A remarkable revolution is under way in the design sciences today — fueled by powerful new insights into the workings of nature, and articulated by the burgeoning science of complexity. New terms tantalize us with their suggestion of innovative directions and new possibilities: self-organization, biophilia, generative design, and much more.
But what’s visible on the surface is still mostly froth: old ways of doing things gussied up in fancy clothing of the new. To see what’s really going on we have to dig a lot deeper, and we need to understand the science a bit more fully.
Within this promising field, no topic is likely more promising than “self-organization” — the ability of complex adaptive systems to grow, order, and organize all by themselves, without any master controller. We observe this phenomenon at work in complex termite colonies that lack architects and blueprints, in biological cells organizing and differentiating into organs without any additional controls, and as we now see, in the very processes that gave rise to life itself.
The complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman described this phenomenon as “order for free” — a kind of spontaneous order that is able to solve problems and adapt successfully to environments. Clearly this is a powerful and very important natural mechanism that might hold important clues for human use.
As a matter of fact, we do see characteristics of self-organization in many human settlements — for example, the remarkably well-ordered villages of traditional societies that did not use architects with blueprints, but instead, relied upon fairly simple rules for generating form, and adapting it to the form that existed. These processes turn out to be efficient at solving human problems — much as the termite mounds manage to achieve very sophisticated self-regulating cooling systems, or species develop very successful solutions to problems of swimming or flight. And they can accommodate powerful forms of art too — a point we’ll come back to.