The Idea of ‘Co-evolutionary Technology’

Recently I collaborated with my Finnish colleagues Katriina Soini and Juha Hiedanpäa on fleshing out the idea of ‘co-evolutionary technology’. This builds on my earlier blogposts on technosystem services and nature-based solutions. Our launchpad is the critique of nature-based solutions, which are increasingly propagated as a panacea to meeting the problems of our times, especially by the European Commission. The backlash is already there, such as the recent call of the ‘Global Youth Position’ that demanded for rethinking and recalibrating the concept.

NBS now even are the subject of a new specialist journal. However, the term has no scientific status at all, since it is a policy slogan in the first place. As with many other terms, it was crafted to ease communication between scientists and policymakers. There is the great risk that the wording misguides the practice of NBS. That starts with the use of ‘solution’ which insinuates that once an NBS is implemented, “consider it solved”: Just think of the movements of planting millions of trees, even endorsed by the archfoe of environmentalists. Mr. Donald Trump. Reference to nature is very problematic. Isn’t agriculture the archetypical ‘nature based solution’ to feeding a growing human species? Yet, most of modern agriculture is one of the key drivers of environmental destruction.

There is a growing literature on NBS which has already clarified the point that we want to grasp by the term ‘co-evolutionary technology’. The differentia specifica of NBS is NOT that it solves problems that we humans face. To the contrary, this is that while solving a human problem, the NBS would benefit ‘nature’ in the first place. Indeed, the wording should be changed: Instead of nature based, perhaps ‘nature centred’ or even ‘nature serving’ could be recommended. What does that mean?

The wording NBS clearly states that an NBS is a ‘technology’. As such, NBS are just another extension of the technosphere on planet Earth. There are degrees of artificiality: For example, a green roof is a feature of architectural design and artificial; in contrast, protecting mangrove forests for coastal protection leaves much leeway for autonomous biological processes. Hence, the weakest form of NBS extension of technosphere is establishing a functional relationship between natural phenomena and human needs as nurtured by the growth of the technosphere. For example, if we refrain from destroying the Amazonas forests, because this is a means of carbon sequestration, this is a weak NBS. What is crucial here is the justification: We only constrain our own actions because we assign a function to the Amazonas forests. If there were no function, we might proceed with exploiting them economically. That means, we do not recognize the autonomous functions of the Amazonas ecosystem.

The concept of co-evolutionary technology rejects this kind of human-centred assignment of function. We can approach this from two angles. One is from the perspective of science, in the sense of biology, Earth system sciences and related fields, the other is the perspective of ethics.

The perspective of science suggests that, by definition, co-evolutionary technology would balance and coordinate two functional domains, which most generally can be identified as technosphere and biosphere. This is what I already pointed out in my earlier blogpost: A co-evolutionary technology straddles technosphere and biosphere, and most critically, enhances and nurtures the evolutionary potential of the biosphere. In fact, we humans are also part of the biosphere, but at the same time our needs are deeply shaped by the technosphere: One most fundamental aspect is that the current size of the human population can only be sustained by technospheric means that stay in tension with biospheric functions. In contrast, a co-evolutionary technology supports biospheric functions. The most general way to express this is that the technology enhances the evolutionary potential of the biosphere. For example, this means to design urban greenery, green roofs and parks as integrated urban ecosystems which would evolve their autonomous functions, hence the almost paradoxical construct of an ‘artificial wilderness’.

The ethical perspective refers to the recognition of biospheric autonomy by humans. Co-evolutionary technology is inclusive technology in the sense that the needs of both humans and non-humans are recognized on equal status. This is not as revolutionary as it seems, because accepting the obligation to protect and even enhance biodiversity in implementing NBS is just the same, with a small, but important difference: In co-evolutionary technology, biodiversity would not just be one criterion of evaluating the technology among others but would obtain veto rights. To qualify as co-evolutionary technology, enhancing biodiversity is one binding and necessary criterion on equal status with human needs.

To sum up, the conceptual mess of NBS can be clarified by qualifying them as ‘co-evolutionary technology’. Co-evolutionary technologies are interface technologies between technosphere and biosphere evolution. They come along in various shapes, the same as ‘pure’ technologies. Beyond single technological arrangements such as a green roof, there are co-evolutionary systems (such as the ‘artificial urban wilderness’) and entire co-evolutionary technological paradigms, the shape of which is not yet visible. In politics, this means that we must develop the notion of ‘co-evolutionary systems of innovation’, substituting for concepts such as ‘national’ or ‘regional systems of innovation’. These are institutionalized forms of harnessing synergies between technosphere and biosphere evolution.

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