Copying is the strategy of cultural evolution.
Cross-fertilization, borrowing other’s ideas and incorporating elements of other’s culture into one’s own is crucial to cultural development.

Lecture Co-Thenticity @ Dutch Design Institute, Beijing Design Week, Beijing, 28 september 2011


Copying is also the strategy of cultural evolution. It is faulty copying – based on misunderstandings – thus permitting new interpretations. Cross-fertilization, borrowing other’s ideas and incorporating elements of other’s culture into one’s own is crucial to cultural development. Similar to the faulty DNA-copies being the motor of natural evolution, the motor of cultural development is not just copying but faulty copying. So the strategy is: Copy & Change!


When living cells divide, DNA is copied, so that each new cell has a complete set of genetic instructions. Copying is an eternal concept and the basic reproduction method in nature. But evolution is mainly based on faulty copying. Faulty copying, making mistakes within the DNA copy process is the evolutionary strategy of nature. A mutation, meaning the faulty copy of the DNA sequence of a gene, is normally bad news. But sometimes it provides a survival advantage to the mutated organism that then leaves more offspring (copies of its genes) in the population than the non-mutated organisms.

Copying is also the strategy of cultural evolution. And again it is faulty copying – based on misunderstandings – thus permitting new interpretations. Cross-fertilization, borrowing other’s ideas and incorporating elements of other’s culture into one’s own is crucial to cultural development. Similar to the faulty DNA-copies being the motor of natural evolution, the motor of cultural development is not just copying but faulty copying. So the strategy is: Copy & Change!

In his essay entitled “Race and History”, written for UNESCO in 1952, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous anthropologist, contrasts cumulative, dynamic, “moving cultures” with “static”, non-developing cultures. He argues that intercultural connections and cross-fertilization are crucial to the development of differentiated civilizations. Within the human history, interchange, the mixing and fusing of concepts and ideas – thus cultural hybridization – enabled the development of variations, of deviations, of new notions and neologisms, forming the motor of cumulative, dynamic, “moving” cultures.


This approach of considering human civilization as a dynamic network of exchange is gaining in interest today. Historians such as William Hardy McNeill and John Robert McNeill in their book “The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History” describe the motor of history as the growing web of interactions, weaving together hunter-gatherer bands, then civilizations and finally the whole world, by which people, goods, diseases and – crucial – ideas spread.

Such a reading of human history is a reflection of the cultural shift we are experiencing today. Away from a mindset based on clear-cut categories and identities, the focus is shifting to interconnections and networks. This upcoming network paradigm is closely connected to the fact that digital networks are radically changing the way we live, interact and perceive our world.

Politics, economics, warfare, culture are increasingly taking place in the spaces of information-communication, of media networks. These emerging digital networks are influencing and interacting with our ‘real’ places, modifying the social, economic, and cultural organization of our societies in general.

The theoretical reference to this upcoming network paradigm is Network Science. Network Science examines the interconnections of networked systems and analyzes complex relational data in very diverse fields of work. It is an interdisciplinary approach and can be seen as the further development of complexity theories of 80ies and 90ies. Network Science focuses on the complex networks of exchange and aims to develop an a X-ray view to understand how dynamic complex systems develop and function.


Networked organizations and systems are today transforming our society in general, as described by Manuel Castells in his sociology classic “The Rise of the Network Society”. Political uprisals such as the Arab Revolution, the Indignados, the Take the Square or Occupy Wall Street movements are using mobile media networks and social media tools. In their distrust of established political forces and parties, they contest the concept of the ‘political expert’. Creating independent self-publication channels and demanding ‘direct democracy’, they form fluctuating networked political forces.

Networked systems are also transforming knowledge production; think of the Wikipedia, ‘the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit’. Co-operation, co-authorship and open-source are to be found in many contemporary cultural expressions and phenomena, such as, for example, Wikimedia Commons, the free media file repository making available public domain and freely licensed educational media content (images, sound and video clips) to everyone.

Users, aided by improvements in information-communication technology are increasingly developing their own new products and services, ‘democratising’ innovation. These innovating users often freely share their innovations with others, creating user-innovation communities and a rich intellectual commons.

The word “prosumer” is used in this context to describe the type of consumer who becomes involved in the design and manufacturing of products, so they can be made to his individual specification. The word “prosumer” blends the roles of producer and consumer and was first coined in 1980 by the futurist Alvin Toffler in his book “The Third Wave”.

Today the “prosumer” can be engaged in innovation and design as well as in the manufacturing of products that fit his individual specifications and needs. In the last years 3D printing has developed to a low cost technology that everyone can use to produce objects. 3D printing allows industrial production on a desktop scale enabling autonomous production for individuals and designers. This development of object production is enabled by the Internet and by the acceleration of technological developments and open source communities. The digital blue prints of objects are designed in 3D software and can be shared via digital networks. On special Internet platforms people share these open source 3D designs that can be produced via rapid prototyping with 3D printers.

In this context the juxtaposition of the notions of ‘copy’ versus ‘authenticity’ and ‘originality’ is becoming obsolete. As the designs are co-authored by the participants who adjust or improve them, one can not speak of authentic designs any more but of co-thenticity.


The Simple City forum developed by Hybrid Space Lab is specially meant as an interface for the co-thorship and co-curatorship of urban projects by professionals and laymen. The design of this simulated urban environment can be broken down to simple elements that can be copied and modified (Copy & Change) by the users of the city.

Laymen and city-users by copying, pasting and modifying the basic elements can easily adapt the urban design in order to develop new urban settings. They can thus co-author this interface that enables the communication of dynamic and networked information on urban projects.

An example of a Simple City application is the CITY_KIT project developed for the Hong Kong Social Housing Authority with as a target group young people that are familiar with computer games but hardly play outside. Playing the CITY_KIT game, the residents can adapt and improve their local physical environment by building a digital version of their neighborhood.

Using modular building components that can be moved around and fixed in certain places in the environment, users can build micro-stages, exhibition decks, floating bars and theatres, swimming pools and other recreational facilities that make living in the neighborhood more fun.

CITY_KIT is an open-source medium in which participants can add elements and share their designs. An online platform in the form of a website allows residents to actively take part in the game. All it takes is a simple click of the mouse to interactively test your own virtual version of CITY_KIT.

“CITY_KIT of the Day” is a contest under way on the website. Residents and game users can design their own objects and facilities; the winner gets a chance to actually carry out his or her idea. On the website, the user can also pinpoint exactly where a digital object would be located in the analogue world. This can be done using a mobile phone, RFID or a GPS system.

The goal of CITY_KIT is to help you revalue your local surroundings and incorporate the new, imaginative layers created in CITY_KIT’s virtual world. Making small modifications to the personal, physical environment in digital space changes the experience of living in the real world.

Outcome of the CITY_KIT project was the DIY Pavilion, first presented at the waterfront promenade of Hong Kong within the framework of the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-city Biennial of Urbanism and Architecture 2009-2010 and later set up at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre and at the Kwai Tsing Theatre in Hong Kong.

The pavilion’s architecture is based on an architectural design principle with a flexible structure that can adapt to site and program requirements, to different content, context and spatial situations. The pavilion consists of triangular plywood plates sown together with the help of cable binders. It is a flexible mobile structure to be easily disassembled, transported, reassembled and sown together again, adjusting to the size of the site and the local requirements. Videos on urban issues were projected on the triangular crystalline structure of the pavilion’s interior as the pavilion travelled to the different locations for community education.

The structure of the pavilion architectural design principle makes it possible to involve the users in the design, building and transformation of the pavilion. Both with CITY_KIT and the DIY Pavilion the users share and co-author their design, creating spaces of co-thenticity.


Exchange, cross-fertilization – Copy & Change – are not just the central concept of evolution and development in nature and culture. In contemporary “network society” networked co-operation and co-authorship are gaining in relevance. Co-thenticity is replacing the “©-culture” logics of the industrial age, where the creative one designed for the non-creative masses. The upcoming creative economy and society (of ‘forced leisure’) based on the affluence of networked creativity have to find other functioning modes then the ones that consider creativity as a scarce good to be protected by copyright regulations.

Not only do we need new working business models but also social strategies to support in a sustainable way the upcoming creative economy and society of co-thenticity. This calls for a general social debate. Such a discussion would trespass the still narrow boundaries of a professional field and could put design in the centre of a discourse addressing general social issues.


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