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Less than systems

Systems offer a functional understanding of parts and their relations. As has been explained by architect Christopher Alexander, the word “system” encapsulates two internal meanings that need to be distinguished. As he explained.

In order to speak of something as a System, we must be able to state clearly: (1) The Holistic behaviour we are focusing on; (2) The parts within the thing, and the interaction among these parts, which cause the holistic behaviour we have defined; (3) The way in which this interaction among these parts, causes the holistic behaviour defined."

For Alexander, there is a distinction between the holistic properties of the system and the generative ruleset defined by the kit of parts. He uses the term “generative system” to identify the latter, and he describes it as follows:

We may generalize the notion of a generative system. Such a system will usually consist of a kit of parts (or elements) together with rules of combining them to form “allowable" things. The formal systems of mathematics are systems in this sense. The parts are numbers, variables, and signs like + or —. The rules specify ways of combining these parts to form expressions, ways of forming expressions from other expressions, and ways of forming true sentences, hence theorems of mathematics. Any combination of parts which is not formed according to the rules is either meaningless or false.12

From this perspective, discrete design engages with the development of generative systems but drops the requirement of those parts to acquire their meaning from holistic relations. Discrete design identifies a kit of parts, i.e., an initially finite set that allows for a multiplicity of assemblies, and places special emphasis on maintaining assemblies open-ended; aiming to couple the combinatorial potential of parts with social systems that can define patterns. While in technical terms, the definition of the set is finite, it is also open-ended as new social agents are able to introduce new parts expanding the combinatorial surplus of the set.

As established in Chapter 2, parametric design has co-opted the rhetoric of complex adaptive systems (CAS) that use bottom-up phenomena to remain open, generating adaptable designs. However, CAS simulations often only live in a closed environment, where computation is deterministic. Without a feedback mechanism, like the input of a social system, these simulations remain examples of deterministic top-down design. No input can alter the pre-established syntax of a parametric model. On the other hand, discrete design makes explicit a protocol for coordination, often via standardized joinery, allowing for new units to alter the definition of a whole.

The open-ended nature of discrete assemblies can be understood through the distinction between open and closed systems as presented by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

Bertalanffy distinguishes an open system simply verifying the existence of external feedback, a mechanism that allows the system to self-regulate and maintain itself in a dynamic equilibrium.13 As explained by Bertalanffy, the notion of an open system has properties of equifinality, understood as the property of reaching a given state through different means. The notion of a state in a system is the condition where holistic properties emerge. This is what Alexander calls a holistic behavior. In order for discrete design to further dismantle the necessity of a whole as a fixed condition or state, it is necessary to explore alternative mereological models of wholeness. It is possible to consider an assembly in a far more dynamic state, where units remain autonomous.

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