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PEARL and autocatalysis: how a laboratory actively helps its researchers to collaborate

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

An image of a wide expanse of savanna in Zimbabwe. A wide horizon, big sky, grass underfoot, occasional trees and small hills in the distance
A savanna in Zimbabwe

This image is of a savanna - in this case in Zimbabwe. The human species has evolved to enable us to live successfully in such an environment. Our vision system is ready to capture small details far away, our hearing system is able to hear tiny sounds far away - and we have a special part of the brain that is simply to join these two together, so that when you hear a tiny sound far away, your eyes are able to focus very rapidly on the source of the noise. In PEARL we are trying to see how these basic evolved capabilities might be used in the more challenging vertical, hard urban environment: can we design such a place to work with our evolved capabilities rather than challenge and confuse them? To do this we have to create worlds where we can manipulate multisensory information to learn how people respond. PEARL is a laboratory where we can do this.

But to achieve this we have to consider PEARL in a very open and flexible way. The PEARL building is not just a "laboratory" in the common sense of the term. Of course it is a space where we can control ambient conditions and then test in detail how people respond to known stimuli - and in that sense it is just like any other laboratory. However, it is also more than this. It might be better to view PEARL as a whole organism comprising the people within it, the building and its equipment, and the working practices and operating systems, all working together in a way that we characterise as ‘autocatalytic’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines autocatalysis as: “Catalysis in which one of the products of the reaction is a catalyst for the reaction"

Catalysis is a process whereby a substance assists a chemical reaction to occur, or to occur more rapidly/strongly, but without affecting the state of the catalyst. Autocatalysis is where the catalyst is affected by the reaction in that it proceeds to catalyse even further, so that it becomes a stronger catalyst as a result. This is a process that is familiar in analyses of the history of the planet earth, for example, by Wim Hordijk (Hordijk W (2013) Autocatalytic Sets: from the origins of life to the economy, BioScience, 63(11) pp877-881). Beyond the strict chemical interpretation of the term, this idea that a process can improve itself is very interesting for a laboratory like PEARL, where we are exploring new ideas at the edge of current understanding.

We see autocatalysis arising in three ways at PEARL.

First, our organisational structure removes the boundaries between different parts of our work – the academics, researchers, making and production team and enabling team all contribute to the endeavour and all work together to achieve new understanding. All work in the same space and the ability to collaborate is encouraged across the functional areas. The more we learn how to work together in this way, the more we can create new thinking and new ideas.

Secondly, the technology in PEARL is designed to allow interactions to happen. All the sensory systems are connected using the sort of technology used in theatres to combine lighting, sound and other effects in a single multifunctional cohesive way. As we learn what happens when such synchronicity happens, we can develop new ideas for greater interactions and therefore we can explore synergies in more depth. Thus our learning deepens as a result of the learning we achieve.

Thirdly, as we learn more, the building itself reacts because we increase its capabilities as we understand more, and so the process continues to develop. This was core to the design of the building: it is a scientific instrument in its own right, that enables us to understand the differences arising from dynamically changing combinations of multiple environmental stimuli.

PEARL creates a new learning world that supports, enhances and develops the ideas we are creating there, and autocatalysis then enables the whole organism to evolve as a result. PEARL is designed to create a whole new approach to the evolution of learning and understanding, to deconstruct the barriers between the arbitrary and historic divisions of science, arts and engineering, and to create new modes of learning, collaborating, operating, functioning, performing and communicating.

The 'PEARL organism' encourages every one of us to think outside our current knowledge about how to create a better world, and this causes us to create new ways of thinking about how to achieve that. PEARL has the capability to respond to these new thoughts by enabling us to try out our new outside-focused thinking, and this in turn helps to help us think even more differently. To evolve rather than just replicate, the organism needs to think outside itself. In low level practical terms, this means that when people ask "can we do X in PEARL?", the answer is basically "Yes!" – although in many cases we will need to figure out exactly how to do it... It is this sense of PEARL inspiring and propelling itself – and thus the people working within it – to ever greater ways of making the world better for people and planet that characterises PEARL and makes it autocatalytic.

So how do we make PEARL autocatalytic?

For example, every aspect of the environments used for our experiments pushes the boundaries of the possible - we can light the space in more detail and depth than anywhere else, we can create auditory ambiences and introduce olfactory experiences, not just one by one, but all together. After all, this is how we, as a species, experience the world, so if we want to understand how people interact with the environment we need to be able to recreate all the opportunities and experiences used by the brain to create our perceptions of the world. This means exploring the effects of cross-modality - where one sensory experience changes how another responds (how taste is changed as a result of characteristics of music being heard whilst tasting, or how some colours are enhanced in what we see whilst we smell a particular type of scent).

But all this is ordinary! What makes PEARL even more autocatalytic is that we are using these immersive experiences to enable all the people experiencing these opportunities to develop their own thinking and activity to create that new understanding. PEARL is not just about creating a 'new science' or a 'new art', but is about creating a whole new thought-world in which ideas, thoughts and practices can be conceived, nurtured and grown to enable humanity to progress beyond its present intellectual cul-de-sac. So we designed the Riff – the space where researchers, makers/producers, enablers and academics come together to stimulate, create, develop and explore their ideas – with as much care as the laboratory space itself.

Here are a few examples...

- There are no desks in the Riff – we have tables, benches, and hubs instead. The tables are six-sided, so that encounters between people happen at 60 degrees rather than 90 or 180 - because that is a much more friendly, informal and casual way to meet. It enables the initial greeting - the "Hi" - to be just that, or the starting point for a conversation, according to how people respond to each other in that initial quick and easy phase of the encounter. This helps collaboration and cooperation.

- All the furniture is easy to move so that people can move it wherever they want to put it. Because the sides of the tables are different lengths, they can create different shapes of combinations of tables - a 'ring', or a 'chain' or concave or convex etc. - according to their needs at the time. Tables can be raised or lowered to provide different working heights as people choose.

- We have a wide range of different seating, from floor cushions to stools, sofas, postural chairs, high and low conventional chairs and mushroom stools, so that people can sit how and where they want at the time.

- The colour tones in the space are designed to match the greens and ochres outside the building so that they represent the natural environment more closely.

- The space is large with few vertical obstacles so that viewing lines are comfortable for people to see each other, but designed so that it is also possible to be more secluded if desired. "Open" or "closed" working is a choice, not an imposition!

- Large screens and monitors can be moved around to enable groups to collaborate and to create good collective spaces for discussion.

- The deep window reveals enable us to have private spaces for those times when more individual space is helpful.

Picture of a space with soft furniture
Flexible seating in the Riff, showing some of the different types of seating and the 6-sided tables

All of this is so that PEARL can help people come up with great ideas, share and collaborate and create new ways of thinking about how we as a species could live better in a better world by designing it more appropriately for the way we have evolved. PEARL is a kind of flexible savanna really, in the sense that it is designed to be sympathetic to how people’s vision, hearing and other senses work. In turn, it helps to create the ambience for people to create better ideas about how they do things - "autocatalytic" indeed!

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