Musings on Exploring the Design Space

I have often made the point that rules are as much a driver in the development of racing sailboats as any other factor.

Access to manufacturing technology, knowledge of materials, power of computation, the accumulation of empirical knowledge, fashion, and the evolution of athletic technique all catalyse within the boundaries of the design space* as defined in the wording of class rules.

The rules act as a lens to both sharpen and distort the theoretical optimum tradeoffs.

This is often lamented as an undesirable constraint placed on the creativity of the designer, but, on analysis, it is both inevitable and inextricably linked with progress.

On some level every technical challenge is defined by its constraints. In fields such as civil engineering these might typically be budget, available resources, time frame, and physical boundaries such as geological features, existing infrastructure, or private property limits.
In the aeronautical world the brief may be bounded by a power source, required range, payload, runway length, and similar hard parameters, as well as client preferences.

In sport the constraints are necessarily arbitrary. In football (soccer) there is a stipulated prohibition on players using their hands to advance the ball. In motorsport, each category places limits on engine capacity, fuel potency, aspiration mechanism, chassis dimensions, aerodynamics and any number of other factors.

Quite apart from necessary safety aspects, some of these rules may exist to limit costs, but ultimately they can be traced to a common need to artificially constrain the terms of the game. This means closing off parts of the design space that could lead those who venture there either to a runaway win or down expensive blind alleys.

Competition does the rest. At times, holes in the boundaries of the design space need to be mended as competitors throw resources at methodically testing the edges as defined in the wording of the rules.
The pressure of competition pushes to uncover newly advantageous points in the space.

Patches, however, can only be implemented periodically, as it is vital that rule validity and immutability be tied to a known time horizon.

Typically this cycle involves some form and degree of ‘arms race’ that depends on the length of the competition cycle, the resources brought to bear, and the effectiveness of the wording of the regulations.

In every case the absolute key to the survival of a game is the ‘knowability’ of the rules.

Specifically, the knowability of the method used to interpret them, and the period of their validity in their current version.
If the impartial validity of the rules is in question, it will not make sense to invest in exploring them, designing to them, and ultimately taking part in the game under them.

The risk of the ‘goalposts being moved’ once one is committed, would make any serious effort to take part with a view to winning a waste of time and money.

These universal principles have given rise to institutions and procedures developed specifically to administer sports in order to strike a balance between the need to crowd the design space to keep competition interesting and the periodic mending of holes in the boundaries of said design space.
As with complex systems such as economies, knowability is vital for stability and success.

The interpretation of rules involves a hierarchy that ensures constructions (as in ‘to construe’) will be ranked in a reliably predictable order that everyone will agree on (agree, that is, on the order of interpretative methods, not the outcome).
Namely, the plain text or literal meaning always takes precedence.
Only in the case of ambiguity or patent absurdity does intent come into play.
This makes sense because the plain literal meaning is far more dependably repeatable than conjecture about the mind of whoever drafted the rule, whether they are still around or not.

There is real beauty and value in the elegance of a rule and the attendant machinery for its interpretation and maintenance.
It is rules that focus minds, channeling competitive drives into targeted refinement that can be quantified by simply looking at the finishing order.
After all, if the brief were simply “get from point A to point B before the other guy”, the best solution could be a powerboat, a plane, or a jetski, depending on the length of the course.

Even in such an absurdly simple case, boundaries would have to be identified in order to be able to make any meaningful attempt at preparation.
Things like the course distance, budget, and what the other competitors are doing, would all be used to formulate an analogue to a rule in which to work.

Even in the case of such an open challenge, one often hears that ‘the size of the shed’, human muscle power, the previous benchmark to beat, or other such constraints were identified at the initial design stage.
In any case, point A and point B are arbitrary constraints to begin with, and participation in sports is voluntary – albeit occasionally representative of real life challenges and rivalries such as competition between nations for trade routes or proficiency in technology that may have applications in defense.

In other words, like snow crystals that develop into exquisite forms after beginning the process on an airborne particle, the development process needs some starting point and some references to get going.
The best results come when an open free space is clearly defined by a goal and edge boundaries. This is true in the development of products, businesses and racing vehicles.

Planned economies, where an enlightened elite arbitrarily permits certain things and bans others, have consistently failed. Even if the rulers act in good faith, the outcomes are both distorted and demotivating to wood-be competitors.
Societies where rules are clearly defined and consistently applied give rise through real progress through competition and collaboration.

At the risk of delving too deep into philosophical niceties, I want to share this fascination with the mechanism that forges the expressions of our creativity.

By happy accident, good class rules gave us the elegance of the IACC boats, the power of IMOCA 60s, the efficiency of Marbleheads, and the sheer speed of the development skiff classes.

The open wheel tradition of F1, through countless cycles of radical innovation and corresponding tightening of the design space, generated the look that we associate with fast racing cars today.

Similarly, the ‘happy accident’ of the monohull constraint gave us the ‘T foil’ Moth that, combined with heel to windward, spawned a genuinely new way to resolve the major forces in a sailboat.

In all cases, rules with a known time horizon of applicability and a reliable method of interpretation were instrumental.

Always scrutinised by those interested in maximizing performance, and always construed in the knowable hierarchy: literally first and foremost.

Creativity excels thanks to the structure provided by rules.

There is something beautiful and exhilarating in an elegant solution that discovers a new point within a space bound by wording that was penned by another – Another whose intent could not foresee that particular point in the space being originally defined.
And that is how it should be since nobody today can predict the progressive solutions that competitors will invent in the future. So all we can do today is define the space and let future minds play in it, then marvel at the new places they will discover.


* Think of the design space as all points on a graph that lie between axis representing the parametres controlled by a rule.
In the case of a simple rule where length and sail area are mandated, there would be two axes. Sail area would be on one axis and length on the other.
If permitted length were 10 to 10.5m, and sail area 20 to 25 m^2, the design space would be every point on the plain defined by the two axis between the values of 10 and 10.5m on the length axis and 20 to 25 m^2 on the sail area axis.
If a hypothetical rule also controlled displacement, then the design space could be represented by adding a third axis orthogonal to the first two.
Now the design space becomes three dimensional.
The space would be bound by a prism with a cross section equal to the area defined by permitted length and sail area values, and a length equal to permitted displacement values.
A boat with dimensions equal to the middle values for the three permitted ranges would be said to be sitting in the middle of the design space.
A boat with max length, max sail area and max displacement would be up against the edge of the design space.
If more than three parametres are restricted by a rule, the rule space becomes an abstract multidimensional one.
But the principle remains the same: each boat that ‘measures’ in the rule corresponds to one point in relation to each of the measurement parametres.


IACC Rule Space – Image credit: Unknown

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