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Problems, solutions, and their co-evolution in design and elsewhere

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Mari Huhtala.

In design projects, the problems that are being addressed and the solutions that are being developed are often said to ‘co-evolve’. It is not just representations of the possible solutions that change as the project progresses, but also representations of the problem; a change in one results in a change in the other. Design is thus not described as a process of solving an unchanging problem, but of searching both the solution-space and the problem-space until a well-matching problem-solution pair is found.

The term ‘co-evolution’ arose in the field of evolutionary biology in the 1960s but was first used in design research in the early 1990s, most prominently as a way to describe how (co-evolutionary) genetic algorithms would allow computers to tackle design problems that are sometimes described as ‘open’, ‘ill-defined’, ‘ill-structured’ or ‘wicked’. Since then, co-evolution has become one of the most widespread theories in design research, especially when describing creativity. For example, Dorst and Cross’s (2001) Design Studies paper titled “Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem–solution” is the most highly cited paper published in the journal’s 42-year history. Since the 1990s, many researchers have invoked co-evolutionary accounts of the design process to describe the work of individuals and groups, to develop computer support tools and to test educational interventions.

Despite the influence of co-evolution theory in design, the theory itself has received very little scrutiny. Perhaps as a consequence, accounts of design co-evolution are often disconnected from accounts of other similar phenomena in design and elsewhere. In this talk, I will address a range of questions that have seemingly not been addressed in the relevant literature, namely: What precedent is there for describing design as co-evolution? What is the basis for the biological analogy, and is the analogy productive? Do other disciplines concerned with problems and solutions describe them as co-evolving, and if so (or not), what might we learn from this? What is the distinction between problems and solutions in design, and is this distinction helpful when describing design co-evolution? Is it only problems and solutions that co-evolve in design, or do other things also co-evolve with them?

Over the last thirty years, design researchers have drawn diagrams to reflect their understanding of co-evolutionary processes. I’ll share some of those diagrams to help with the discussion of the questions above, and also present some new diagrams that I think might be more useful. I’ll refer to some ‘vintage’ design research literature, including work from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, from people like Marples, Alexander, Simon and Schön. So, the talk might appeal to those interested in the history and development of ideas, the scholarly practices of academic disciplines, the description of design activities, the development of design education, and the nature of problem solving in design and in other activities. This is all a work in progress, so the talk will be informal, but all are welcome.


Zoom Meeting ID: 817 2962 0175 Zoom Passcode: 924092

This talk is part of the Engineering Design Centre Seminars series.

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