Moving Beyond the Nexus of Calamities with Systemic Creativity and Cooperation

@mohamed hassan, taken with an unknown camera 07/25 2020. The image is released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0.

At the heart of public discourse there is a common desire to improve standard of living and increase happiness. How humanity should get there is often the subject of tense and vitriolic debate. Technology, however, always seems to be on the cusp of creating a world in which these dreams manifest themselves. Today is no different. Today there are amazing advances happening in the fields of medicine, materials, power generation, computation, AI, space exploration, etc. These advances in science, technology and engineering have the potential to improve our standard of living and increase happiness by improving accessibility to essentials, creating healthier communities, and building better living conditions.

In short, the future should be marvelous! In this techno-utopian future every city and town we visit should be filled with architectural marvels, beautiful works of art should fill our common spaces, and all people should have the luxury of participation. Unfortunately this technical march to utopia does not happen within a vacuum. Technology develops within a context of global, social, and economic happenings. Within our modern world, this context consists of several major happenings. Each one appears to be taking on its own shape and growing like oncoming waves. What’s more is that these waves appear to be coming together, amplifying each other, making separate changes into a much larger change.

These happenings, each one in themselves capable of driving change historically, are coming upon us all at once in a sort of ‘nexus of calamitous circumstances’. The three circumstances which together seem to have the strongest amplification effect are :

  • Climate Change
  • Economic Disparity
  • Maturation of the Internet

As these three circumstances take shape they are likely to have significant impacts on our social, economic, and organizational systems. In order to continue pushing agendas which increase our collective standards of living and happiness, we should look to build systems that not only survive, but thrive in uncertain situations. Taking some tricks from the complex art of software architecture, we see a path towards decentralization that will enable the sort of inclusive participation needed. This path will generate and realize creative solutions to this unique and systemically impactful, ‘nexus of calamitous circumstances’.

Climate Change

Climates across the globe are changing in what appear to be permanent ways. At a minimum, the changes in annual precipitation and sea level will have wide ranging effects on human organizations in terms of settlement patterns. From a strictly resource point of view, changes in annual precipitation will change patterns of agriculture. For instance in the American midwest, reductions in rainfall have prompted farmers to dig deeper wells to irrigate crops. This solution is likely unsustainable as the aquifers begin to deplete. Eventually, farming operations will need to be established elsewhere to maintain output.

Water scarcity and sea level rise will also contribute to these migrations and resulting changes to our societies. Today there are areas of the American west which are drawing too much water for reservoirs to be replenished, like Las Vegas. Eventually this water scarcity will require people to migrate to other locations. Sea level rise has a potentially much larger impact on future migrations. With 40% of the global population living within 100km of the coast, there may be a very significant number of people displaced by rising sea levels.

Economic Disparity

At the same time the economies of the world have produced, according to some measures, the largest disparity in wealth since the French Revolution. In the United States today the bottom 40% own less capital than the bottom 40% did preceding the French Revolution and the top 20% own more capital respectively. In terms of our global economic systems there are two main issues with this situation. For one, 40% of people struggle to pay rent, don’t have the time or energy to participate in democracy, and cannot participate as consumers within global markets. This creates a situation where lower income groups cannot afford the technologically driven advancements being made. With so much of the global population unable to spend time learning and educating their youth, the pool of talent to lead and drive forward change for tomorrow comes from a relatively tiny pool of the wealthy educated. This creates a lack of opportunity or certainly a perceived lack of opportunity. This combination creates an alienated class of people with few options. In terms of the overall global economy it also means that many people are financially unable to participate or through alienation, unwilling, which reduces the consumption which currently drives our economies.

Maturation of the Internet

In the past, maturation of new communication methods have led to dramatic changes in the structure of our society and organizations. Today we are at a tipping point similar to that seen by other revolutions which were driven by widespread adoption of communication and transportation advances. Those include such technologies as writing, roads, the printing press, cars, telegraph, radio, and television. These technologies and resulting social systems tend to follow a pattern of systemic change. The changes are adopted, grow to universal acceptance, social structures grow around them, and all aspects of society form around the increased productivity of new communication. As the newly established systems grow to their holding capacity, they begin to deteriorate, they become rigid and obstinate. As the systems based on old technologies become rigid and obstinate, organizations which embrace new communications and the resulting organizational structures replace the old with sweeping efficiency.

In and of itself, social changes driven by adoption of communication methods do not seem like a negative thing. However, it’s important to note that the adoption of these technologies usually comes from groups desperate to gain some advantage. Amazon was certainly an outsider within the retail industry, but their embrace of new technology and organization has led to a completely different retail landscape. More threateningly, armies which can harness new technologies and organizational structures can trample their opposition and impose new structures. For instance, the German ability to orchestrate combined arms at the beginning of WWII led to the quick collapse of nations such as Poland and France. The ability will be leveraged by someone. And that group is not necessarily a fan of inclusivity or human advancement.

Preparation for uncertainty

In software engineering there is an adage called “Conway’s Law”.

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure

  • Melvin E. Conway ( 1967 )

Basically this means that our systems end up mimicking our organizational structure. If a company has an accounting team and an inventory team, you will end up with one software system for accounting and one for inventory. This adage is often taken to go both ways. In other words, an organization’s communication structures will be based on the software systems that they use. For instance a mainframe accounting system will reinforce an organization centered around that accounting system.

Also in software, architectural patterns are a fractal. In other words, the same concepts hold at all levels. For instance, well designed software will use a concept called modularity. If software is modular it will be created from reusable components. At the application level these components are called functions or methods. At the systems level this modularity is called services. An organization that is based around this modular architecture will have teams that are more or less self contained and can work on different services across lines of business. When we look at the relation between software and organizational structures we can, with some amount of hubris, also use the same concept to look more broadly about society. What happens when we apply the concepts of software architecture to the ‘nexus of calamitous circumstances’?

Well for starters simply look at how software projects are planned. Given the diaspora of approaches to planning software it may be more accurate to say, one approach to how software projects are planned. In project development it is a given that the specifics of the future are impossible to know. Obviously that limits what we can plan for and change today. But there are certain generalities which we can predict.

For instance in a software project we know that the bosses want feature x, y, or z — but almost every feature starts out as some amorphous blob of an idea. It can take a significant amount of time to refine those vague ideas into something that can be developed into functioning software. And it takes even more time to make that functioning software into the thing that the bosses had ‘envisioned’. When faced with the knowledge that things must change, but we don’t know specifically what that change will be, there is a general approach which can help us prepare for massive change.

  1. Focus on what you know
  • It can be tempting to read too much into the noise surrounding a new idea, but the known must be separated from the unknown in order to make any anticipatory plans. Failure to do so will result in creating unnecessary solutions. Ya Ain’t Gonna Need It ( YAGNI ).

2. Figure out your needs

  • Conduct analysis to determine if the current system can or cannot support the highest probability changes. What is needed to address what is known?

3. Determine solutions for those needs

  • Once it is determined what you need, you can determine what changes must happen to fill that need. This can take the form of decoupling dependencies or building general foundational elements.

4. Be aware of phase transitions and turbulence

  • Making changes for vague futures will result in many wrong solutions. So the approach to the solution is inherently iterative. Additionally, if we are following good principles of software architecture any of the interim solutions developed should be modular and applicable, in function or in knowledge, to a variety of solutions.

How do we apply this approach to the nexus of calamitous circumstances? According to the IPCC via NY Times we know the climate will change. Unfortunately there isn’t much that can be done to prepare for that because we don’t know how, specifically it will change. Ie, will my house be underwater or in a perpetual drought? All we can tell today is that there is a certainty that the future will not be the same as today. Or in the case of the internet, the present system of identity, verification, and privacy is clearly broken. There are a variety of threats to personal data. These threaten to undermine the very foundation of the way that people are identified today. Ie, with so many data breaches to date, a SSN and Birthdate is an essentially useless identifier as they are a known commodity for almost everyone. As those pieces of information are currently essential for things such as getting passports or getting a loan, we can tell with certainty that the system will change. But today we don’t know what that change will be. We just know that the system has to change.

Knowns

Taking the approach above, what do we know? Well, we know that changes will happen for starters. And we can look a bit into what it means when systems change. There are a variety of models and thoughts about how and why systems change, particularly social systems.

One such model of systemic change comes from complex systems theory. In particular there is a model called ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ which has been applied to various fields including ecology, finance, and organizational behavior. Complex Adaptive Systems brings in a concept called ‘Reorganization’ which provides an actionable hook. The cycle of an adaptive system passes through four major phases. Those are ‘Exploitation’, ‘Conservation’, ‘Release’, and ‘Reorganization’. After each ‘Reorganization’ cycle the system is created new, but the system retains some similarities to the previous structure. A pretty straight forward example is the growth of a forest. Within an empty area with adequate rainfall and appropriate soil types tree seedlings will exploit the environment and grow (exploitation). That forest will act to conserve and build the accumulated resources. Then in some sort of event such as a fire, the accumulated resources within the forest will be released. Following that quick release, the forest will reorganize and become a different system than existed previously. However, many of the same species will exist within the new ecosystem.

We also know that most large organizations are slow to change and adapt. However, they can be structured to be adaptive and make it part of their fabric. For instance there are companies known for their incredible rate of innovation and creativity such as Google, Amazon, or old school Hewlett Packard. Simplistically stated in terms of the CAS approach, they embrace the reorganization phase of the cycle. Or in tribal societies there is a recognition of how structures change when they grow. Tribal societies tend to split once they have reached a certain population. This helps to maintain specific structures within the group and recognizes that something must change to maintain those structures.

The last thing we know is that people will continue to exist. In cases such as the Anaszi or Easter Islanders, we don’t know where they went, but when faced with a disastrous change in local climate the people left. In our global society people will not disappear, they will migrate when food and water is not available. This has the consequence of both increasing migration and also it precludes the possibility of creating ‘green field’ cities and structures. Efforts to create cities and systems out of thin air such as The City of Telosa fail to recognize that people will be bringing their own social structures into these planned architectures. The mismatch between people and their environment makes these ‘green field’ efforts to enforce designed systemic changes fail.

So we know that change is coming, we know that it is possible for organizations to be adaptive, we know that this change will happen within the context of our currently existing social systems, and we know that large migrations of people will become more common.

Needs

Given these knowns, what do we need in order to improve standards of living and increase happiness?

Since so many possible changes are unknown, we will need to be adaptable in order to implement real solutions that address the issues. These will likely be novel solutions rather than extensions of corporate pet projects that have been feeding at the government pork barrel for decades. We need organizations that can be adaptable as well as stable. These organizations should be able to identify and complete projects that are both novel and consequential.

Given the likelihood that change will involve large movements of people and that they will integrate into previously existing social structures, these organizations should be able to continue operating with a variable number of participants.

Since the circumstances we are looking at involve broad geography and large numbers of people, it is likely that our solutions will need to be large. We will need organizations that are capable of completing large scale projects.

In order to thrive within a period of rapid change, we will need to modify our social and organizational systems such that they encourage the creative participation of as many people as possible, permit cooperation to manifest large projects, and can operate in a scale variant fashion.

Solve for those needs

Scale variant organizations must be decentralized. In the software world, open source projects are decentralized. There is typically a very small core of project leaders and that small core can leverage the efforts of a large influx of developers. When the project is no longer cool enough to attract the free work done by engineers many of these projects will fail, but some of them can keep on working and creating new releases, albeit at a slower pace. Those are scale variant organizations and the decentralized approach is a key component of that approach. In addition, decentralization puts the decision making capabilities into the hands of those who are most knowledgeable about what is happening.

To use the language of complexity theory, expertise is scale dependent. And, ironically, the more complex the world becomes, the more the role of macro-deciders “empty suits” with disproportionate impact should be reduced: we should decentralize (so actions are taken locally and visibly), not centralize as we have been doing.

Organizations must structure to be adaptive. One thing that successful innovation companies have in common is their ability to be adaptive. Adaptive in the sense that they anticipate the destructive cycles of ‘release’ and ‘reorganization’. Those cycles are leveraged to provide fertile ground for creativity and cooperation within the organization.

If we approach modifying our systems to maximize the above then we will maximize adaptability, resilience, and leverage the exciting technical capabilities of the present to improve our standard of living and increase happiness

Conclusion / Hypothesis

Change is unstoppable. Current systems are unable to support the existing load and will clearly cause harm to humanity in the face of significant change. So how do we make our systems more resilient? We should look to systemically enable human potential to improve creativity and cooperation.

The resolution to this change will be systemic. Our social and economic systems will change. The trouble is, that since the precise outcomes of the changes aren’t known, there aren’t precise anticipatory solutions. To add fuel to that fire, one of the features of human organizational systems is that they are resistant to change. Change is typically only adopted due to desperation, either the desperation of a failed system or an organization seeking to grow. Those of us within the IT world have seen on a smaller scale how resistant systems are to significant change. Think of a piece of software that is well past its usefulness — in almost all circumstances the decision is to make changes to these systems rather than develop a more modern solution. This is why so many places make patchwork half-measured changes to fragile legacy platforms to keep pace with changing business needs.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Systems can be changed in an anticipatory fashion. And those systems can be designed to have certain qualities. We should seek to adapt our organizations and social systems to enable human potential to improve creativity and cooperation. What we need is resiliency and adaptability — the ability for our systems to change without becoming stagnant and collapsing. We need for our systems to allow the bottom up engagement of all people and inclusion of their creative solutions to our upcoming problems. We need to design our systems such that people can cooperate effectively to realize those creative solutions.

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