A couple of weeks back I attended a workshop at the Cooper Parlor, on the UI of Nature, facilitated by Zak Brazen and Wyatt Starosta. Think biomimicry and Janine Benyus, designers looking to nature’s way as a model and source of inspiration. It’s a path that the sustainable design world has been on for some time and there are lots to offer in the way of insight and inspiration for experience designers from complex workflows to microinteractions. Zak and Wyatt did a great job at sharing examples from nature and getting us thinking about how they could relate to technology.

I have to say however the notion that struck me immediately was the framework that left “us” on the outside looking in. We human beings as all-powerful makers with dominion over the world have managed to get ourselves into a pretty good mess. I hear echoes of Descartes and the infamous mind vs. body split, another model I’m not a big advocate of.

We can unpack this human vs. nature dualism through an entire history of science, philosophy and religion but regardless it doesn’t appear to be working out so well for us. The deep ecologists started calling us out on this over 30 years ago but we’re still anchored in the human as separate from nature paradigm. It’s surprising given how clear the failure of this strategy is; global warming, hunger, and water resource management issues to name just a few of the wicked problems that we’re confronted with.

If however, we lead from the premise that we humans are just another part of the planetary system it allows us to look at our role as designers from a different angle. This really hit home for me, as we looked at the ways the “natural” world evolves. Change can occur through a variety of processes including mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection. My little moment of insight was the idea that we “designing humans” are simply enacting algorithms that introduce change into the system. We believe in our agency as makers yet the impulse to design is programmed into us. Our inputs can be viewed as mutations that through natural selection are carried forward to lay the foundation for the next generation of iteration.

To the degree we can view ‘design acts’ as a form of evolutionary biology that when successful alters the system, the question then returns to the idea of human agency and where our behavior falls on the spectrum. If we are somewhere in the middle of the involuntary vs. autonomous spectrum, then we have the opportunity to harness the momentum of our biology while simultaneously infusing these actions with our ethics and our values.

“Outside” potentially resolves us of our responsibility and I think it’s where my discomfort lay. Our actions are not consequence free but a continual feedback loop affecting everything around us. I just want to make sure that doesn’t get lost in the conversation.