Natural Systems

Second Nature: Natural – Digital Synthesis 
Peter Hasdell
University of Manitoba

‘Second nature’ is an exploration into synthetic environments developed, manufactured, and tested through post-graduate design and research projects conducted in the Architecture and Urban Research Laboratory (A+URL) in Stockholm. This work generated natural-synthetic hybrids by making and testing ctigital-mechanical systems whose behaviours simulate analogous forms in nature. (image 1)

Digital mechanisms are made of bits that are precisely on or off – never maybe on or maybe off-which are programmed in a pre-determined pattern of cause and effect. This digital straightjacket makes for controllable and predictable outcomes, keeping entropy at bay. This has, during the first half-century of its existence, predisposed the digital realm to a world of top-down control and cause and effect. As the digital realm evolves new cognitive, sensory, and interactive abilities, while at the same time expanding its range of behaviours, the overall characteristics of a digital system are able to more closely simulate and interact with both human and natural systems.

Essential decision making processes in complex systems now require both
human and computer input, and today “humans and computers interact in
hundreds of ways daily, often unobtrusively.” The scientist Katherine Hayles speaks of this condition “not as a dichotomy between the real and virtual but rather as space in which the natural and the artificial are increasingly entwined,” foreseeing the growth of what Bruno Latour calls “quasi-objects,” nature-culture hybrids. A recently published United Nations telecommunications agency report, “The Internet of Things,” supports Latour’s point of view, outlining an increase in the number of embedded computers within our everyday environments, a proliferation of computing in which interactions between multiple embedded parts may in the near future outnumber actual human-computer interaction. Ubiquitously distributed computing will undoubtedly have a great impact on our concepts of what constitutes an environment, as well as interaction between entities within those environments, whether artificial or natural.

The potential for complex autonomous digital systems to behave like living things in the natural world is just beginning to be understood. In Out of Control, author Kevin Kelly has argued for a more autonomous ‘swarm-like’ order of computing. He writes: “[A]s we unleash living forces into our created machines, we lose control of them. They acquire wildness.” As the digital realm develops, new possibilities arise from the fusion of the natural and the digital that begin to address issues of bio-mimesis, autonomous behaviours, and artificial ecosystems. In an interview, the scientist Mark Pauline outlines the progress of digital evolution: “I think humans will accumulate artificial and mechanical abilities, while machines will accumulate biological intelligence. This will make the confrontation between the two even less decisive and less morally clear than it is today.”

Second nature, learned behavior practiced long enough to become innate, is common both to the natural and the digital. Furthermore, in being a link between nature and artifice, physical and digital, second nature constitutes an ‘environment’. with all the attendant issues of ecology, adaptability, co-evolution, and diversity. Within this environment is a population of ‘quasi-objects’, projecting a kind ofanima within these digital constructions. They exhibit life-like behaviours, able to sense, react, and exist within what could be termed artificial ecologies. Evolution of digital species is inevitable, entities able to speak and react to other digital entities, engage in a complex relationship with natural systems where internal and external data, information, light, sound, bits, heat, and matter constitute the web of a ‘second nature ecosystem.’

In 2000. I established the postgraduate research laboratory and studio A+URL6 at KTH Architecture School to investigate the impact of various types of media on spatial thinking. The point of departure of A+URL was to understand the man made environment as a dynamic system. Our research focused on urban-scate metabolic systems and artificial ecologies as means of exploring our initial thesis. This led to collaboration with Telia, Ericsson, and the Interactive Institute in Stockholm.

By importing ecosystem principles to digital technologies, simple types of artificial ecologies were constructed with in-built feedback that allow assemblages to sense, react, and continually adjust according to internal and external conditions. The possibility of creating such systems was brought about by technological change that has allowed the formerly discrete virtual world to ‘talk’ to the external world, in recent years, the availability of low-end microprocessors, sensors, servo-motors, and miniaturisation, have made it increasingly easy to construct things with in-built feedback and sensing abilities.

The first step was to deduce a set of ‘bio-mimetic’ principles by observing natural ecosystems and phenomena such as swarm behavior, phase transitions in
ice, the Aurora Borealis, static electricity, photosynthesis, glacier formation, and
bioluminescence. One group investigating the Northern Lights made fog clouds and studied their dispersal in the environment. Another group interested in static electricity wired up a three-storey building to generate electricity potential, later making a device to harvest static electricity from rainfall. Next, these principles were synthesised into interactive ecologies, assemblages, and systems that employed feedback. Through a series of prototypes made from fabricated parts, found objects, washing machines, plotter parts, and fruit, assemblages used programmable microprocessor technologies coupled with sensors and servomotors to generate inputs, outputs, and feedback. Each assemblage was an elaborate synthetic environment operating according to both internal and external inputs and the mediation of these inputs. These environments embodied aspects of ecosystems and used the principles of transformation of energy as an integral part of their functioning.

The Fog Table mimicked the Aurora Borealis’ plasma clouds by moving a cloud of fog according to changes in a magnetic field. The trigger mechanism was a magnetometer reacting to changing magnetic fields or the proximity of a cell phone or any electronic device in the surrounding area. Singing Lemons Instrument, based on earlier investigations into photosynthesis, was a musical instrument using the galvanic potentials of a lemon to generate electricity. The instrument responded to a person’s movement, which triggered a light sensor and activated single note buzzers powered by electrodes passing in to and out of the lemon. The depth to which the electrode penetrated the lemons determined the volume of the note played, as the acid concentrations inside the lemon vary. The sound eventually dies out as the galvanic power of the lemons diminishes. The Terra -iser was based on a study of glaciers as both landscape generators and large-scale information machines. The assemblage constructed an ever-changing landscape, vacuuming up small clay balls and reordering them in new configurations according to the movement of people around it. It was fabricated from re-purposed plotter track assemblies, washing machine parts, and vacuum cleaners.

Cause and effect coding in digital systems limit the behaviours, actions, and interactivity of the system. The assemblages constructed, however, bypass fundamental technological limitations by allowing for the unexpected, in which code becomes translated through bio-mimetic principles into strange kinds of action and feedback. Unpredictability is the result of synthesis, making second nature hybrids the link between the two previously discrete worlds of the digital and the natural.

1. N. Katherine Hayles, “An interview/dialogue with Albert Borgmann and N. Katherine Hayles on humans and machines,”
2. See Hayles, op cit
3. See Hayles, op cit
4. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control (Addison Wesley Press, 1994), 4.
5. See Kelfy [3], p54.
6. Architecture and Urban Research Laboratory,, was co-established by the author with Ana Betancour in The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden in 2000. For further examples of the work, refer to Interspace, an exhibition of the work was held at the Kulturhus in Stockholm. A catatogue of the same name was published.
7. Basic Stamp II microprocessors, breadboard circuits, and interactive design technologies were assisted in three one-day workshops by Dr. Jon Rogers.