Chicken Creek

Real-World Simulation “Chicken Creek” – An Experimental and Natural Site

The object in question is an artificial water catchment. Chicken Creek is a constructed natural site, a small hill several hectars large with an altitude difference of approximately 10m and a small lake at the deepest part of the site. It is situated in a former strip-mining area in North-Eastern Germany close to Cottbus. To avoid the typical problems of such sites (strong soil and water acidification due to pyrite oxidation) the substrate of the catchment was taken from sandy accumulations. This sand heap constitutes an ecosystem in its own right. “With the end of the construction work ('point zero' of the ecosystem development) in the Fall of 2005 the first measuring devices were installed, in order to document the initial state of the system as well as to study the genesis of structures” (1).

The overall hypothesis of the project is that “the initial ecosystem development phase determines the later state of ecosystems”. The water catchment Chicken Creek is an experimental system that is expected to allow for a closer analysis of the role of physical, chemical and biological parameters and of how they develop and interrelate in different states of the system. It is an artificial system that was designed to study the characteristics of natural systems. Therefore this system is a specific kind of field experiment that abolishes the carefully maintained spatial separation between an experimental system and the natural system, features of which it is supposed to represent. The artificial water catchment exhibits its own performance parameters and invites the discovery of causal dependencies between different parameters. It does not require an understanding of the way in which it represents “real” water catchments, since the Chicken Creek is quite real enough to substitute for any real system with which it shares dynamic properties. The Chicken Creek is first of all a “real-world simulation” and becomes only in a second step a simulation in silico when the system is represented in a computer model.

The real-world simulation is a conception that originates in the acknowledgement of a paradox that is based on two ideals of experimentation. The laboratory ideal involves the design of well-controlled experimental systems in a, literally, closed space and it aims at general propositions. It allows for the production of failures without taking risks for society and environment. In contrast, the field ideal acknowledges the complexity, blurred boundaries and unpredictable response to interventions. This raises the following dilemma: On the one hand the field experiment is supposed to apply consolidated, proven knowledge that yields reliable technology. On the other hand, the very application of such knowledge usually implies new technological designs and scales, environmental conditions and organizational settings, which have not been explored and therefore may lead to surprises. In respect to the notion of „society as a laboratory“ (2) this was conceptualized with an eye to technological innovation, such as the implementation of technological prototypes (e.g. nuclear power plants). Subsequently, the concept „real-world experiment“ (3) was developed in order to capture the individual character of innovation experiments as well as the fact that scientists nevertheless expect results to be generalizable and transferable to other projects (e.g. to restoration projects). The knowledge acquired in such projects often takes the form of an expertise that merges scientific background knowledge with experience gathered by observing the particular case. Both, real-world experiments and real-world simulations combine features of the lab-ideal and the field-ideal, and they thus connect instances of generalization and instances of individualization and valueladenness (4).

The Chicken Creek is a paradigmatic case of this kind of conceptual merging and of mixed practices. It is a technoscientific object in the proper sense: it gathers together theoretical knowledge, instruments, skills, and purposes. The artificial water catchment system was designed artificially, but it is treated as a natural system. It exhibits its own performance parameters and is thus a real-world simulation. It is an attractive object for scientists and it is unique. It pursues the lab-ideal of total experimental control in a field experiment, and finally it is a high-tech object. While science secures objects in the representation of facts, technoscience affords things through assemblage.

  1. Transregional Collaborative Research Centre SFB/TRR 38: „Structures and processes of the initial ecosystem development phase in an artificial water catchment“, http://www.tu-cottbus.de/sfb_trr/eng/index.htm.
  2. Krohn, W., J. Weyer (1994). Real-life experiments: Society as a laboratory: the social risks of experimental research. Science and Public Policy 21: 173-183
  3. Gross, M., H. Hoffmann-Riem, W. Krohn (2005). Realexperimente: Ökologische Gestaltungsprozesse in der Wissensgesellschaft. Bielefeld: Transcript
  4. Schwarz, A., W. Krohn (2011). Experimenting with the concept of experiment: probing the epochal break. In: A. Nordmann, H. Radder & G. Schiemann (eds), Science transformed? Debating claims of an Epochal Break. Pittsburgh Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press (in press)