Friday, June 26, 2009

Evolutionary Ecological Design

Evolutionary Solar CollectorNearly all known life is powered by the sun. A recent press release by the Mitsubishi Corporation announcing the development of a highly-integrated organic photovoltaic (OPV) module gives us a glimpse of our future in which energy solutions are grown to gather, rather than mined to be melted or burned.

For now, we must promote the economical solutions that exist. Not only because of their current economy, but because they are promising leads or catalysts for a sustainable energy future. For energy solutions, economy comes down to life-cycle cost-per-watt[1]. Any particular technology will remain a nifty toy until cost parity with extant solutions is reached. Even if a technology proves itself in the field, inordinate expense will consign it to its niche(s). Scarce, hazardous, or intractable materials; exorbitant energy requirements for production; and/or untamed complexity can conspire to keep a technology a promising curiosity.

Organic and biological technologies in conjunction with the practice of ecological design techniques, such as biomimicry, promise to help overcome today’s constraints. Despite the designs of Monsanto and their ilk, we can look forward to someday freely sharing ‘seeds’ that will ‘grow’ into systems that gather and concentrate energies other than food calories. The day may come when money does grow on trees.

That day may be brought closer through the convergence of organic technologies and ecological design with yet another crucial design method derived from biology: evolutionary computation.

Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab, has made a fascinating presentation on genetic algorithms - a particular application of the evolutionary computation method - as applied to the design of a solar collector. While elegant, this design remains a somewhat static, mechanical solution. Dynamism and adaptability are hallmarks of life. Organic and biological technologies allow these central attributes to be incorporated into more flexibly responsive designs. This joining of biotechnology, evolutionary computation, and ecological design is evolutionary ecological design.

This approach to design should be applied not only to technological solutions, but also to organisms of social policy. As Rate Crimes has stated before in the context of analyzing the design of rate schedules, energy policy is the design for society. Astounding technologies, beautiful design, and even magic will remain bereft of power in the face of bad public policy.

Energy policy should be informed, consistent, and adaptable. Today, it is too often rigidly reactionary in defense of atrociously bad decisions born of a dangerous status quo. By applying modern design techniques, this blundering beast may be encouraged to evolve into a more graceful creature.

[1] Cost accounting should be comprehensive, but we have a spectacular collective talent for deluding ourselves by ‘externalizing’ and hiding real costs.


  1. Lay aside logic, however infallible. Lay aside elegant scientific solutions as well, rife with panacean applications, and postpone all other such inarguably sapient answers to homo sapiens’ dilemmas on energy. For it’s a little-known, physiologic fact that most neural pathways to the cerebral cortex of the average human originate in an area attached to the gluteus maximus known as the pocketbook. Until a way is found to excite this organ among a plurality of workaday folk - thereby persuading them of the monetary benefits of renewable energy - alas, a sensible and healthy vision for its sustainable future (albeit utterly physically feasible) will effectively remain a mirage.
    Hence, marketing must assume a vital role in this recondite challenge. Thoroughly convince the masses that you can preserve their precious “benjamins,” and a solar panel will be installed right beside every satellite dish in the country, posthaste. Otherwise, even the waters from the melted glaciers themselves, gently lapping against every suburban stoop, will scarcely be motivation enough to adopt a paradigm of simple self preservation, let alone a lifestyle consisting of renewables. One may consider it perverse to have to assume a Madison Avenue mentality to catalyze global salvation, but if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…

  2. Steve C, there is truth in what you say. The pocketbook may well be paramount. Yet, even though a clever pickpocket may often succeed, once nabbed, retribution is often swift.

    To quote a Madison Avenue immortal, "Don't bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals." - David Ogilvy

  3. A bit of an incongruous rejoinder, but I’ll bite.

    Clever pickpocket, you say? Ah yes,so unlike the grandiose bank thief who plots with notions of the ultimate heist. Sadly, the latter’s plans are less often grounded in pragmatism and, if unsuccessful, he risks paying the ultimate price.
    As for bunting: Any manager (or savvy baseball fan, for that matter) worth his salt knows that a modest sacrifice is indispensable for creating an opportunity for momentum.

    - Capture the venal public's attention, THEN you can capture its imagination.

  4. A solar powered home can also enjoy big savings from electricity bills.