maslow, 1987) creativity came to be associated with the inalienable right to personal self expression.

Was Shaw's Spoof Taken Seriously?

Entrepreneur Richard Branson proudly casts himself as An Unreasonable man

In a play satirising the Nietzschean view, George Bernard Shaw said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Despite Sir Richard Branson's cheerful celebration of this idea, Shaw's famous line was a critique of the 'lone genius' perspective. It provides a critical context against which today's word 'creativity' has evolved. In a profit-driven, brand-oriented market place, Mr. Branson's brand-value is synonymous with sustainability, so his influence is very powerful (despite his tendency to encourage quick-trips around the planet, or beyond). In a narrowly humanistic and technocentric era, this kind of 'creativity' can be seen as a cynical, or arrogant refusal to adapt to anything. Perhaps this is what Frank Gehry meant, when he said (in 2005) “I don’t do context”. Today, the invitation to ‘be unreasonable’, or to ‘think different’ (presumably, a fusion of ‘be different’ and ‘think differently’) has become familiar to today’s consumers. Indeed, Apple have used it many times to advertise their computers. However, sustaining and enhancing biodiversity will require us to reflect more deeply on the shareable and distributed nature of creativity and how can help us adapt to our habitat. Our stridently humanistic idea of creative may be traced back several thousand years to Horace, who inspired Kant’s famous phrase ‘dare to know’ (1784). And, while it had encouraged a long development of careful reason and inquiry, this was not what we would understand as 'creativity', as we understand it today. By the 17th century 'daring to know' had led to John Locke’s radical insight (1689) that “the mind can furnish the understanding with ideas”. While the notion of ‘creative thinking’ may now be commonplace for agnostics in the 21st century, it had remained virtually unthinkable to philosophers before Hume and Locke. The idea that an individual can choose to think what s/he wants to, later acquired a powerful framework of thinking, with Coleridge’s term ‘self-consciousness’, as celebrated by a series of narcissistic ‘genius’ figures who dominated the post-romantic era in art, literature and music.

Can We Find Creativity in Nature?

Sherlock Holmes at work on a case

In 1877, ten years before the first Sherlock Holmes publications made it popular, Charles Peirce announced his idea of ‘abductive reasoning’. This turned deductive argumentation on its head, by enabling thinkers to begin the process with what might, hitherto, have seemed like a conclusion. While we may see this type of logic as a characteristically human, or even modern, mode of thought, Gregory Bateson has suggested that abductive reasoning is part the natural order: "all thought would be totally impossible in a universe in which abduction was not expectable......" (Bateson, 1979, p. 157). He believed that evolution is responsible for the parallels between the way we think, and the way Nature works. Arthur Koestler’s ‘bisociation’ method is interesting in this respect, as it is designed to elicit a new idea when two things are combined. This resembles sexual reproduction in that different ‘parent’ ideas are brought together to create a new hybrid outcome. When the two ideas (or creatures) creatures, 'A' and 'B', are combined - we may find that we also have a third idea - 'C'. Abductive reasoning is a way to 'reverse engineer' evolutionary logic. Instead of taking the 2 parents and seeing what type of child we will get, we start with the child ('C ') and look for an 'A' and a 'B' that might have been its parents.

What Can Designers Do?

Clearly, what is needed is decisive action that will have the requisite effect on species decline. I have been arguing for many years that design professionals might be a helpful complement to the range of experts currently consulted by the most influential government agencies and corporations. This would enable augment existing methods of governance with what Herbert Simon (1969) called ‘design thinking’ or what Nigel Cross (1982) called ‘designerly ways of knowing’. Changing human behaviour is the primary objective, as it is our beliefs, actions and, ultimately, our habits that are having the biggest effect on species depletion. Designers might need to redefine the problem in a way that makes sense to design thinkers, rather than to, say, scientists or economists. Since the 1880s, design evolved as a set of specialist practices that catered for the changing needs of an emerging industrial society. With hindsight, we can see that designers also became increasingly indispensable to the growth of the consumer society. And it is for these historical, and economic, reasons that most designers are still taught to perpetuate a system that damages the environment. One way governments might address this problem is by commissioning designers to be servants of humanity, rather than mercenaries for the profit of a few. To be able to tackle highly complex problems, such as biodiversity losses, designers would need to intervene at many simultaneous points within a whole system. They might need to learn how to create synergies for all, rather than new products and services. This would mean educating them as strategic generalists, rather than lowly specialists.

Design for Survival

We do not know which of the 8.7 million species might trigger the demise of homo sapiens, if they were to become extinct. No organism deserves longevity because of an a priori moral right or because it enjoys a privileged status. This is because there a seldom a simple, intuitive logic of cause-and-effect, or a fixed hierarchy of relations. Nevertheless, some creatures act as ‘keystone species’, whose demise would trigger a cascade of other extinctions. Here, the popular term ‘sustainable’ is too ambiguous to be useful in explaining this. The verb 'to sustain' denotes a continuation over time, but it may also carry the non-temporal meaning of something ‘holding together’. Using the verb 'to sustain' transitively and temporally (e.g. 'B' sustains the continued existence of 'A') would clarify the direction of causation. However, merely saying that something is 'sustainable' does not make clear who 'sustains' what. In any case, reciprocal (2-way) relationships are prevalent in ecosystems, even though this may seem counterintuitive. The death of a predator species, for example, may 'cause' the death of its prey. I therefore use the term ‘co-sustainment’ instead of ‘sustainability’, as it acknowledges the mutual dependency of all living systems (Wood, 2002, p.4). Evolution adjusts relationships all the time, which means that everything is always changing. In order for a species to endure – i.e. to remain a viable part of the whole – it must always be ready to adapt to its changing habitat. This means adjusting our actions and identities, rather than trying to re-design Nature in accordance with our expectations. Inviting designers to work at this level would also mean re-designing the design paradigm that is part of the problem.

Design for Biodiversity

In order to encourage designers to achieve better levels of 'co-sustainment', we would need to develop a more 'ecomimetic' approach (c.f. Fairclough, in Jones, 2005, p. 42). Ecomimicry is significantly different from what is known as ‘biomimicry’ (e.g. Benyus, 1997). Although 'biomimicry' was defined within an admirably broad philosophy, the way that designers tend to apply it seems disappointingly narrow. Perhaps this reflects the prevailing business mindset, in which projects are seldom seen as part of a circular, or long-term economic vision. Even today, it is hard to find examples of biomimetic innovation that do much more than behave as discrete technological 'fixes', gadgets or products. Instead of seeing the designer's role as the fixer of links in a chain of transactions, ‘ecomimetic designers’ would be expected to design the conditions that support interdependencies within whole systems. This is not a simple, or trivial shift. For example, the massive complexity and ineffability of these interdependencies mean that we can no longer expect to work predictively, as we might have done with, say, product design. Many other aspects of design, as we know it, will also need to change, therefore we will refer to the new approach as metadesign.

velcro.jpg Epizoochoria-wool-burs.jpg
Biomimetic designs (e.g.Velcro) are said to be inspired by Nature (e.g.the stickiness of burs)

One of the radical changes we need to make is to re-purpose what we understand as ‘creativity’ and acquire a wiser understanding of relations, rather than separate ‘things’.

What are the Experts Doing?

While politicians, scientists and activists take the above issues very seriously their strategies for dealing with them seem very unlikely to solve them. Unless we simply accept our departure as an inevitable consequence of overpopulation, what is needed is a remedy that rallies and orchestrates many more hearts and minds. In the early 1990's, concerned by the apparent inability of NGOs to influence radical changes in behaviour, Donella Meadows (1997) looked for the most effective levers of change. Of all of those considered, she found that the ones most commonly used were the least effective. They tended to be bureaucratic (i.e. targets, subsidies, taxes, legislation) and perhaps, therefore, the least direct. Setting, and reaching, targets can be a dispiriting process, especially when they are politically controversial, and hard to agree. Even if they are set lower than what is required, they may not easily be reached within the agreed timescale. Moreover, when targets are missed (this is not uncommon), the morale of the parties involved may be reduced, thus creating negative feelings of futility and inevitability. For experts in this field, the 2010 Nagoya World Biodiversity Summit was regarded with more optimism than many, because it agreed to assign large regions of land and the sea to act as regions of wilderness, in order to give endangered species a chance to recover. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that many targets will not be met, and that the wilderness plan would fail (Gross & Williams, 2010). The problem with this policy is that the natural rate of species replenishment in the wild is too low to reverse the current rate of losses.

The Library of Life is Burning

Sign for 'no flames'

It may appear to design thinkers that governments are dealing with the problem in an overly ‘scientific’ way by putting too much emphasis on analysis, and not enough on restoration. Whereas, traditionally, designers are expected to deliver desirable, pragmatic solutions within a short timescale, scientists are trained to build truth claims that are accurate enough to resist falsification. Dr. Brundtland, former Director-General of the World Health Organization famously likened the problem of biodiversity to a major fire: "The Library of Life is burning and we do not even know the titles of the books." Perhaps it is because I am more of a designer than a scientist I find this to be a peculiar analogy. If I am watching the library burn, my instinct is to put out the flames, not to lament my lack of knowledge. However, in contrast with the way designers work, scientists are trained to regard evidence-based knowledge and reasoning as a vital prerequisite to prudent practice. A scientist might argue, for example, that we need to know which, and how many, species are disappearing before any remedy can be evaluated. How could we save an endangered species if we are always confusing it with another one that is in little, or no danger? More than three centuries after his birth, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is still highly praised for simplifying the elaborate nomenclature that previous scholars used to differentiate between species. He is also celebrated for his clear taxonomy of classification. Nonetheless, while his efforts may have made it easier to name and classify species, documenting all life on Earth has proved impossible. Recent studies estimate that 86% of all land species and 91% of all sea species are unclassified or undiscovered (Mora, Tittensor, Adl, Simpson & Worm, 2011). While our level of knowledge may sound surprisingly incomplete, some experts believe these figures to be optimistic.

Our Dysfunctional World

The Atlantic Wolffish is almost extinct because of bottom trawlers

Some non-experts might assume that biodiversity is unimportant to our survival. After all, most of us eat a limited range of foodstuffs, which come from large, intensive farms, and where only a small range of species needs to be processed and distributed. However, this overlooks the need for ecological stability, which cannot be achieved without having an adequate diversity of species. The stability of our current biosphere emerged from evolutionary processes characterised by complexity, interdependency and local adaptation. This means that, in the long term, our attempts to tame, or regiment it tend to fail. The ecosystem is vast and emergent. When we exploit particular species, such as cod, or beef, we encounter problems from other parts of the food web. Even attempts to regulate fish ‘stocks’ using simplified predictive tools have led to failure. This may seem surprising, considering the long-term importance of this commercial industry. I would argue that ‘design thinking’ would add some useful methods if it were commissioned to look afresh at the whole problem from a more outcome-oriented angle. Whereas technology gives us advanced instruments for searching for certain species, fishing fleets trawl ‘blindly’, using archaic nets that usually have inflexible hole sizes. Overfishing has been so disastrous that it is said that we could halve the fishing industry’s capacity without seeing a reduction in what is caught. A report (2008) produced by the World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 50 billion dollars of trade is lost each year because of poor management and dwindling stocks. The European Union (c.f. Brown, 2011) have admitted their failings, stating that they led to failures at three levels: to protect stocks, to provide a sustainable food source and to help fishing communities to be profitable.

Can Designers Have More Impact Than Scientists?

How many endangered species do fish fingers contain?

It is clear that much of the problem lies not with the science, but with the way that the scientific knowledge is applied. This raises a number of interrelated issues on several levels. For example, just as politicians may be tempted to exaggerate figures when setting catch quotas, fisheries are equally tempted to exceed these quotas. This also led to the scandalous process of ‘discards’ (i.e. in effect, killing by throwing back) trawled fish that exceed the official quotas. The psychology behind this kind of inauspicious reasoning is described as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968), which argues that humans are more likely to choose actions with selfish and/or short-term gratification, rather than applying a strategy that would be of greater benefit to all, in the long-term. We cannot wait for ‘robust data’, evidence-based reasoning, or so-called ‘rigorous’ analysis of the problem in order to address it. Nor do we have time to wait for the full naming and classification of the relevant species. It is enough to know that some ‘fish fingers’ (or ‘fish sticks’) may contain a proportion of unnamed and/or unknown species. To all intents and purposes, the banning of bottom trawlers would reduce biodiversity depletion in the waters of the world. This is not the only answer. It is merely an example of how one might begin to save species without knowing their names or their place within the food chain. It is sufficiently connect to our daily lives (e.g. as shoppers) to enable individuals and pressure groups to put pressure on governments and corporations to affect the required changes.

A New Order of Creativity

If designers, and other professionals within the ‘creative industries’ are to make a useful contribution to the above problems, how might they do so? Some of the methods currently used depend on barriers, penalties and abstract agreements. Others are appeals to good sense, or individual conscience. However, Buckminster Fuller reminded us that it is easier to reform the environment we work in, rather than trying to change human behaviour. Designers understand this advice and may even be able to make a difference, while remaining in their comfort zones. This is because they are trained to influence behaviour by creating different affordances within the world that we see, touch and manipulate. Often, this is more effective than challenging old prejudices or beliefs in an intellectual, or overt way. However, design, science and politics are, each, important and will need to be harmonised for the optimum outcomes.


It will be important to find new ways to get politicians, designers and regulators working together with a common aim. This may mean rethinking each of these fields. It will mean introducing new international standards that reconcile fields that have, hitherto, remained disastrously disconnected. An example of this kind of work is Martin Charter’s ecodesign standard. Where we already had Quality Management standards (e.g. ISO 9001) and an environmental management system (ISO 14001:2004), Martin succeeded in introducing a design-aware standard (ISO 14006:2011) that encouraged a more holistic, joined-up approach to business planning.

Re-inventing Creativity

Integrating hitherto disconnected methodologies is useful, but it is not enough. We also need to modify the assumptions that motivate designers, especially where ‘creativity’ is concerned. This means analysing and, where necessary, challenging the received assumptions behind this term. In the last decade or two, we have seen particular models of creativity as tools for regenerating urban communities (Landry, 2000), for stimulating economic growth (Howkins, 2002; Florida, 2002), or for transforming businesses to make the economy more ‘efficient’ (Cox, 2005). Here, ‘creatives’, such as designers, have come to be seen as part of a dependable toolbox that can bring success to prestigious real estate deals, national re-branding exercises, or other tourist attractions, such as the hosting of an Olympic Games events. How might we think of ‘creativity’ if the main aim is to generate wellbeing and prosperity by achieving optimum biodiversity? I believe we must develop creativity’s capacity to help us to ‘adapt’ better to our changing habitat. This may include applying it, less to the defeat of existing, or rival, plans but to look for new ‘synergies’ that will deliver additional benefits that emerge from combining existing things.

Paradigm Design

A paradigm comprising many current paradigms

A useful method for reconciling design thinking with ecological thinking is to identify all complex systems as 'paradigms' (Wood, 2013). This is a useful way to generalise design situations, because paradigms resemble ecosystems. They also contain both animate, and inanimate agencies, similar to James Lovelock's Gaia theory (Lovelock, 1979). And these paradigms sustain themselves by attracting new elements that serve to support them. While designers tend to be taught how to (re)design for an existing paradigm, what may be needed is a more radical solution at the paradigmatic level. For example, although architects are trained to come up with a variety of iterations to high-rise offices, few are able to re-think the underlying paradigm of concrete, steel and glass, even though these materials have an inordinately large carbon footprint. But the high rise office is ubiquitous to London, New York or Beijing. As a quasi-species of design, this paradigm also resists change because it is sustained by an interconnected array of subsidiary paradigms (or quasi-species), such as insurance protocols, commercial habits, technological habits, economic assumptions - each of which appears to depend on it for their own survival (c.f. Kauffman, 1995).

The Role of Language

In previous papers I have argued that designers have, traditionally, overlooked the importance of language in 'design thinking'. This is not meant to imply that designers should try to think in a more 'critical' way, but that they could be more creative with the terms that we use to describe things, experiences, values and ideas. How many colours are there in a rainbow? Even though science tells us that it contains countless wavelengths of light, most people answer with a small number (usually 7) they learned at school. But how does this answer affect our perceptions? Our reality is lived out in metaphors, adjectives, images and categories. These, in turn, shape our beliefs, actions and assumptions. If one language has more words for flavours, and for colours, than another, it seems likely that the speaker of this language will have a bigger horizon of experience. The pioneer eco-semiotician, Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), used the term 'Umwelt' to describe the phenomenological 'reality' of different creatures. This is an important idea, because no two creatures experience the world in quite the same way. Even though symbiotic relationships may develop within the affordances of an existing language system (i.e. what Maturana & Varela call 'structural coupling') there may be a very tenuous overlap between the two sides of the 'conversation' For example, one may be able to see but not to hear, the other may have the opposite capabilities. This suggests that, by augmenting the naming system we have, we can expand our Umwelt, perhaps in order to re-map vested interests, empathetically, in conjunction with other species. Hypothetically speaking, redefining the agreed purpose of a paradigm should make it easy to change (c.f. Meadows, 1999, p. 18). However, social inertial is co-sustained by the language and customs of the old paradigm, and these tend to mask opportunities, making them seem difficult, unthinkable or impossible. Crudely speaking, the answer is to create new words that would afford new concepts and, perhaps, serve to facilitate new paradigms.

The Role of Aesthetics

If the development of new concepts in language can facilitate a possible expansion of our horizon of awareness (i.e. Umwelt) we might also reflect upon the role of aesthetics in acting as an interface between thoughts and actions. Aesthetic discourse can change consensus because we share and modify our perceptions when we discuss personal tastes. Arguably, beauty tells us what is, or what used to be, good. Claims to beauty exist as combinations of elements, or as patterns of sensory awareness, that are deemed to work together. The fact that we have fads in food tastes, or fashions in clothing, is evidence that aesthetic judgements are seldom fixed by a rigid biological 'need', or aesthetic code. However, it seems likely that certain predilections and habits are strongly 'wired' into the human body, especially when they remind it of tastes, flavours, or colours that have proved beneficial to us over many hundreds, or thousands, of years. This is useful to designers (and to artists), because creating new tastes and aesthetic forms will change appetites & habits. A good example of this is the pleasure that we take when they see varieties of the Rosaceae (rose) plant family. These have been enjoyed by humans for many thousands of years, giving us many varieties of nutritious fruits, such as apples, apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, pears, raspberries, and strawberries. During this time we have made them bigger and sweeter, thus creating a strong level of co-sustainment between people and the plants themselves. In my opinion it is not a meaningless coincidence that the largest and most successful brand in the world is an 'Apple'.


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