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01.09.2012 | Ausgabe 3/2012 Open Access

Natural Computing 3/2012

Evolutionary mechanics: new engineering principles for the emergence of flexibility in a dynamic and uncertain world

Natural Computing > Ausgabe 3/2012
James M. Whitacre, Philipp Rohlfshagen, Axel Bender, Xin Yao


Engineered systems are designed to deftly operate under predetermined conditions yet are notoriously fragile when unexpected perturbations arise. In contrast, biological systems operate in a highly flexible manner; learn quickly adequate responses to novel conditions, and evolve new routines and traits to remain competitive under persistent environmental change. A recent theory on the origins of biological flexibility has proposed that degeneracy—the existence of multi-functional components with partially overlapping functions—is a primary determinant of the robustness and adaptability found in evolved systems. While degeneracy’s contribution to biological flexibility is well documented, there has been little investigation of degeneracy design principles for achieving flexibility in systems engineering. Actually, the conditions that can lead to degeneracy are routinely eliminated in engineering design. With the planning of transportation vehicle fleets taken as a case study, this article reports evidence that degeneracy improves the robustness and adaptability of a simulated fleet towards unpredicted changes in task requirements without incurring costs to fleet efficiency. We find that degeneracy supports faster rates of design adaptation and ultimately leads to better fleet designs. In investigating the limitations of degeneracy as a design principle, we consider decision-making difficulties that arise from degeneracy’s influence on fleet complexity. While global decision-making becomes more challenging, we also find degeneracy accommodates rapid distributed decision-making leading to (near-optimal) robust system performance. Given the range of conditions where favorable short-term and long-term performance outcomes are observed, we propose that degeneracy may fundamentally alter the propensity for adaptation and is useful within different engineering and planning contexts.

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