Monocultures, Biomimicry and Ethnography

Heather McQuaid
20 Aug 2013

“What colour would it be?” she demanded to know.

The room was silent, save for the shuffling of a few papers on the table as the researchers and trends specialists looked uncomfortably at each other. After four hours of immersing their client in the key findings from the ethnographic research across three countries with twenty-four families, and showing the emerging lifestyle and design trends likely to influence European consumers over the next three to five years, all she wanted to know was what colour the new appliance should be.

“Well,” one brave soul ventured, “if you’re designing something for Spain…”. The client shook her head impatiently, “for Europe”. “0kay”, the researcher reasoned, “if you combined all the colours we’ve just talked about, you’d get,” he paused to consider the different variations, “…brown.”

That episode came vividly to mind as PDD colleague waxed enthusiastically about a book he’s reading on biomimicry and the dangers of creating monocultures.

Monocultures do not exist in nature because they are not sustainable.  Natural systems are resilient because of their diversity and redundancy, which allows them to maintain a healthy equilibrium. When there’s a change in the system (increase in population of deer), the system responds with a countermeasure (increase in number of predators), to ensure that equilibrium within the ecosystem is maintained.

Looking at the last few decades of business practice (e.g., from agriculture, through manufacturing, and even finance), there has been a distinct trend toward reducing diversity and redundancy, and creating monocultures. As an example, take the crops grown in America 100 years ago compared with today. More than 90% of the varieties grown a century ago are not being commercially grown today. US seed catalogues in 1903 listed 408 pea varieties. Today there are only 25. Just two pea varieties comprise 96% of the US commercial crop. Why the lack of diversity? Farmers have been planting fewer varieties of the crops so that they can focus on producing “high yielding” varieties. The risks of relying on a monoculture are big and scary and multifaceted. But the obvious problem is, if you only make one thing, and something bad happens to that one thing, then you (and all the people relying on your product) are going to go hungry. Nature, on the other hand, doesn’t make things too-big-to-fail.

Now you may be wondering, what on earth does any of this have to do with ethnography?  Let’s look at the allure of producing “high-yielding” insights in the world of corporations and governments. Many companies look to save money by reducing diversity. In fact, the holy grail for many companies is creating one product or service that everyone wants. So when a project sponsor at a company asks us to find out what European consumers want, we’re basically being asked to define what that “European” monoculture is.  

How do we balance the richness of ethnographic research, which reveals the diversity, eccentricity, and uniqueness of human lives and the places people inhabit, against the pressures to reduce and simply and define the monolithic, monoculture?

Might there be inspiration from Big Data, biomimicry or cultural ecosystems? It would be great to hear how our community is approaching this challenge, especially if we don’t want to live a world of brown appliances. 

 

Heather McQuaid is Principal of Human-Centred Design (HCD) at PDD, where she helps Consumer, Industrial, Healthcare, Telecommunications, Finance and Non-Profit companies incorporate HCD methods into their innovation and product development processes. She enjoys reading (and writing about) how advances in neuropsychology are changing the way we think about creativity and collaboration, and how cultural differences affect research methods.

PDD will be hosting a drinks reception as part of the London Design Festival. The reception will take place from 19:00 until late on Wednesday, 18 September at The Gallery, 50 Redchurch St , London, E2 7DP (close to the Old St / Liverpool St stations). PDD happily welcomes all EPIC attendees to this reception.

 

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