Solving for Pattern: An Ecological Approach to Reshape the Human Building Instinct

Environmental Values 30 (1):65-92 (2021)
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The human species' adaptive advantage is driven by its ability to build new material structures and artefacts. Engineering is the modern manifestation of this building instinct, and its advent has made the construction and use of technologies the central pattern of human life. In parallel, efficiency, the overarching narrative driving technology and related life practices, has pervaded most occupations as a value, forming a cultural backdrop that implicitly guides decisions and behaviour. We examine the process through which this backdrop has developed, and argue that it emerged through the constant presence and use of built artefacts and structures, which function as manifestations of the engineering value of efficiency. The constant presence and use of built structures leads to the slow percolation of their building values into society, forming a cultural narrative that emphasises efficiency. This narrative then feeds back, to further reinforce efficiency-driven engineering processes. This loop creates a runaway building system that is highly resistant to change, even when faced with the prospect of the species going extinct. Any effort towards sustainability can be successful only when this all-pervading - and hence invisible - building loop is made explicit, and compensated for, through a counter-loop where building manifests sustainable engineering values. As a first step in revealing this structure, we characterise the emergence of the efficiency value as a cultural narrative, and analyse its wide-ranging environmental effects. We then present the design principle of 'Solving for Pattern' as an illustrative contrast case. SfP, first articulated by Wendell Berry, focuses on interconnectedness and flourishing of all species as central design principles. We argue that these ecological principles can be extended to engineering, and can thus support the development of a robust operational-level building movement that manifests value systems oriented towards sustainability. To ground this proposal in actual practice, we outline two case studies of technology design that illustrates SfP. We also discuss three cases that illustrate SfP at a larger scale, and examine how these extend existing design approaches such as systems engineering. We conclude with a proposal to include SfP in engineering education curricula, to facilitate a faster cultural shift towards flourishing, which is required given the limited time window available to move to sustainable building practices.



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