(De)sign responses as response diversity


This article addresses the use of the ecological notion of ‘response diversity’ (Elmqvist et al. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1(9), 488–494, 2003) to develop a biocentric approach for natural-artificial continuums through the practice of design. The article elaborates upon examples from the project Dispersal machines, part of my postdoctoral research entitled Symbiotic tactics. Dispersal machines proposed two complementary artificial systems that were conceived to minimize the damages by a moth (Spodoptera frugiperda) on crops (corn and soy predominantly) in the agroecosystems of Córdoba, Argentina. The proposals were ideated to biologically control this species by interventions that disseminate and/or host species that predate or parasitize the moth at different stages of its life cycle: a diurnal response, based on the dissemination of parasitized eggs of the moth by a minute wasp (Telenomus remus), as well as a nocturnal response, based on the placement of refuges for bats that feed on the adult moth. Considering these design interventions through the notion of ‘semethic interaction’ (Hoffmeyer 2008) as it relates to the more general term, ‘semiosphere’, the article reflects upon (de)sign as a signifying activity and design’s ‘response-ability’ (Haraway 2016), to speculate upon ways to devise and acknowledge inter-species co-adaptive possibilities.

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  1. 1.

    The term ‘semiosphere’ was originally coined by Yuri Lotman and used in relation to (human) cultural processes, a term inspired by the notion of ‘biosphere’ coined by Vladimir Vernadsky. For a brief account of Hoffmeyer’s own interpretation of the concept see Hoffmeyer (2007); also, Kull (1998).

  2. 2.

    Here, I refer to ‘human’ as a simplified category and shorthand without intending to erase the cultural and historical difficulties of this term for this species as acknowledged by a vast literature of decolonial theory. For earlier work in relation to design and decoloniality see Ávila (2017). In the context of biosemiotics see Hendlin (2016), and in relation to the notion of species Kull (2016).

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Dunn (2018); Ávila and Ernstson (2019).

  4. 4.

    Etymologies consulted throughout this article are based on www.etymonline.com (February 2019).

  5. 5.

    Throughout this article, the notion of ‘care’ resonates with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017), as a non-normative concept that exposes a relation to some-thing, some-one, that includes overlapping degrees and dimensions of care: labor/work, affect/affections, ethics/politics (2017: 5). In other words: “[…] the double significance of care as an everyday labor of maintenance that conveys ethical obligation: we must take care of things in order to remain responsible for their becomings” (2017: 43).

  6. 6.

    There are several “others” that could be addressed. In her book The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti asks: Which other? The sexualized other, woman? The racialized other, the indigenous? The naturalised other, animals, plants, the earth? (see Braidotti 2013: 27, also Hoppe 2019). In this article I am paying attention to a few “naturalised others” for the human instrumental purpose of maintaining human food systems without impoverishing ecological dimensions.

  7. 7.

    Symbiotic Tactics was financed by the Swedish Research Council (Dnr: 438–2013-297) between 2013 and 2016. The design work developed during this period is a result from collaborations with many professionals and is based on research developed at the Multidisciplinary Institute of Vegetal Biology and other research groups within the Argentinean Research Council (CONICET). My design proposals, some of which are part of this chapter, have been developed together with designer Leonardo López.

  8. 8.

    Comparing rhythms of the disturbances occasioned by natural and artificial systems, Elmqvist et al. (2003: 489) comment: “Natural disturbances tend to be pulse disturbances with a characteristic magnitude and frequency distribution. Human activities tend to transform pulse disturbances into press or chronic disturbances (Bengtsson et al. 2003) and contribute to the creation of compounded perturbations (Paine et al. 1998). Sustaining desirable states of an ecosystem in the face of compounded perturbations requires that functional groups of species remain available for renewal and reorganization (Lundberg and Moberg 2003). Given the present human simplification of the biosphere and the ensuing loss of species, we cannot take this capacity for renewal and reorganization for granted (Chapin et al. 2000).”

  9. 9.

    The concept of ‘response diversity’ must be understood in its “overlaps” with the concept of ‘functional diversity’. “Both functional and response diversity are important in the rangeland. Functional diversity increases the performance of the plant community as a whole, bringing together species that take water from different depths, grow at different speeds, store different amounts of carbon and nutrients, and thus complement each other. Response diversity enables the community to keep performing in the same complementary way in the face of stresses and disturbances such as grazing and drought” (Elmqvist et al. 2003: 490).

  10. 10.

    Daniel Igarzabal is professor of agronomy at Universidad Católica de Córdoba. We also collaborated with Igarzabal for the rearing of moths and parasitoids in the laboratory of his consulting company, Halcón.

  11. 11.

    Spodoptera frugiperda is an insect belonging to the order Lepidoptera, family Noctuidae of the subfamily Xyleninae. Native of tropical zones, with ample geographic distribution in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Central and South America, Mexico and the South of the United States. In Argentina it is considered the main pest of the northwest and northeast.

  12. 12.

    See: http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses and the Bat Conservation Trust http://www.bats.org.uk; also, Alberico et al. (2004); Rueegger (2016).

  13. 13.

    Collaborating with Lourdes Boero, researcher from the National University of Córdoba who specializes in bats, we captured (with the use of nets at the fields where our intervention was placed), measured, and classified, four different species of bats in one night.

  14. 14.

    The project was further financed (following the original period 2013–2016 by the Swedish Research Council) as a development project by the Argentinean technology fund, Fontar. Ref: ANR 3500 C3 0152/16. Unfortunately, in spite of having obtained the funding, the money never reached our project, which delayed other applications and thwarted our initiatives and collaborations.

  15. 15.

    See: www.bats.org.uk.

  16. 16.

    As noted by Kalevi Kull (2012: 229): “Scaffolding is a reduction of degrees of freedom […] – and this is how scaffolding works, the reason it is useful.”

  17. 17.

    I am thankful to one of the undisclosed reviewers for pointing this out.

  18. 18.

    T. remus is a parasitoid that plays an important role in sustaining the diversity of other groups, by regulating populations of arthropods and by controlling dominant competitors. It belongs to the family Scelionidae, sub-family Telenominae. The Scelionidae family comprises only idiobiont endoparasitic insects as it develops completely inside the host egg. Scelionidae have been used successfully in classical biological control programs directed against Hemiptera and Lepidoptera. See Mason et al. (2006); Guarín Campo (2010).

  19. 19.

    For another similar type of biosemiotic description of multitrophic plant-herbivore-parasitoid-pathogen system see Bruni (2011). Note that the richness of the semiosphere is further used also by hyperparasitoids, attracted to the altered chemical nuances emitted by the plants through parasitized larvae. For a study of the added complexity of biological and ecological inter- and intra-actions of this type of parasitism by volatiles see also Poelman et al. (2012).

  20. 20.

    When the females of T. remus and T. pretiosum were placed together on the same postures of S. frugiperda, T. remus predominated. See Carneiro 2008.

  21. 21.

    See Estes et al. 2018. In their analysis, Estes et al. provide indications of how new artefacts and technologies, such as low-cost wireless sensors and autonomous vehicles, are already increasing the spatial and temporal coverage of ecological observations.


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Correspondence to Martín Ávila.

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Ávila, M. (De)sign responses as response diversity. Biosemiotics 13, 41–62 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-019-09374-8

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  • Design
  • Response diversity
  • Semethic interaction
  • Response-ability
  • Semiosphere