Innovation for Sustainability

January 19, 2015
ArchEdge Team

William McDonnough has very astutely remarked:

“It is not enough to be sustainable. If you were to ask someone about how their relationship with their spouse was and they answered ‘sustainable’ it is not very hopeful!”

Clearly, the very concept of the word ‘sustainability’ needs to be rethought of, and this need to rethink implies the need to innovate. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘innovate’ as “to bring about changes in what is already established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products”.

As it is conventionally understood, this activity of ‘innovation’ has certain connotations of newness, involving qualities such as:

• Radical change
• Technology playing a central role
• Displacing the present by creating a future that does not exist today
• Creating the possibility of a totally new state of being

The above makes one envision new kinds of materials, new technologies, and other ways where one will be able to build in a way that was not possible so far, or construct a life that one had not been able to live so far. Subsequently, new ways to develop new research and production programs that will lead one down this path of innovation are sought, believing that if successful, it is possible to invent the future one needs, to resolve the crisis of sustainability.

I would not critique this notion of technology driven innovation – we definitely need it. But my gut feeling is that this will not resolve more than 10 to 20% of the problem, and to figure out how to tackle the remaining 80 to 90%, we have to ask a fundamental question, “What kind of a problem is sustainability?” To answer this question we need to take paths we are not following in any substantive manner today – paths that will depend on a model of innovation that is very different from the conventional understanding of innovation that I just defined.

We must realize that sustainability involves natural systems, and natural systems are inherently nonlinear rather than linear. To make a simplistic differentiation between these two kinds of systems: a linear system is one where the output of the system is directly proportionate to the input, whereas in a nonlinear system the output is not directly proportionate to the input. So in a linear system a huge input will have a huge impact and a small input will have a small impact. Whereas in a nonlinear system a small input can have a huge impact and a huge input can have a small impact.

A classic example of a nonlinear system is the weather; which is why meteorologists have such a difficult time in being accurate in their forecasts beyond the extremely short term. It is also the reason why it is still so difficult to get people to change their behaviour on the issue of climate change, despite hearing of warnings from a majority of the scientific community. Because of the complexity of the system of climate, one cannot draw logical connections between input and output – one can at best draw statistical correlations. This not only gives skeptics a space to operate, it also becomes difficult to incentivise changes in behaviour. The inherent nonlinearity of the system prevents us from giving a person any assurance that a change in behavior today will produce a specific result tomorrow. So how can you convince a person to make adjustments or sacrifices to
radically change their lifestyle without any assurance that this great effort will produce a definitive result?

Implementing a system that is dominantly linear usually involves what is termed the “last mile problem”. Taking an electricity distribution system as an example, one can easily implement the backbone of the system, but the myriad number of final connections are the most difficult to implement. In contrast, the stumbling block in nonlinear systems is a “first mile problem”: how do you get people to take the first fundamental steps. One can legislate change to a certain extent, but change will continue to be slower than what we need, unless we can get people to wholeheartedly adopt change. To break out of this deadlock we need to innovate on our inherent logic, switching from linear logic to network logic.

To explain this I cite a paper written way back in 1948 titled “Science and Complexity” by an
American scientist called Warren Weaver. Weaver classified scientific problems into three kinds:

1. Those involving simplicity: This is where a linear conceptual model, can describe the entire system, often through a mathematical description. Newtonian dynamics is an example of such a system, and usually the model does not tackle more than a couple of variables at a time: clearly not one suited to natural systems where large numbers of variables are in play at a time.

2. Those involving disorganised complexity: Here the system involves a larger number of variables, and one admits it is not possible to construct cause-effect relationships between these variables. Comprehensibility is brought about through statistical techniques. This is the approach taken in meteorology, particle physics, and many other fields.

3. But Weaver identified a third kind of problem, which he said (in 1948) had received insufficient attention in science – those involving organised complexity. Here the large numbers of variables in the system interrelate in a manner so as to form an organic whole. In other words, the nature of the system evolves from the way the variables interact with each other. The system is self-organising.

Most natural systems are of this kind, and since the nature of the system emerges from the interaction between variables these kinds of systems have been classified as “emergent”. An emergent system displays fundamental characteristics that could not be observed in the initial state of the system, and structure emerges without explicit intervention from the outside. This field of study, now known as ‘emergence theory’, has received significant attention since Weaver’s paper of 1948. One of the most cited examples of an emergent system is a termite’s nest. To plot this on a human scale: a large termite’s nest can be equivalent to a human mega-structure that is two to three kilometers wide and three to four kilometers high. Within this is incredible order and sustainability: functional zoning, traffic hierarchies, climate control, waste disposal systems, graveyards, and so on. For a long time biologists sought to find out how this order was created, thinking there must be a special class of termites: leaders who directed how this order is to be created. But experiments and observation failed to yield any such class of termite. Then it was discovered it was a system that evolved without leadership or control. Every termite, as it moves, exudes a trail of a chemical classed as a pheromone; and there are different kinds of pheromones that result from different kinds of behavior or intent. When a termite moves, from this pheromone trail it can discern the pattern of termites that have moved before it. Termites are genetically programmed with a set of simple rules that say things like “if you smell a pheromone trail like this, then place a piece of mud like that”. And that is how the wonderful order of the termites’ nest emerges.

From this we can see the conditions for emergence:
• High-synchrony and frequent moment-to-moment interaction.
• All actions leave a trace of themselves.
• There is a natural impulse toward pattern recognition in the traces, with a sense of how to respond to specific patterns.
• High levels of information symmetry, as all information is open and accessible in the public
domain.
• A low preoccupation with grand design, with a focus primarily on immediate experience. In fact a focus on grand designs can be obstructive. As Steven Johnson notes in his popular book on emergence, the human brain is an emergent system that would cease to function if each neuron sought to be individually sentient.
• The system evolves through iterative evolutionary spirals, with each spiral exhibiting new emergent properties.

This is how natural systems behave, and if we have to strike a sustainable balance with nature we must adopt this logic. Technology-driven innovation tends to follow linear logic, and we must shift from this bias toward linear thinking to adopt the nonlinear network logic of emergence. In doing so, the vertical axis connecting actions and goals will surrender precedence to the lateral connections we build with our context: and therefore our most important thrust of innovation will be in the new networks we create. As architects, we need to go beyond the traditional network of architect, client, consultant, and contractor; and see the spaces we create as systems that have inputs and outputs, evaluating the kind of connections made by these inputs and outputs. We must ask how can the outputs of our design become sustainable inputs for other systems. We must critically examine the ecological trail and footprint of our inputs. We need to envision our designs as living systems that embrace what the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela termed “autopoeisis” (self- production) where a system embraces energy flows that move through it in a way that allows the system to renew and remake itself.

We need to build richer and wider connections in these ways. And we need to develop the ability, as we go along, to discern new patterns and potentials in these connections, and evolve our progress toward sustainability on a day-to-day incremental basis. We will recognise patterns, and then find patterns in the patterns, and these evolutionary spirals will carry us forward toward sustainability without the need to predefine sustainability as a goal. This will seem counter-intuitive to the way we are trained, particularly the requirement that we focus more on immediate present-centered connections rather than on grand goals, for, we have been taught that only goal-oriented action is effective, and the green building movement has a tendency toward defining ‘sustainability’ as a tangible goal. But it is not counter-intuitive with the way we live. For example, we do not build our friendships by first constructing a philosophy of friendship or by defining goals such as the concept of an ideal relationship. If we operated that way, we probably would not have any friends. We just spend time focused on open, on judgmental, present-centered interaction; those interactions leave memories or traces of actions. In those traces we find patterns of resonance, this resonance shape subsequent interaction, and thus the relationships with friends develop.

When we extend this mode of ‘knowing’ to the world we inhabit, we build what Morris Berman calls a “participating consciousness”: where our consciousness gets intertwined with our surroundings. Our ancestors had this consciousness at one time, and it is still contained in many indigenous Indian traditions. But in the modern world, in our technology-driven linear logic, we have become detached from it. To scale up our efforts on sustainability we need to scale up on rebuilding this participating consciousness.

Let me end by giving you a personal example of participating consciousness. I live and work on a property that is the place where I was born and brought up. Apart from my years as a college student, and the first six working years, I have spent my entire life living here. So I thought it was a place I knew not only well, but also perfectly and intimately. Recently I read Juhani Pallasmaa’ s book “The Eyes of the Skin”, where he talks about how we have overemphasised the visual in architecture, and how we need to incorporate the role of the other senses. He talks about sound, and makes an observation that sound tunes us to the rhythm of the universe. I started thinking about this, and started listening to the place I live in. And I started playing a game with myself, where I would not look at my watch, would listen and see if I could tell the time of day from the sound. I was asking, “What time is this sound?”

I am slowly acquiring the ability to answer this question with greater accuracy. But more significantly my perception of the place I thought I knew well is changing substantively. A new perception is slowly building: one that is much more in tune with the natural rhythms of the place. This is the direction of discovery that I want to explore. So while we must never abandon the linear logic of technology-driven innovation, the significant frontier of innovation for sustainability must lie in the open-ended and openhearted journey we embark upon when we immerse ourselves in the nonlinear and emergent logic of new networks of practice that will build a participating consciousness with the contexts within which we are embedded.

Prem Chandavarkar received his training at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi 1978 and at the University of Oregon, USA 1982. He is the Managing Partner of CnT Architects, Bangalore, with a historical legacy across generations that dates back to being the city’s first architectural firm. He is a former Executive Director of Srishti School of Art Design & Technology in Bangalore and an academic advisor at some of the top architecture colleges in India. He also writes and lectures on architecture, urbanism, art, cultural studies and education.