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Autopoietic Design Processes

Appreciating the self-evolutionary potential of processes and suggesting a transition towards generative processes

An accurate depiction of the designer’s understanding of systems — comfortably and pleasantly hazy.

The debate on whether processes are a reliable way to understand the world spans many eras. A complete genealogy of the concept of a process is required to accurately comment on this debate. Being a practitioner of a craft that believes its primary monopoly to be “the process”, I am moved to comment on this concept. In this essay, I present some fundamental thoughts on processes and their relationship to practice while staying agnostic to any specific discipline. In tandem, I illuminate the issues with the rigid attachment to process that is prevalent in design practice today. Finally, I propose the application of autopoiesy to the context of design practice. This culminates in the suggestion that we should consider moving towards generative and auto-evolving design processes.

Of process and practice

The greatest fallacy of modern design practice lies in equating process to practice. There is evidence of this thought in professional practice and in design education. With the overwhelming adoption of the design process in multiple industries (technology, healthcare, business and management to name a few) comes the need to democratise the practice of design. While recognising the potential of design practices to initiate change and making the practice accessible to “everyone” is an appreciable effort, our only trade within practice has become a process. Anyone who has met with a modern design team would have heard of this process, albeit, probably using slightly different terms i.e; Research, Ideation, Development and Validation. Packaged within this static and recursive framework is the misplaced sentiment of empathy. These are gift-wrapped and sold by corporate practitioners and most academics and on occasion by consulting firms with an aspiration to be socially relevant. The issue is not one of linguistic misconception or inaccuracy. Some frameworks would refer to Research as Discovery and Validation as User Testing. These terms are a heuristic to capture the essence of the activities that compose the process. The issue lies in the activities themselves and in their ways of seeing.

The pathology of this misunderstanding of process as practice can be better understood by examining the operation of processes in our existence. I do not see our misconception of process as a language issue and hence, I shall cast aside the usual etymological analysis. Our understanding of a process is, typically, as a series of activities that are arranged in a specific manner to achieve a certain end. Since we understand processes in this way, this is also how we enact them. The process package for design (mentioned above) can be performed to produce innovative solutions to a problem to which this process is applied. Very simply, a process is a means to an end. A means to an end that ensures a defined output for a specific and variable input. Such a process is successful in producing two kinds of outputs. It either becomes a machine that produces a never-ending series of trifles. Or it produces a mechanical designer, who is stripped of their sovereignty and is productive only when operating this machine. The designer’s preoccupation becomes finding a meaningful point of termination for the process machine’s endless and recursive productions. Such a process is too good to be true and is the designer’s defence mechanism that checks the unrest caused by ambiguity. The ominous and solutionless dark void is illumined by this promiseland of process mechanics. It promises us many things at many levels which makes it even more alluring. It promises us a serviceable and sellable solution. It promises relevance. It promises hope to those desperately seeking change.

Human beings have had to contend with the allure of processes for a very long time. Organised religion with its moral frameworks and prescriptions is one such mechanism. Psycho-analytical frameworks, astrological frameworks, the scientific method are all mechanisms of the past that have waxed and waned in relevance. I would not blame any of us for succumbing to these attractive machines. They promise us a way out of confronting the most befuddling aspects of human existence. Designers, within the boundaries of our practice, are also haunted by such confounding enquiries. Why am I the right person to propose a solution to this? Shouldn’t I know more about this before I can suggest that this is what you can/should do? The process diminishes the value of these questions. While I attended graduate school some people responded to my cries of existential despair with a suspicious and evangelical missive i.e; “Have faith in the process.” Such process fanaticism results in thoughtless and macabre solutions that are not a result of sentiments and sensuality of fellow humans but of the process machine. The evidence of this lies in the monotonous solutions that are produced by designers. The solution to promoting healthy lifestyles, sustainable living and self-sufficiency of eating most often ends up being hydroponic agriculture systems or micro-greeneries. The solution is the same in both countries that I have engaged in (USA and India). The striking resemblance in the processes applied towards the development of these solutions confirmed my ideas as I have described them above.

Synthesising my tirade above, our allegiance to and the equation of design process to design practice erases the potential for multiplicity, plurality and individuality. These are things we, especially my generation of design practitioners, fight for outside the bounds of practice. I suspect that the comforting certainty of outcome and the consequent relevance that processes bring us, weakens our resolution to find reconciliation between these ideals of being and the practicality of human life.

Autopoietic design processes

To appreciate a discussion on processes we must embrace the cosmos as a system. Amongst multiple ways of describing this system, one that is consistent with my own ideas is to approach the universe as a relative system. This system is composed of many entities that are microsystems themselves. Much like the idea of ‘ether’ floating in space, a variety of resources flow through this system. Different entities within this system interrupt the flow of these resources based on their intents, needs for sustenance and self-interest . Each entity sees the entire system in terms of its own flux much like we viewed the Earth as the centre of the universe for most of our existence. Deleuze and Guattari called these nested systems assemblages, Latour calls them actors in his Actor Network Theory while Maturana and Varela refer to these as unities in Autopoiesis and Cognition. To simplify the language, we can think of them as active machines.

The merit of embracing such a perspective of systems lies in its implicit plasticity and multiplicity. Within this view, each machine can be abstracted outside of the flux field of resources and described for its individual merit and its individual processes. When placed back within the larger context, the product of these individual processes are in flux and are interpreted by other entities in different ways. This makes the outcomes of one individual process fodder for another machine’s individual process and this goes on. All these individual processes come together to form a grand, dynamic and ever changing process. This grand process is also in flux like everything else within the system. It creates and reinvents itself constantly depending on what constitutes it and how these constituents are organised. What is interesting about this model of thought is that it describes the reality of our social, political, existential and natural systems. Ranging from the cells in our body to the swaying of social ideology between the left-wing and the right-wing, this is how we actually exist. Such self-creating (auto — poietic) systems were described by Maturana and Varela from the perspective of evolutionary biology and subsequently applying it to cognition, epistemology and very sparingly to society and ethics.

How must we embrace the innate autopoiesy in being within the context of developing design processes? To make this question more pervasive and less bourgeois-intellectual, I shall add the constraints of modern design practice — scalability and teachability.

The premise of autopoiesis lies in the process creating itself. One can appreciate how foreign that idea sounds when the grammar check on my computer suggests that I have committed a grammatical error by writing “process creating itself”. The process emerges from the state of things thereby causing the outcomes to also be emergent. What we as designers must do is understand the levers that shape these processes, create distinct definitions of the machines within this system and observe the various ways interventions that we create could change the flux of the system. The designer’s role goes from social interpreter and creator to an observer.

What do these activities mean when approached through an autopoietic perspective?

  1. Understanding levers: Since design is broadly applied to a specific issue or towards a specific intervention, only certain aspects of a system. Traditional design processes would have us discard the large pool of resources that are in flux within the system. From the perspective of autopoiesy, every resource does impact the system, however superficially, changing the course of evolutionary outcomes. So, rather than discard, we may apply weightages to the different resources thereby developing a more holistic perspective of the effects of the resources. There is no valid purpose to “converge” and reduce the noise. These tendencies of scoping within normative processes bring irrational certainty to the system and eventually cause “unintended consequences”.
  2. Distinction: Maturana and Varela define distinction as dissociating an entity from the system that it is a part of and separating aspects of it that participate in the flux of the system from those parts that do not. This activity is especially pertinent to the field of design. In order to bring a measure of certainty and predictability of the entities in a system, we tend to create broad generalisations. This causes the entities to be grouped into clusters that appear to be similar but actually have an individual presence that uniquely and significantly affects the overall system and flux within the system.
  3. Interventions: Most outcomes of modern design practice are interventions of varying sublimity. Some are as concrete as a table while others as sublime as a service blueprint or the map of a system. As we move towards a practice that aspires to be more socio-politically relevant and more systemic, the more sublime our interventions have become and the more generically we handle systems. These interventions are also entities that affect the flux of resources in the system. Depending on the spatio-temporal introduction of this intervention the flux changes as do other entities within the system. This understanding delivers the realisation of the impact of our interventions and demands responsibility on our part. To truly embrace the self-emergence of an autopoietic process, the interventions have to be integrated into the system and not introduced into the system. The designer then passively observes the process of creation that ensues.

It might be tempting to synthesise these three activities into a heuristic system of “Research + Research + Integration”. However, these three activities are not the process. Any process and outcome need fodder that they can be enacted on and created from. Today, our design processes use various types of data that are segregated into quantifiable data or data that is qualitative. The levers, the distinction and the interventions are fodder for the autopoietic process to create, grow and evolve and recreate itself as the state of things change.

The designer engaging with an autopoietic process must recognise that they are also a part of the system. They are also actively affecting the flux within the system. This awareness is pertinent because to the designer it may seem as if they were attempting to change the system through their intervention. The designer, however, is also subject to the interventions of other entities constantly.

To erase any confusion, autopoietic processes do not imply an autopoietic practice of design. A practice is established when there is an essential intent that guides action. The essence of design practice is still too dispersed and undiscovered to be resolved by a shift in the processes that are employed within it.

Autopoietic processes in design help recognise and embrace the innate multiplicity of every system. Most importantly, they are in line with the natural code of existence and evolution. They do not suspend ambiguity and replace it with selective certainty like traditional design approaches. They recognise that the designer has no sovereignty in the system and is at the mercy of the unprecedented forces that co-inhabit the spatio-temporal environment of the designer. This makes design dispensable in the form that we know it, forcing us to appreciate the relevance of every entity in a design process. Finally, autopoietic processes help us discard the mechanical separation between what we know and what we do thereby amplifying the inseparability of thought, cognition and action.


This essay is the product of my reflections on four works

The essays where the word autopoiesis and the concept are first introduced. Maturana is a neuro-physiologist while Varela was a biologist, cybernetician and philosopher.

The renowned sociologist and philosopher wrote this paper as a critique of misconceptions of the Actor-Network Theory particularly towards its misappropriation as a sociological framework as opposed to what it actually intended to describe — the actor’s world-building activities. I have invoked ANT with that specific idea in mind as opposed to use it as a framework to describe social systems.

This pair of philosopher (Deleuze) and psycho-analyst (Guattari) have probably been the most influential to the field of design, unbeknownst to themselves. In both these books they speak of schizophrenia and capitalism as the two polar ends of existential spectra of their time. I draw on their description of entities that are exchanging resources in flux to set up the fundamental premise of systems.

These are ideas that are most consistent with my own thinking that is built on French moralism, existentialism and pessimism. I would encourage readers to explore these ideas for themselves and see if and what emerges from reflection on these ideas.

Design Poet | Artist | Philomath

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