Iterative Design from Protocols, Rather than Master Plans

Consider this: a building, when complete, is every bit a representational artifact as it is a gadget for keeping off the rain. It encodes a set of constraints and affordances that literally program how human beings interact with one another. Architects have known about and harnessed this effect for various ends since the first buildings. Alexander’s interest is in creating structure that supports the widest range of freedom in ordinary human life. To achieve this, he uses the current representational—that is to say, geometric—state of the system, on the ground, to compute the next step in the construction process, itself a recursive application of a carefully-selected set of fundamental morphisms. . . .

There is an idea prevalent in our culture that if we just find the right system, we can ride it out in perpetuity. We can gamify social interaction. This idea is manifested most prominently in the departments of psychology, sociology, law, political science, and economics. Moreover, there are now actual game designers who have expressed an interest in tinkering with public policy. I want to suggest that the very idea of trying to define an all-encompassing system, no matter how fair you try to make it, will always produce systems whose rules benefit the makers, and whose externalities they can at best benefit from, and at worst ignore. . .

Rather than design master plans, we designers of systems should instead design federations of little systems linked together by extensible protocols and generic interfaces. This way we can create complex systems without having to explicitly define them. These protocols and interfaces themselves are systems which, in order to work, must constrain what can be said. This is why we still have to deliberately blow these systems up and reassemble them every once in a while. It’s essential that we understand that. . . .

Alexander has found a way to create buildings—at a competitive cost—without a master plan. Rather, he uses a protocol that sequentially applies discrete, structure-preserving transformations to a region of space, all the while taking continual input from the users, the surroundings, and the partially-computed product. The result is a building which is considerably better adapted to the real environment in which it needs to function.

Why the buildings are better adapted are because they shape and give definition to physical space without imposing upon it. The structure affords certain patterns of social interaction, rather than prescribing them. The people who use Alexander’s buildings report an unprecedented sense of freedom and belonging. What’s more, the process to create these buildings causes them to exhibit a conspicuous geometric pattern, which becomes a signal to people that the structure behaves this way.

–Dorian Taylor, “Toward a Theory of Design as Computation” on


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