growing pains....

I guess the name speaks for its self.

growing pains....

Postby Andrea on Thu Nov 25, 2010 4:27 pm

It's finally arrived! After months and months of waiting for this program, it's finally going to be broadcast tonight on BBC radio 4 at 8:30 PM!!

it's got some of my favourite thinkers on it:

John Kay - Economist and Author, Obliquity

Andrew Simms - Policy Director, New Economics Foundation

Hal Gilmore and Ben Brangwyn - Transition Towns Network

Professor Tim Jackson - Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey and Author: Prosperity Without Growth

coincidentally, I just finished writing today the first draft of the final resource for T214 Block 2:

Four models of organisation

Keywords: hierarchical architectures; egalitarian architectures; individualistic architectures; fatalistic architectures.

In the previous resource, you were introduced to two distinct models of organisation: the hierarchical 'star' configuration; and the egalitarian 'ring' configuration. There are in fact another two system architectures that are in frequent use when systems attempt to manage their environment. During your studies of Block 1, there was an almost exclusive focus on scale-free networks. In these networks, we don't have nodes rigidly arranged hierarchically, or links strictly distributed equally amongst nodes, but nodes which make or break links as they see fit. This rather individualistic behaviour is characteristic of system architectures such as the Internet, the 'free market' and a wide variety of systems that you were introduced to in Barabási's 'Linked' (Barabási, 2003). The fourth popular architecture is in fact, not much of an architecture at all. This is where nodes have very weak links, as opposed to the distinctive links of the other architectures. In this case, the nodes manifest limited coordinated behaviour, each node doing its own thing while sharing very little with other nodes. An example from the human domain is the fatalistic individual who believes that "life is like a lottery". Fatalistic individuals see the world as doing things to them without them being able to do anything to the world. Examples of such behaviour also abound in nature, where some seeds can lie dormant in the soil for years, if not decades, waiting for the right conditions to emerge.

In the previous resource unit, strong justifications were made for the advantages of creating shared, egalitarian architectures for tackling wicked problems. However, it is clear that the other architectures (hierarchical, individualistic, and fatalist) are encountered just as frequently. Which is the best approach then? Well, it all depends on the environmental conditions. If you have a stable, predictable environment, then a hierarchical architecture is ideal. The transformation of predictable inputs from the environment into outputs by the system can be efficiently maximised by having highly specialised, unchanging roles arranged in a pyramidal structure, where higher-level nodes monitor and control the behaviour of lower-level nodes. However, in a rapidly changing environment which has the potential to make use of new opportunities, then an individualistic architecture is favoured. Here, individual autonomy allows the rapid evolution of a high diversity of initiatives, some of which are able to outcompete other less successful systems, and as a result, dominate resource use in the environment. In situations where new resources are constantly being made available within the environment, this architecture results in few long-term losers as nodes backing less successful systems can be incorporated into growing networks or can try their luck in new emerging opportunities. The crucial point here is that individualistic architectures are heavily reliant on an expanding resource base for their survival. It is no coincidence that the market-led capitalist paradigm is almost entirely reliant on individualistic architectures. Capitalism, and associated market-based individualistic architectures, can only survive within an expanding economy and with rapid technological progress, thus replenishing the environment with new resource opportunities. Without economic growth and technological innovation, human activity systems based on individualistic architectures will collapse.

The egalitarian architecture works best when you are faced with a highly dynamic, unpredictable situation, but where resources are finite. With limited resources, an individualistic approach, characterised by high levels of failures, will be perceived as being extremely inefficient (and in human activity systems, deeply unfair). With unpredictable and complex resource dynamics, a hierarchical approach, characterised by its rigidity in role specialisation, would not be able to adapt as well as an egalitarian system, as demonstrated by the Bavelas experiment outlined in Resource 5.2. Although the transaction costs of communication within an egalitarian architecture are high, their superior ability to thrive within complex, resource limited environments bring distinct advantages to individualistic and hierarchical networks. Fatalistic architectures, on the other hand, maximise system viability when resources are almost totally depleted. In these circumstances, any organising effort would expend resources which won't be replenished readily. The best approach in this case is to hunker down and lie low. At this point, you may want to briefly go back to the visions of the future (Star Trek, Big Government, Ecotopia, and Mad Max) which you encountered in Activity 2A, and identify which system architectures each vision can be mapped onto.

Of course, all of these four distinct system architectures have an element of 'self-fulfilling prophecy' about them. A hierarchical system will do its best to modify its environment so as to produce stable and predictable inputs. An individualistic system will invest heavily on innovation in order to expand resource limits. An egalitarian system would strive very hard to live within existing means, possibly to the detriment of new individualistic initiatives which would be seen to reduce resource availability for other nodes within the system. A fatalistic system, by promoting uncooperative and disengaged behaviour, would never be able to escape from its desperate environment. Through these attempts to create environments after their own image, each system architecture sows the seeds of its own destruction. For example, an individualistic system will overexploit its current environmental resources in the total belief that new resources will be around the corner. In the case of human activity systems, it is common for distinct architectures to only see within the environment those aspects that benefit that particular architecture, only realising that the environment itself has changed when it is too late.

Groups like the 'Impossible Hamster Club' [ ] believe that the current individualistic paradigm dominating society is totally oblivious to the resource limits of the Earth system, and that a collapse is imminent. The renowned systems philosopher Ervin Laszlo states that we have a choice: ecological breakdown or social breakthrough. He believes that we are at a critical tipping point from which we will either fall into global collapse or experience worldwide renewal. I personally believe that there is cause for optimism.

As social, economic and environmental problems converge and escalate to create increasingly desperate conditions for humanity, it is possible that individualistic architectures for organising human activity systems will be increasingly replaced by egalitarian architectures. Exactly how these new architectures will evolve, and how these will incorporate systems approaches to resolving wicked problems, cannot be imposed by any single individual, but will emerge as the result of the contribution of all participants.
esse sequitur operari
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