Nongenetic Evolution

Interview: Huub Ehlhardt on the evolution of products

“To understand why a product is the way it is today, you need to learn about its evolutionary background.” Meet Huub Ehlhardt, an engineer with a PhD in product design. Huub believes that innovation is best not described as a sequence of disruptive inventions, but as a gradual evolution of products. Together with Arthur Eger, he wrote On the Origin of Products; The Evolution of Product Innovation and Design. Over the next few weeks, Huub takes us on an intellectual joyride on the origins of the word processor, LED lamp, e-bike and smartphone. Kicking off the series, we sat down with Huub to learn what he’s all about.

The evolution of this book

“Publishing and writing this book became a life-mission and hobbythat has gotten way out of hand,” Huub explains. More than enthusiastic, he tells me about the evolution of his own product, this book.

“I used to doubt between studying biology and technical engineering. In the end, I got to combine them. Long after I had written my first essay on evolutionary patterns I saw in technological developments, I got to meet professor Arthur Eger and soon started my PhD with him. By then, Arthur had written his dissertation about the same idea; our two dissertations combined became the basis of this book. Many of our students contributed to the work as well.”

An evolutionary ‘tree of products’

“First we had candle light, then the incandescent light, next the energy-saving Compact Fluorescent Lamp or CFL, and now the LED lamp.” Huub shows me the carefully crafted figures in his book, filled with mad-induced evolutionary ‘trees of technology’. “Seeing this pattern of evolutionary development within the history of products, allows us to gain a more holistic view of innovation.”

“People often think innovation needs to be disruptive and radical to be any good, suggesting that every invention should be entirely new and special. I think this is a fallacy. Innovation is way more nuanced.”

“We follow the tree branches of technological descent down to their roots, from the highest complexities we see around us nowadays, to the simplicity of early human tools. At some points in the trees, branches sprout, this is where a disruptive new technology emerged, upon which many others were built, like the high variety of products that came after we discovered and enabled electricity, or the world wide web. A speciation event of technology, one might say.”

Genes for biology, memes for technology

Information travels through the biological trees of life (similar to the one Darwin drew many years ago) stored in our genetics, our DNA. How does that work for technology?

“In biology, you have genes that contain masses of stored information. In technology, you don’t have genes but knowledge. I recognize two types of knowledge: the ‘know-how’, the knowledge of how to make something, and the ‘know-what’, the knowledge of functionality, the ‘why’ you make your design. This knowledge accumulates over time and manifests in a product.”

“Darwin, at the time of writing his book ‘On the Origin of Species’, had no idea there was such a thing as DNA or genetics; he showed that knowledge of this small carrier of biological information is not needed to get a good sense of the patterns of evolution. Nowadays we also don’t have a clear idea of the smallest ‘carrier’ of our knowledge within technology.”

Today, if we would try to approach an understanding of this carrier, the term ‘memetics’ comes to mind.

“Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist, brought the idea of memes into the world as a sidetrack of his book ‘The Selfish Gene’. The concept of the meme as a unit of knowledge, information and ideas has become a widely used term. However, it did not lead to scientific breakthrough, as we cannot measure this unit of information yet.”

On reproduction, extinction and niches

“Memes live in the minds of the people, in books, in photos. They’re in that sense not inextricably connected to products, like genes are tied to organisms. It is therefore hard for product-species to go extinct: as long as memories of the products exist, you can reproduce them – unlike in biology, where you need the species to be alive to reproduce.”

Memes are traveling further and faster as global communication has flourished over the last few decades. “This ever faster spread of information is probably responsible for increasing the speed of evolution of products across the globe, but it also made certain products more uniform across the world. Nevertheless, I think the variety in cultures will keep causing differences in the products. You’ll find large cars in America where towns were laid out for cars, and small cars in the centuries old cities of Europe that have more narrow roads, and moreover, levy more tax on fuel.”

The Darwin of products?

Combining biology and technology is most strongly articulated in the title of the publication, a clear nod towards Darwin’s revolutionary book ‘On the Origin of Species‘. “The title of the book was more of a joke to us in the long list of titles we send to the publisher. But they immediately went for it.”

After publishing the book, Huub was eager to make sure the knowledge wouldn’t remain within the pages. “A dream of mine is to spark a new educational system around this perspective. A question would be, if we can find a way to minimize negative technologies and simulate positive technologies through the lens of it – I sure hope so.”

“I hope that through reading these stories, people will gain a fascination for technological evolution. Technology and society adapt to each other continuously. Technological development manifests itself more as gradual evolution, not a sequence of brilliant discoveries of genius inventors, but an interaction of the environment, ideas, many people, and a rich evolution that builds on previous developments.”

On the Origin of Products‘ is published by Cambridge University Press and co-authored by NNN member Huub Ehlhardt. Over the next few weeks, Huub takes us on a intellectual joyride on the origins of the word processor, LED lamp, e-bike and smartphone. Stay tuned!

Cover art by Cyanne van den Houten.

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