Image: Richard Hindle's drawing of Juan Bautista Medici's US Patent 658,795, “System for Formation of Permanent Channels in Navigable Rivers,” of a bosque or garden within the delta. In this configuration, a series of “islets” would be situated at each of the main passes to define channel geometry. A secondary grid matrix would extend across vast horizontal areas to create a subsurface bathymetric “bosque,” intended to stabilize and augment the delta through the accretion of sediments. Image courtesy Richard Hindle.
Richard Hindle, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at the College of Environmental Design, published an article in the Journal of Architectural Education on the dynamic relationship between patents and complex earth systems of the Mississippi River. Titled “Patent Scenarios for the Mississippi River,” Hindle explores the implications of four site-specific inventions granted between 1890 and 1901 that may have altered the morphology of the Mississippi and led to radically different futures for the river.
Hindle begins by explaining that throughout the last six centuries of Western technological progress the conflation of manufacturing, mechanization, and patents has resulted in a distinct object-oriented bias toward things. However, Hindle argues that a look back into the annals of the United States Patent and Trademark Office through the contemporary lens of the Anthropocene reveals that large-scale environmental systems, such as rivers and coasts, are also represented in patents and have been subject to the iterative and projective forces of patent innovation.
To illustrate the reciprocity between patents and complex earth systems, Hindle looks at the implications of US Patent 658,795, a method for building navigable channels in the bird's foot delta of the Mississippi; US Patent 452,989, syncopating floods, farming, and riparian ecology throughout the Mississippi's watershed; US Patent 488,422: spillways, tail races, and sediment recharge in the lower Mississippi Delta; and US Patent 687,387, self-dredging channel at the mouth of the Mississippi.
“Each invention, as described in the original patent document, has unique geographical dimensions and instrumentality that transcend the object orientation of typical patents and evoke the scale, scope, and contingencies of innovation in the Anthropocene,” Hindle writes. “As projections of speculative futures, the patents also frame new and discursive visions for the Mississippi River.”
When compared to geologic time frames, the post-settlement “anthropogenic” history of the Mississippi River is relatively short, spanning just 300 years. Yet transformations of the river by levees, dams, urbanization, and more have been “cataclysmic, leading to subsidence, hypoxia, and loss of the river's ancestral fluvial territory,” Hindle says. Today, he argues, the collapse of the Mississippi Delta is a very real possibility even though patent documents have disclosed technology to reconcile natural river processes with human necessity for over a century.
“The existence of alternative scenarios reveals a counterfactual history in which collapse of the river system was not an inevitable result of human technological intervention but instead a failure to innovate,” he writes. “Individually the patents challenge assumptions about the scale, scope, and agency of conventional patents, reframing the river as technology and defying object-oriented biases. Collectively they uncover something even more radical—the possibility of an alternate innovation model in which bottom-up sociotechnical processes of patent innovation reinvent rivers and complex environmental systems.”
Hindle concludes that as our understanding of the Anthropocene continues to evolve, from a geologic epoch to a projective framework for planetary management, the boundary between the technosphere and earth systems will collapse. At this frontier, the agency of architects, landscape architects, and planners will be reinvented in response to a shifting design paradigm that extends design thinking and “work” beyond discrete sites and buildings, and into large-scale and complex systems.
“Patents have a 600-year history of building complex infrastructures and sociotechnical systems,” he concludes. “Might the distinct agency, instrumentality, and legal mechanisms of the global patent system be employed to invent rivers and complex environmental systems of the future?”
You can read Professor Hindle’s article in full here.