What We Discover


The article was originally published in Vol. 1 of FIELDS An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Please cite as follows: (A. Iouguina, 2013). Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution? FIELDS – An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Carleton University: Ottawa, ON.

Biological inspiration is transforming many of the ways we think about innovation. Its commercial and theoretical applications are already influencing various industries and academic institutions. Fermanian Business and Economic Institute of Point Loma Nazarene University has devised The Da Vinci Index, which measures research and industrial activities inspired by solutions found in nature. The Index is compiled based on the number of patents issued, scholarly articles published, the number of grants issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) in USA, and the value of those grants for any given period. The reading of 1052 in the third quarter of 2012 relative to the 100 Index level of 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past 12 years (Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, 2012).


Social innovation implies a paradigm change

Innovation is essential for society, because it is the principal mechanism by which societies create and sustain competitive advantage. According to various sources, social innovation implies a paradigm change, or, in other words, it challenges an assembly of beliefs – possessed by an individual, a group or a civilization – that defend as certain and makes them set against the acceptance of other possibilities. “Social innovations are changes in the cultural, normative or regulative structures [or classes] of the society which enhance its collective power resources and improve its economic and social performance” (Heiscala, 2007). For Heiscala, ‘Social innovation’ means ‘change in at least one of the following three social structures: cultural, normative and regulative.

The Centre for Social Innovation has tried to purify the term in question as follows: “Social innovation refers to new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet. A true social innovation is system-changing—it permanently alters the perceptions, behaviours and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges. Even more simply, a social innovation is an idea that works for the public good” (Centre for Social Innovation, 2008).

Forum for Social Innovation asserts: “Social innovation seeks new answers to social problems by: identifying and delivering new services that improve the quality of life of individuals and communities; identifying and implementing new labour market integration processes, new competencies, new jobs, and new forms of participation, as diverse elements that each contribute to improving the position of individuals in the workforce” (Forum on Social Innovation, 2000).

Ezio Manzini wrote in his paper titled ‘People-as-asset. Grassroots innovation and design in the (economic, social, environmental) crisis.’:

Social innovation moves in different directions. One of them, a potentially very interesting one, is driven by collaborative organizations: people collaborating to get results for themselves and, at the same time, to create more general social, economic end environmental benefits. (Manzini, 2013).

Finally, Victor Margolin (2013) – during his visit to School of Industrial Design at Carleton University – has indicated the relevance of a term ‘social evolution’, rather than ‘social innovation’, described through Laszlo’s general evolution theory (Laszlo, 1996), which set a stage for the article.


Organisms in an ecosystem don’t just evolve, they coevolve

According to Pollan, “evolution is not about design; it is the outcome of constant endeavors made by organisms that want to survive and better themselves” (Pollan, 2001).

David P. Barash wrote a textbook of sociobiology in 1982, where he stated that “evolutionary biologists, beginning with Darwin, have been troubled by the fact that animals often do things that appear to benefit others, often at great costs to themselves.” Practitioners of complexity often ascribe such phenomenon to the concept of ‘emergent behaviour’ – “an organization which is generated out of parts acting in concert” (Kelly, 1984). Any given organism’s ability to survive and reproduce depends on what niche it is filling, what other organisms are around, what resources it can gather, and what its past history and genetic baggage has been. Evolutionary biologists consider this viewpoint highly important and summarize it in just one word: coevolution (Holland, 1975).

On the face of it, coevolution sounds like a recipe for chaos, says Holland, “and yet somehow this dance of coevolution produces results that aren’t chaotic at all” (Holland, 1975). In the natural world it has produced myriad creatures that are exquisitely adapted to each other and to environment they live in. In the human world, it has produced webs of economic and political dependencies and may adequately describe the very possibility of the emergence of social innovation. Holland asserts that coevolution is a powerful force for emergence and self-organization in any complex adaptive system (Holland, 1975). In particular, there is a deep paradox in evolution: the fact that the same relentless competition that gives rise to evolutionary arms races can also give rise to symbiosis and other forms of cooperation.

It is a fundamental problem in evolutionary biology – not to mention in human systems, including the phenomenon of social innovation. “In a competitive world, why do organisms cooperate at all? Why do they leave themselves open to ‘allies’ who could easily turn on them?” (Waldrop, 1992).

Robert Axelrod – a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan and John Holland’s colleague – was able to demonstrate one of the possible answers to this question. In his 1984 book ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’ Axelrod pointed out that a strategy of “nice, forgiving, tough, and clear” interaction can lead to cooperation in a wide variety of social settings – including some of the most unpromising situations imaginable. Axelrod also pointed out that these types of interactions lead to cooperation in the natural world even without the benefit of intelligence (Waldrop, 1992). “Examples include lichens, in which a fungus extracts nutrients from the underlying rock while providing a home for algae that in turn provide the fungus with photosynthesis; the ant-acacia tree, which houses and feeds a type of ant that in turn protects the tree; and the fig tree, whose flowers serve as food for fig wasps that in turn pollinate the flowers and scatter the seeds” (Waldrop, 1992).


Resilience in the face of crisis

The interaction between fig trees and pollinator wasps is, in fact, one of the best-known plant/animal mutualisms, and one that has become emblematic of the tropics. Bronstein and Hossaert-McKey (1995) were able to conduct a unique natural experiment allowing them to examine the resilience of a fig/pollinator mutualism that directly took place in Florida in August, 1992 during one of the most intense tropical storms in the recorded history. Following the disaster, damage to habitat included loss of all leaves and fruits along with many branches on the majority of fig trees, as well as presumed local extinction of its pollinator, a type of fig wasp. Within five months, however, fig tree and fig wasp abundance had recovered to near pre-hurricane levels. This study suggests that mutualist interactions can be surprisingly resilient to certain population-level crises in biology (Bronstein and Hossaert-McKey, 1995).

Such spontaneous resilient responses to crisis is equally evident in human social systems, a realization the occurred to me during an eight months project as a collaborative endeavour of School of Industrial Design and Institute without Boundaries. I have travelled to Lota with a group of students to study cultural phenomena of post-disaster community efforts in the city of Lota, Chile. Since the downturn of Lota’s economy that began in 1997 with the closure of its coal mines, Lota has become one of the poorest cities in Chile. On top of this economic crisis, it has faced hardship as a result of a major earthquake of the staggering magnitude 8.8 on February 27th, 2010.

Many of the projects that have developed in Lota as a result of these economic and environmental crises are more simple, diverse, de-centralized and have helped to stimulate local economies again. I had an opportunity to speak with various representatives of Lota’s diverse communities, who have given their insight into the inner workings of communal earthquake management plans. All of the self-organized leaders were explicitly active within their communities, some were recognized more than others by the municipality.

Rosa Pacheco, one of the leaders of the community, stated during the interview: “Before the earthquake, there weren’t community representatives. After the earthquake, people just started self-organizing. I added the job of community representative to my main job because I studied at CFT in local fish administration and [felt I could] help. There are not enough temporary houses. And community began to feel isolated from the municipality. The groups listened, but did not act. Until the earthquake happened.” (Pacheco, 2010)

It has been exactly three years since the earthquake and the community is still providing creative solutions to reinvigorate Lota. These include projects that are as simple as gathering public funds for a small newsstand or as long-term as establishing Casa de la Mujer – a gathering spot for forward-looking women of Lota to discuss and implement projects within the community.

Resilience is one of the occurrences of life, and functions as the opposite of the domino theory. Healthy organisms and ecosystems are diverse, unpredictable, redundant, and adaptive – conditions prevalent in the phenomenon of social innovation. By definition, evolution produces creatures and systems that have the greatest ability to persist over time, and resilience allows an organism to withstand the greatest range of disturbances. “This is true for social systems as it is for environmental ones, for governments and corporations as it is for fisheries and reefs.” (Hawken, 2007).

[left] Quantifying patterns of mortality and damage 7 months after Hurricane Andrew, Biscayne Bay, Florida. Credit: Wetland Ecology and Engineering Lab. 1993. 
[right] Qualifying patterns of destruction 9 months after a major earthquake of magnitude 8.8 on February 27th, 2010. Photo taken at Gulf of Arauco in Lota, Chile.


[left] Quantifying patterns of resprouting and growth biannually after Hurricane Andrew, Biscayne Bay, Florida. Credit: Wetland Ecology and Engineering Lab. 1993. 

[right] Qualifying possible solutions at Casa de la Mujer – a community group that builds relationships between people, organizations and networks in economical, political and cultural arenas. Photo taken at Casa de la Mujer in Lota, Chile. Credit: Alëna Iouguina


Like nature itself, social innovation is organizing from bottom up

Paul Hawken, the author of Blessed Unrest, gave a speech in April 2007 about “the largest movement on earth, a movement that has no name, leader or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town and culture, and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide.” (Hawken, 2007) Twelve years earlier molecular biologist Mahlon Hoagland wrote a primer entitled The Way Life Works that identify sixteen qualities common to all living organisms, and most apply to social movements (Hoagland and Dodson, 1995). Paul Hawken identified several of these in his book Blessed Unrest (2007):

Just as complex organisms are built of cooperating communities of cells, the movement to address the issues of quality and quantity of life has been built up by small, cooperating groups of people.

Just as life assembles itself into chains, nonprofits aggregate either by linking up interests, people or communities, or by linking to related organizations.

Nature works in information and resource cycles, and so do social innovation communities through self-correcting feedback loops (Hawken, 2007).

These are only few examples of biological models that inform and impact our understanding of the social innovation movement.


Social innovation or natural coevolution?

The ‘co’ in evolution, just as the ‘social’ in innovation is the mark of the future – the lives of modern people are increasingly more codependent than ever. All innovation these days means interdisciplinary innovation, and interdisciplinary innovation, means co-innovation. Kevin Kelly wrote in his book Out of Control: The rise of neo-biological civilization “The new online communities built between the spaces of communication networks are coworlds. Marshall McLuhan was not quite right. We are not hammering together a cozy global village. We are weaving together a crowded global hive – a coworld of utmost sociality [ ... ]. In this environment, all evolution, including the evolution of manufactured entities, is coevolution.” (Kelly, 1994).

Having posed this discourse, how may one answer the following questions: What happens when coevolution saturates a complete planet? What will society of resilient, diverse, unpredictable, redundant, and adaptive innovations do for the benefit of humanity?



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  • Hoagland, M., & Dodson, B. (1995). The Way Life Works. Times Books.
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