Evolution: Can human intelligence design better than nature?

“What do you think of the exhibit?” a nice lady asks me outside of the exhibition space. “I think there’s too much text”, I tell her. “Yeah, you really have to think through it.”

When I go to exhibitions, I go to be inspired, and that’s why I trekked through the rain to the design exchange to check out their installation for TO DO entitled “Evolution: Can human intelligence design better than nature?” I was hoping that it would be on the upper level on the exhibition floor, but it was on the ground floor where most public exhibits are found. Here is the opening introductory text about the work:

“Behind a solution is a human; and the effective design solutions— those that make lasting impressions— do not begin with a sketch, a plan, a drawing or a prototype. They stem from a conflict, a need, a challenge, a question. From there, to arrive at a solution, the expansion is slow, nonlinear and often internally rhetorical.

In 2016, a selected, Toronto-based group of designers, architects and urbanists were asked: Can human intelligence design better than nature?

The responses reveal that Biomimicry, as growing methodology, has matured towards the goal of planetary ecological integrity, closer than the traditional environmental movement ever did. Yet, it must reach beyond imitation, creating natural systems with the ability to relate and survive. More importantly, this methodology remains vulnerable to co-optation by the anthropocentric mentality that launched the original industrial revolution and ravaged, in our time, the living constituency of the biosphere.

This spatial essay, Evolution, is an insight into the expansion and possibilities of the design, architectural and urbanism practices, reflecting on the process and enlivening the human behind”.

This set the stage of the expectations of what the exhibit will be. After reading it, it is followed on the next wall, with more text…

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Now, I’m going to be very critical because this is a design museum. The curator has a background in design and architecture and so do the participants. The shiny spot on the image, is not my bad photography skills. It’s how all the text reads in that room. The lighting makes it very difficult to read any of the copy when the room is full of people. And being a polite Canadian, I ended up taking the hit on not inconveniencing others, standing in bad areas, reading shiny text.

On the next walls, the “spatial essay” begins to respond to the quote. Each of the four artists are now starting to be introduced. They establish their work with a philosophical proposition and then get into further description about their products on display:

Yes and No.
It depends entirely on how you define “Better.”

When the criteria for “Better,” is performance-based and measurable such as lighter-faster-stronger, a mantis shrimp is impressive, but it lacks the destructive power and velocity of a fighter jet, it is safe to say that humans can design things that can outperform what is found in nature if the measure relates to something mechanical or material.

Where we lag behind is complexity. Artificial intelligence is a good example. AI still cannot stimulate consciousness, though it is excellent at computation. We also fall to design things in harmony with the natural environment. Most of what we make does not follow an ecosystems approach, and our efforts to recycle are far less efficient that what occurs in nature.

A mantis shrimp is part of an ecosystem that provides the shrimp with fuel. To acquire more fuel, it must expend calories to find and catch it. The shrimp’s battering ram-like striking appendage is a costly biological feature, as is its armour. If these structures were any heavier, their performance would improve, but only at the expense of more calories or locomotion. All the features of the shrimp are determined by the push and pull of various factors. And when the shrimp dies, all the stored energy and material stored in its body are recycled into the ecosystem that feeds other shrimp. It is a perfect equilibrium system.

A fighter jet is designed for a purpose and manufactured without the closed loop that evolved the mantis shrimp. The fuel that propels the plane is being depleted without being replenished. And when the plane gets scrapped, the materials and energy do not go towards leading other planes.

So, the jet is faster and more powerful, but is it better?

So after all this talk about shrimps, ecosystems and fighter jets we now drop all this pretext and finally start getting into the nitty-gritty of the actual products being presented in the exhibition. This is a now four full walls of text the visitor has to labour through before getting to the source of the exhibit. It’s a lot to digest.

On top of a white pedestal, behind glass, visitors can get up close with  FLYCORE. Taking inspiration from the internal architecture of bird bones, the Materials Science students of Ryerson University’s Engineering program developed this honeycomb sheet material. Because the process of melting, induction and separation are done in one shot, the material is structurally superior to other honeycomb structures. In addition to this process, FLYCORE is 100% recyclable.

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On to the next project:

Human intelligence has the ability to analyze and learn from natural systems, mapping the patterns and predicting their growth. It can also merge various systems for a new, re-invented solution.

Historically, curtain have taken on multiple and simultaneous roles, mediating thermodynamic currents, sight, light, colour, smell and sound, framing activities and staging atmospheres. Aesthetically and politically, curtains have occasionally been dismissed as a weak form, negatively associated with an interior decorator’s arsenal. What if we look to natural systems for a better alternative? Could we leverage micro technologies, integrating them into everyday objects and create a renewed interest in materialism?

Gaze Modulator by Mahtab Oskuee, is a curtain-prototype fitted with Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) or muscle wire, that allows each module of curtain to open and close when current is passed through the SMA. The result is a textile surface that can evolve with the surrounding space. The prototype draws on its environment to transform and act to its surrounding when something is passed through it, allowing for an organic response to its physicality as an object.

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Moving from material, to material-object, we now begin to examine new and exciting objects being brought to life:

The intelligence of the natural environment and human consciousness are inextricably coupled. 

The transcendental idea that human intelligence might be somehow separate, elevated above nature has been with us for a long time. The idea resounds in the various heavens of great world religions. It is the foundation of the proud geo-engineering visions of Buckminster Fuller’s 20th-century vision. It might be seen today in the seemingly overwhelming preference that we have today for reductive simplicity and hard-edged minimal forms. Yet I find myself standing in opposition to this idea.

I pursue a relationship with the environment, through these Hylozoic Series, embodying the forms of diffusion and dissipation. 

Drawing from nature, this kind of diffusive architecture pursues qualities similar to those found in veils of smoke billowing at the outer reaches of a fire, the barred, braided fields of clouds; torrents of spiralling liquids; mineral felts growing within an osmotic cell reaction. Such sources are characterized by resonance, flux, and open boundaries. Rather than the paradigms of durability, clarity and stability that have dominated Western design, this work seeks a maximum of interaction through its expanded perimeters, increasing its possible exposure and engagement with the world- and efflorescence of involvement and exchange between body and environment.

Breathing Pore, akin to the functions of a living system, includes embedded machine intelligence that allows human interaction to trigger breathing, caressing, and swallowing motions, as fronds reach outward to viewers if a layer of undulating motion. – Philip Beesley, Breathing Pores

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Unfortunately, for those that don’t make the connection fast enough, this object is found outside of the exhibition space where the text is located. So when you come face-to-face with it, you forget what it’s context is and have to go back into the room to read it all over again. I remember seeing this on designboom. Philip made enough of these to fill an entire room at the 2010 Venice Biennale making the experience overwhelming. It would have been interesting to have that type experience as many did 6 years ago in Venice.

And finally, after moving from interior installation we move to urban design and human evolution:

Comparing the relationship between the ways cities are organized with the organization of the brain’s neural pathways answers the question of whether human designs can challenge those created by nature.

Cities are the most complex machines humans have ever created. They don’t appear on the landscape fully formed. Their designed evolve over centuries to embody new inputs and improvements that could never have been anticipated.

In this way cities share nature’s design approach where time and utility dictate winning or losing evolutionary strategies. On the other hand, the brain has evolved over millions of years instead of the city’s thousands and, until recently, the brain was impervious to human design intervention.

When researchers discovered that cities and brains are structured in similar ways, the discussion around the relative design advantages of either nature versus nurture left the realm of philosophical speculation and entered the hard world of data science. Scientists looked at brain data, compared that data to statistics from a number of city networks and found that both systems exhibit similar mathematical constants behind the universal law of efficiency.

The evidence reveals that human design can indeed compete with natural design, if given enough time.

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“MESH Cities designs smarter cities to be both livable and efficient. Metaphorically at least, MESH Cities are the offspring of an improbable marriage between the ideas of Jane Jacobs and ubiquitous city computing.” – Robert Ouelette, MESH Cities

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