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Everything is a system of interconnected systems across scales. While systems dynamics is useful in understanding the relationships between systems and how they behave, evolutionary dynamics is useful in understanding how systems evolve over time. See figure Evolutionary dynamics is the evolutionary outcome of increasingly effective strategies individuals use to optimize for maximum payout. Instead individuals in a population interact with each other based on a strategy. Nowak, a. The reducibility of norms into a utility function and economic motivation has been questioned by economists.

This evidence notwithstanding, economists and business leaders continue to focus on financial extrinsic motivation as the key method for managing behavior. This necessarily reduces the diversity of strategies and decreases the robustness of our ecosystem. My argument is that the most difficult problems we face today — climate change, global income disparity, and public health — are a result of the effectiveness of solutions that maximized short-term payouts that we can measure and enjoy within our bounded rationality and perspective.

Climate change can be directly linked to the success of industry in creating abundance at the expense of nature by exploiting and extracting resources.

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Much of modern chronic disease comes from agricultural gains that have made food abundant and cheap, and all manner of conveyance ensures we no longer need to walk and forage. The capital markets have become so efficient that passive capital continues to yield more and more returns, extracted from workers and society that are exceedingly underrepresented in setting strategy and participating in the payouts.

There are, of course, ideas like the triple bottom line 13 Hall, The Cold War era was defined by the rapid expansion of capitalism and consumerism, the beginning of the space race, and the dawning of the age of computation. The cybernetics that Norbert Wiener and others described 14 Wiener, In the late 60s and early 70s, Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster, and others developed the notion of second-order cybernetics: 15 Glanville, While the study of systems dynamics and cybernetics continues, cybernetics reached an apex during a famous series of interdisciplinary meetings held between and as part of the Macy Conferences.

Both cybernetics and systems dynamics flourished when they had heavy interdisciplinary participation and real impact. How disciplines and the communities that support them emerge and wither is a key topic of this dissertation, and the study of systems is a great example of numerous communities and approaches. We now have an opportunity and an imperative to pull the disciplines together again in the context of our new tools and our new challenges, and to tackle the wicked problems.

Most of what we design involves some part of a complex system such as the system that gets water into and out of a bathtub, but we usually just assume those support systems rather than focusing on them.

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For example, modern design is usually focused on the customer and the customer experience. But what about the driver, the cook in the restaurant How much attention did the app developers give to their experience?


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In this class, they describe systems at every scale, from the microbial and human to the architectural and urban to global and astronomical systems, and they demonstrate how all of these system are connected. Most scientists and designers are focused on a single scale and a single system, when instead they can and must understand how their work connects to and affects all systems at all scales and take responsibility for their interventions into these systems.

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This connection includes both the science of design and the design of science, as well as a dynamic relationship between these two activities. Much of design in the past was about the visual and aesthetic. Modern design brought together form and function. Today, many designers work for companies and governments, developing products and systems focused primarily on ensuring that society works efficiently. However, the scope of these efforts is not designed to include — or care about — needs beyond those of corporations or governments.

Systems such as the microbial system and the environment have suffered and now present significant challenges for designers. With such adaptive and complex systems, our unintended effects on them often produce unintended negative consequences for us. Designers are not just planners wielding deterministic tools and control, but rather are participants in vast systems in which they exist and participate. This requires designers to employ a much more humble, non-deterministic approach and requires scientists and engineers to think across multiple scales and systems with greater intent and sensibility.

Traditionally the domain of designers alone, this sensibility is a kind of aesthetic, though not merely a visual one. Rather, the field of design is trying to evolve beyond its traditional concern with visual aesthetics, and begin adopting a more philosophical aesthetic or sensibility, one more like that of indigenous peoples.


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Income disparity is in many ways a function of a highly efficient capitalist system that rewards owners of resources, putting growth and progress above all else, and that exploits nature — all concepts foreign, and even abhorrent, to many indigenous cultures, such as Polynesians and Native Americans, for example. We must accept that the outcome of more and more scientific and technological design will not be fully in our control.


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It will instead be more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development. My work as director of the MIT Media Lab is to foster and nurture the use of respectful design in science and technology so that we enhance and advance the complex, adaptive systems we live within. Unlike the past when distinct boundaries separated the artificial and the organic, the cultural and the natural — science explored the natural and engineering built the artificial — now it appears that nature and the artificial are merging.

Science and engineering today are delving into synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, which are both massively complex. These new areas of study and exploration necessarily take engineers out of the domain of the artificial and scientists into the domain of the natural. We have machine learning models that are exhibiting unpredictable and unexplainable behavior on the one hand. On the other hand, we are starting to see order in biology where we expect randomness.

As we bring the artificial and the natural together and integrate the work of designers, artists, engineers, and scientists, the inability of academic disciplines to communicate with each other and our own difficulties conceiving ideas across disciplinary boundaries become significant impediments. Linguistic relativists argues that language determines what one can think. This theory is controversial, but studies have shown that language does affect how we perceive color or how we understand math. Martin Nowak shows mathematically how learning from examples, or inductive inference, requires constraints.

Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, argued that facts became facts through citation. So: academic disciplines are thought collectives with their own paradigms and specialized languages. Peer review reinforces adherence to those rules, paradigms, and patterns of language.

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The social dynamics that arise from the relationships among individuals in a discipline and the way funding and acknowledgement flow further reinforce the episteme, isolating disciplines from interaction with other disciplines. Disciplines package knowledge into bricks and black boxes 39 Latour, Approximately 2. We clearly need to reconsider the way we develop knowledge and communicate within a discipline as well as between disciplines.

Interdisciplinary work has produced impactful results. People who conduct research can be modeled as individuals in a population in an evolutionary dynamics game. While academics do care about money, their payout is often success in some combination of impact, peer validation, and the joy of discovery.

While economists can model all of these payouts as a form of utility function that can ultimately be converted to monetary value, few academics calculate the dollar value of each citation when they write a paper. They are more likely thinking about their progression through the academic system, heading toward a degree or tenure. They are also likely to be thinking about power and funding getting closer to a utility function calculus , which will allow them to hire researchers and buy equipment and materials to conduct experiments that incrementally augment or perhaps overturn existing theories.

Figure The vertical axis is depth. The horizontal axis is breadth. The horizontal line is normal non-academic people who follow the news. Some are specialists who can talk to the public but are sometimes less deep.

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In this way, the structure of academic institutions, with their schools and departments providing degrees and tenure through a process of peer review, reinforces the focus on going deeper rather than wider — the target of the work of most academics focusing on a very small number of people who are sufficiently advanced in a field to understand whether and how a new work contributes to the field. The structure of academic publishing, the currency in many academic fields, is also based on peer review and advancing the field roughly in the direction it is already headed.

Finally, major funding sources tend to amplify these focus areas because programs are designed around the experts in each field.

See Figure Many experts whose knowledge is of the deep variety consider communicating with the public beneath them and a waste of time. They would rather aim at developing the deepest knowledge in their field, and prioritize a Nobel Prize over public acclaim — although a Nobel Prize will lead to precisely that, just along another pathway.

Many academics look down on the public facing presentation of academic work as necessarily shallow, but well-known scientists have disagreed. Human beings have a limited amount of time, and while some people can get more done in their life than others, there is a bounded amount of space your personal shape can take, so there are inherent trade-offs in going deep in a single discipline, deep in multiple disciplines, or going broad across many disciplines. See Figure 14 Some interdisciplinarians and multidisciplinarians also spend time exploring the space between disciplines or at the intersections of disciplines.

See Figure 16 These areas tend to attract less funding, have fewer peers and, subsequently, have less existing prior work overall. Those factors make these areas harder to explore, and there is furthermore a great risk of becoming an academic orphan without collaborators, a tenure path, or a job market. But these new spaces offer tremendous opportunity. The key to success at the Media Lab is that we are able to deploy funding for exploratory work in the areas that fall between disciplines through a unique consortium funding model.

The consortium encourages the students and faculty who are funded to explore in an undirected way.