Ron Eglash


Professor, Stamps School of Art and Design, University of Michigan

Engineered Ecosystems

Before colonization, Indigenous groups had established principles that kept humans and nature intertwined in complex but balanced relations. “Engineered landscapes” such as controlled burns, clam gardens on the Pacific coast, and agricultural islands in Mexico’s lakes created artificial ecosystems that were both productive and sustainable. The science of aquaponics has recreated this approach by mixing fish cultivation and hydroponic plant growth. In this website you can learn more about the Indigenous tradition of engineered ecosystems, and create your own hydroponics system with electronic sensing to keep the system in balance.

Ron Eglash grew up in California during the 1960s, where a heady mix of bohemian scientists and social activism inspired his undergraduate studies in cybernetics. Following a masters in systems engineering, he briefly worked in the silicon valley’s chip manufacturing industry, and then returned for a doctorate in the History of Consciousness program at UCSC. Encouraged by his advisor Donna Haraway to “stay in touch with your inner scientist” Eglash began an investigation of fractal patterns in aerial photos of African villages. A postdoctoral Fulbright in West and Central Africa allowed him a year to conduct ethnographic research, where he documented how indigenous concepts of recursion created fractal patterns throughout African design practices. His book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design became a TED talk with over 1.5 million views; a simulation used in math and computing education; and a broad influence in black studies. Fractals inspired by Eglash’s work now appear in black literature such as Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti; in AfroFuturist arts, and even in contemporary African architecture.

Eglash later expanded his work to form a new discipline, “ethnocomputing”. With over $7 million in NSF funding, his suite of simulations, Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDTs) have been used in US schools from Alaska to Florida, as well as international locations, to allow students to learn math and computing through “heritage algorithms” that include Navajo weaving patterns, Latino percussion ratios, cornrow braid iterations and the nonlinear curves of urban graffiti.

His most recent work, “Generative Justice,” develops an alternative economic theory. “Both the political right and political left” Eglash explains “are focused on value extraction: socialism to the state and capitalism to corporations.” His alternative model would keep value in unalienated forms at the grassroots, and circulate it rather than extract it–a process he maintains is already happening with the rise of makerspaces, urban agriculture and the “artisanal economy”. His work in this area examines how digital fabrication, AI and other innovations can be used to nurture and sustain generative justice.