Copy Culture

Design Culture is obsessed with authenticity.

Copying is often deemed reprehensible, and borrowing another’s idea or incorporating elements of his or her work into one’s own is viewed as a sign of creative impoverishment.

But is this right?

Hybridization is an evolutionary strategy of cumulative, dynamic cultures that are based on intercultural connections and fostered by cross-fertilization.

Lecture Hybrid Culture @ Beijing Design Week 2011, Dutch Design Foundation, Symposium Copy Culture, 798, Beijing, 27 September 2011


Design culture is obsessed with authenticity. Copying is often deemed reprehensible, and borrowing another’s idea or incorporating elements of his or her work into one’s own is viewed as a sign of creative impoverishment. But is this right? What’s wrong with interpreting someone else’s creation? Musicians have been quoting each other’s work for centuries – why shouldn’t the same thing happen in other creative disciplines? Where does quotation end and copying begin?

Businesses and creators diligently protect their creative, technical and technological property – rightly so, as large sums are often invested in their development. But is intellectual property protection appropriate in an age of digital distribution, when it’s difficult to identify a product’s author, maker or inventor? And in a culture in which quotation and copying have long led to enrichment and innovation, should these acts be made impossible?

After a successful symposium in Berlin, Premsela and DMY International Design Festival Berlin travelled to Beijing with the Association of Dutch Designers for a second edition on 27 September, during the city’s design week. We discussed attitudes to copying in design with Bert de Muynck, an architect, writer and co-founder of MovingCities; graphic designer and art director Ronald Tau; Jiang Jun, a designer, critic and founding editor of Urban China magazine; intellectual property lawyer Allen Wang; Frans Vogelaar, a partner at Berlin’s Hybrid Space Lab and Cologne’s Academy for Media Arts; and Anouk Siegelaar, a legal specialist with the Association of Dutch Designers.


Cultural hybridization is based on the transfer, the mixing, the copying of ideas.

Copying is an eternal concept, to be found in nature: copying is the basic reproduction method in nature. DNA is copied when cells divide, so that each new cell has a complete set of genetic instructions. But development – evolution in nature – is mainly based on faulty copying. Faulty copying, meaning making mistakes within the copy process is the evolutionary strategy of nature: a mutation is a faulty copy of the DNA sequence of a gene.

A mutation is normally bad news – but sometimes a mutation provides a survival advantage to the mutated organism that then leaves more offspring (copies of its genes) than the non-mutated organisms in the population.
Copying is also the strategy of cultural evolution. It is not just copying – but faulty copying – based on misunderstandings, new interpretations, variations and evolutions of ideas and concepts while they are introduced in a new cultural environment. Cross-fertilization, borrowing other’s ideas and incorporating elements of other’s work into one’s own is crucial to cultural development: 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 and argues that intercultural connections and cross-fertilization are crucial to the development of differentiated civilizations.


Similar to the faulty DNA-copies being the motor of natural evolution, the motor of cultural development is not just copying but faulty copying. Within the human history, variations and new ideas and neologisms form the motor of the cumulative, dynamic, “moving”, developing cultures.

So the strategy is: Copy & Change!

This was enabled in the context of the Mediterranean by the Greek culture. The region around the Mediterranean was a nexus enabled by water making interchange and thus cultural development possible. The Greek culture was the first culture that had into its disposal a tool for Copy & Change, a tools for assimilating concepts and ideas -from, for example, Egypt or the Middle East- for intermixing them, making variations and developing them further. This instrument was the Greek alphabet.
The Greek alphabet is a set of twenty-four letters that has been used to write the Greek language from the 8th century BC onwards. From the Greek alphabet derived the Latin alphabet used by Western languages such as English.
The Greek alphabet itself descended from the Phoenician alphabet. Phoenicia was an ancient civilization, an enterprising maritime trading culture that was based on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and spread across the Mediterranean sea from 1550 BC to 300 BC. But the Phoenicians never developed such a dynamic civilization as the ancient Greek one. And this has also to do with one important difference in their alphabets. There is one important difference between the Phoenician and the Greek alphabet: The Phoenician alphabet does not have vowels whereas the Greek one has (show). So in order to read a Phoenician word one had to know that word. One could not just make a variation to that word or create new words.


On the contrary the Greek alphabet enabled not only non-natives to read Greek (as the words were precisely defined by the letters) but also made it much more easy to create new words and thus new notions enabling the development of the cumulative, dynamic, “moving” culture of the ancient Greek civilization.
In culture as well as in nature, faulty copying (Copy & Change) and the development of variations and deviations is the motor of evolution and development. Interchange and cross-fertilization, meaning, borrowing other’s ideas and incorporating elements of other’s work into one’s own is crucial to cultural development.
Hybridization – the mixing and fusing of concepts and ideas – is an evolutionary strategy of cumulative, dynamic cultures.


Today there is great interest in this approach – looking at the human civilization as a dynamic network of exchange. Historians such as the McNeills, 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.


We are experiencing today a cultural shift away from a mindset based on clear-cut categories and identities. The focus is shifting to the interconnections and networks. This has to do with the fact that digital networks are radically changing the way we live, interact and perceive our world
Today, media networks are influencing and interacting with our ‘real’ places. Politics, economics, warfare, culture are increasingly taking place in the spaces of information-communication, of media networks. These emerging digital information-communication networks are modifying the social, economic, and cultural organization of our societies in general. We are experiencing a cultural shift towards a network paradigm based on interconnections and networks.

The theoretical reference to this upcoming Network Paradigm is Network Science.Network Science is the further development of complexity theories of 80ies and 90ies. It is also interdisciplinary approach that enables you to develop an a X-ray view to understand how complex systems develop and function.


Since the end of the 80ies we have been developing an urbanism that follows the “Network Paradigm”, a “soft urbanism”, a topological urbanism of relations and interconnections. We have been researching the urban networks (the media networks and the physical networks) in their interdependence and interplay. I will not go more into this as I will present the urban dimension of our work the day after tomorrow in the lecture “Hybrid City” within the framework of the “Smart City – Healthy City” conference to be held on the 29 September also here in the 751 Area in Beijing.


We have been developing a new interdisciplinary field of planning and design, ‘Soft Urbanism’ that explores the dynamic interaction of physical and communication networks.
Soft Urbanism provides infrastructures that enable the users of the city to influence urban developments. Soft Urbanism is thus a co-authored, open source urbanism.


Co-authorship and open-source are to be found in many contemporary cultural expressions and phenomena: Think of the Wikipedia “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” as well as of the Wikimedia Commons, the free media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content (images, sound and video clips) to everyone.


According to Eric von Hippel, Professor of Management of Innovation and Head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT, innovation is today rapidly becoming democratized. Users, aided by improvements in computer and communications technology, increasingly can develop their own new products and services. These innovating users – both individuals and firms – often freely share their innovations with others, creating user-innovation communities and a rich intellectual commons.
The trend toward democratized innovation can be seen in software and information products – most notably in the free and open-source software movement – but also in physical products. Examples of user innovation in action range from surgical equipment to surfboards to software security features. This emerging system of user-centered innovation can be profitable for users as they can develop new products and services for themselves, and it often pays users to reveal their innovations freely for the use of all. This innovative potential is drawn on by manufacturers that redesign their innovation processes, systematically seeking out innovations developed by users. Businesses – such as the custom semiconductor industry, for example – have learned to assist user-innovators by providing them with toolkits for developing new products.
The word “prosumer” is used in this context to describe the type of consumer who becomes involved in the design and manufacture of products, so they can be made to his individual specification. The word “prosumer” combines the roles of producer and consumer. This word was first coined in 1980 by the futurist Alvin Toffler – in his book “The Third Wave” – as a blend of “producer” and “consumer”.


Today the “prosumer” can be engaged in the innovation and design process 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.
Within the framework of the Beijing Design Week 2011 at the 751 location in Beijing we are conducting such a 3D printing workshop. We are teaching the participants how to use Do It Yourself 3D printers, how to share the digital design information of physical objects through Internet platforms and online communities where people share the open source 3D designs that can be produced via rapid prototyping and 3D printers.
The Hybrid Design workshop and exhibition at the Beijing Design Week has been made possible with the kind support of the Goethe-Institut China.


“Co-thenticity ” is becoming a cultural strategy. As another example I will shortly refer to a project we developed for a nature reserve exhibition in The Netherlands.
The nature reserve is on reclaimed land – as you know big parts of The Netherlands have been claimed from the sea – and that makes this reserve very interesting for scientists. As this nature reserve is of European relevance it is important to communicate it to the public. But people have very restricted access to the reserve in order not to disturb the proces of nature development. We therefore proposed an elevated building located at the edge as a public information point and exhibition space.  As there is a very active community of laymen that exchange information on environmental issues and photographs of wild life and birds via Internet forums, the exhibition will tap on this and will be curated via a data bank that is fed not only by professional researchers but also with the material these laymen, these wildlife- and bird-watchers, are supplying. So what you get a co-curated, co-authored exhibition.


We have developed a forum, called Simple City, specially meant as an interface for the co-thorship and co-curatorship of urban projects, not just by professionals but also by laymen. The design of this simulated urban environment can be broken down to simple elements that can be copied and modified (Copy & Change) by laymen and 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” is “City Kit”, a project developed for the Hong Kong Social Housing Authority. Target group were young people that are familiar with computer games but hardly play outside. With City Kit one can adapt a digital version of ones local surroundings according to ones desires. When they play 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, WCs, 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. Making small modifications to the personal, physical environment in digital space changes the experience of living in the real world. This is the goal of City Kit: to help you to revalue your local surroundings and incorporate the new, imaginative layers created in City Kit’s virtual world. City Kit is about hybrid gaming and about a prosumer urbanism. The users share and co-author their design, so there no question of authenticity but of co-thenticity.

Theme Park

The “Window of the World” is a known theme park located in Shenzhen. The “Window of the World” hosts about 130 reproductions of some of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. Within a day you can visit replicas of the most world known cultural heritage buildings and relate to cultural reference points – in this image the reference is European culture. This is more then just an economic, practical and low-carbon tourism service. The spatial references – being, for example, Paris and Italy – are also cultural references, pointing to a dominant global culture the visitors long to participate to, enhancing global cultural homogenization. Even if these copies and replicas are just mimicries, having only superficial resemblance to the authentic originals, as they are situated in a total different social, cultural and spatial context, they still refer to the so-called dominant culture of the colonial times.

Theme Park

But today the world has become more complex: more multi-polar and more layered. Here another Chinese theme park: The „World Joyland“, a videogame studio Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and StarCraft themed amusement park, is being built in the Wunjin district. What is here copied, the spatial references, are not real, physical, cites but the virtual spaces of well-known computer games. This theme park is another hybrid gaming example, where a virtual environment is copied and projected into physical space.


Today, you have hybrid cars, hybrid businesses, hybrid securities, hybrid plastics, hybrid plants, hybrid pigs… and hybrid boats – all reflecting a cultural shift away from a mindset based on clear-cut categories towards a flexible approach based on intermixtures, on interconnections and networks.


We are experiencing a cultural shift away from a mindset based on clear-cut categories and identities towards a flexible approach based on intermixtures, on interconnections and networks. Hybridization is becoming an increasingly important issue in the cultural field. Look at the attention paid to world literature; think of the 2008 Nobel Price for Literature given to Le Clézio. In this context we formulated the concept of “Idensity®”. “Idensity®” integrates the concept of “density” (density of connections) with the concept of “identity”.`

Identity can be seen as a networked identity following the network paradigm Network Science and “Idensity®” is a project about the hybrid identity of urbanite, about the mix and hybridization of culture.
Focusing on identities created by communication and interaction, could be a constructive approach to dealing with the global identity issues. subverting the old power and dominance of the colonializing culture corresponding to cultural mix typical for our global, post-colonial, civilization and fostering cultural hybridization, meaning the dynamic development of new cultural expressions

Winter Worm
Summer Herb

A mobile exhibition pavilion called “Winter Worm Summer Herb” we realized in Hong Kong refers to both to the co-authorship as well as to cultural hybridization.
The starting point of the pavilion was the Chinese star. The curator that invited us, a Hong Kong Chinese, send us per email as a reference the Chinese star and asked us to design a pavilion referring to this.
The pavilions name refers to the highly symbolic Chinese medicinal herb “Summer-Grass Winter-Worm” that grows in a metabolic way, transgressing seasonal change. The ‘Summer-Grass Winter-Worm’ herb forms when a parasitic fungus hijacks and devours the bodies of ghost moth larvae that have burrowed into the alpine soil. It then steers their bodies to the surface so it can spread its spores. The mutating nature of this herb corresponds to the new, ever-transforming condition of the many Asian world cities such as the Hong Kong/ Shenzhen metropolis at an era of post-colonial integration.

The pavilion consisted of triangular plywood plates sown together with the help of cable binders. It was a flexible mobile structure to be very easily disassembled, transported, reassembled and sown together again, adjusting to the size of the site and the local requirement. The pavilion’s architecture is based architectural design principle with a flexible structure that can adapt to site and program requirements, to different content, context and spatial situations. The structure of the pavilion architectural design principle makes it possible to involve the users in the design, building and transformation of the pavilion. It was 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 was set up at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre and at the Kwai Tsing Theatre in Hong Kong. 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.

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