Sunday 23 February 2014

On Bricolage

I first came across the word bricolage about 20 years ago from a French student who was working with me. He used it in an affectionate way to describe a piece of scientific equipment that he and I had put together from pieces of kit we had lying around the lab. It was his description of the process of tinkering around that we had used to make the thing work. 

The key characteristic of bricolage as a way of working is the use and re-use of materials that already exist to create something new. It is the recruiting of already available bits and pieces to solve the new and immediate problem. It is the opposite of top down, rational design, it is evolutionary and open-ended. It is also great fun. 

I was first taught how to do bricolage by my Dad who was by training a motor mechanic. He had learnt in the 1940's that in order to have a chance of mending a car, for which parts and spares may be non-existent or rare, one had better have a good odds & sods box of screws, springs, bushes, bolts, angle brackets and other assorted pieces of material that may be useful at some indeterminate point in the future. People with a more tidy cast of mind would describe the contents of a good odds & sods box as junk.

The French molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Fran├žois Jacob (1920 - 2013) famously described evolution as bricolage. At the level of genes, evolution is surprisingly conservative and once a useful piece of biology has been obtained through natural selection it is used and re-used again and again. In The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998) Ursula Goodenough defines bricolage in this context as; the construction of things using what is at hand, the patchwork quilt.
The trader turned philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb also uses the idea of bricolage to describe his approach to optionality in research and investment.
Bricolage comes from the French word bricoleur. As far as I know there is no single english word that translates this word well. Candidates would include bodger and tinker, but both have a negative connotation or imply a low level of skill. Nevertheless, I think bodger is the best we have. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the earliest use of the word as:

1552   R. Huloet Abcedarium Anglico Latinum,   Bodger, botcher, mender, or patcher of olde garmentes.

This is close perhaps to the idea of patchwork, which is appropriate.

Once you have bricolage in mind, you can find examples everywhere. 

The public open space of the City of London as it is today, the result of nearly five hundred years of building, re-building, tinkering and bricolage. Original image from Space Is The Machine by Bill Hillier, cleaned up and re-coloured.