What Does Science Have To Do With 'Design Thinking'?

July 12, 2016


Autopoiesisa system that is capable of reproducing and maintaining itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundaries; a system that is structurally coupled with its environment


I have always been a creative person, a practitioner of the arts and passionate student of English, History and the Social Sciences. So, you can imagine my surprise when, in my late teens, I decided to make a counterintuitive move and pursue a natural science degree.


It was a chaotic time at university, indicative of that general stage in life. As remedy, I needed something solid to anchor me. What could be more grounding than Geology? Born again, I dropped out of Native American Literature and embarked on the brave new world of Invertebrate Palaeontology. Woohoo!


My rationale? I was still studying history, just an older one - before anything grew a spine. More importantly, I was on a quest to pin myself to something objective, a truth distinct from my own interpretations of experience.


As I approached my final semester of studies, there was something about the phylogeny of Mollusca, Nautiloids and Trilobites that grabbed hold and simply WOULD NOT LET GO! (YUCK) These were the benthic, anaerobic, deep-sea dwelling creatures of 500 million year-old swamps. If they didn’t have answers, nothing did.


And then it happened. One auspicious day in May when my mad palaeontology professor (I once saw this guy hack into the side of a campus building with his rock pick when he caught glimpse of an Ammonoid fossilised in the Cordova Cream limestone) let flow the words I’d been waiting four years to hear…


The phylogeny of human existence includes the cellular DNA of phytoplankton AND is itself an entirely novel and emergent organising structure. Why the dynamic relationship between persistent environmental conditions, episodic events and an organism’s reproductive structures caused some phylogenic lines to die out and others to persist is THE mystery. This is the divinity of our human existence and the perfect unpredictability that lies at the heart of ALL life.


Twenty-three years later and with a more mature and nuanced lens, the circuitous journey of life finds me once again wading in swampy waters. This time though, with the discoveries of those who had already surveyed the landscape…


Evolution is somewhat like a sculptor with wanderlust: he goes through the world collecting a thread here, a hunk of tin there, a piece of wood here and he combines them in a way that their structure and circumstances allow, with no reason other than that he is able to combine them. And so, as he wanders about, intricate forms are being produced; they are composed of harmoniously interconnected parts that are a product not of design but of natural drift. Thus too, with no law other than the conservation of an identity and the capacity to reproduce, we have all emerged. It is what interconnects us to all things in what is fundamental to us: to the five-petal rose, to the shrimp in the bay, or to the executive in New Your City.

Maturana, R, Humberto Ph.D & Valera, J. Francisco, Ph.D, 1998, The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala, London, p. 117


Chilean Biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Valera invented the word, autopoeisis, to describe the central insight that, 'we bring forth the world through the process of living itself.' Their book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, has since become a fundamental read in the ontological and inter-subjective pantheon of adult developmental theory.


Today my personal inquiry has morphed to include AND transcend the study of evolution. At the intersection of Design, Leadership and Business, the principle of autopoeisis is influencing how smart networks are built, human systems are designed and conditions are interpreted. For those organisations on the cusp of change, paying closer attention to the forces underpinning their very existence can mean the difference between thriving and extinction in today’s VUCA environment.


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