Written and updated since 1992. Updated Oct. 2014.
People Preoccupied with Protecting their assumed Prerogatives (PPPP) at the top of hierarchies use Manipulative Knowing for Predicting and Control of their hierarchical organisational systems. The Power of PPPP is zero sum. If someone gets more power, others get less (refer authentic authority).
This paper explores a very different phenomenon, namely, Self-organising Systems (SoS). Often, PPPP type people cannot see SoS when it is right in front of their eyes. If they do see it they will attempt to subvert it or impose their control on it.
SoS regularly occur in both the natural life world and the social life world. The paper provides some examples of SoS from both worlds, as well as outlining some of the ways one may identify and engage with SoS.
In SoS in the social life world people tend to use a Relational Knowing that has nothing to do with wanting to control through predicting. Coherence and coherent order emerge naturally in the relating of the parties in relation.
It has been long observed in natural systems that the dynamic nature of a system may have a tendency to increase inherent and coherent order in a system. Camerzine writes:
‘Self-organising systems are physical and biological systems in which pattern and structure at the global level arise solely from interactions among lower-level components of the system. The rules specifying interactions among the system’s components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern (2011).’
The paper includes an example of an SoS within a workshop process at a Conference Festival called ConFest.
Aspects of Self-organising Systems in the Natural Life World
o Aspects in nature tend to coalesce naturally into systems
o It is possible to identify what could be termed ‘organising’ within natural systems
o Natural systems typically have structure and process that are ordered, with system parts fitting together, and as such, possessing the quality of ‘being organised’. An example - river systems draining huge areas of a continent – the survival of the fitting
o Huge natural systems are typically extremely dynamic with constant changes, while still maintaining a coherent over-all order – for example, dynamic change in river systems - rivers changing course during floods, and dynamic ever changing river deltas extend into the ocean
o ‘Organising’ emerges from happenings to myriads of system properties that are cohering together in increasing the likelihood of other happenings in naturally occurring contexts; emergent properties, patterns, and repeated patterns in nature, naturally combining aspects and symbiosis
o One example of an oft-repeated natural system pattern is gravity and land topography based water flow occurring on the oft repeated three primary landforms: main ridge, primary ridge and primary valley
o There is an abundance of ‘stacked’ possibilities in the billions of droplets of water randomly falling on the constraints of the three primary landforms
o Random falling drops of rain ‘self-organise’ in response to gravity – random events within the constraints of local context - either this side or that side of the main ridge – landing on pervious or non-pervious rock, or flowing over compacted or non-compacted soil, either soaking into the earth and seeping to lower levels to emerge as springs, or running overland to runoff into creeklets, creeks, streams and river systems, and then into river mouths, estuaries or deltas that tend to start repeating the pattern out into the ocean. And through all of this some water is evaporating off into the air again – a few simple salient aspects influencing complex systems and their outcomes
The Flow of rivers into the sea. This pattern is repeated in trees - the top-end branches.
Bottom-end roots - Fluid distribution systems
o SoS typically entail many differentiated aspects; pattern, structure, process, and metaprocess (the process of the process)
o These aspects, structures and process are typically simultaneously interrelated, interconnected, and interdependent; this quality may be termed ‘connexity’
o One requires what may be termed ‘connexity perception’ to sense connexity in natural systems – connexity perception is a capacity that few seem to have, though one may evolve competence in connexity perceiving
o With connexity perception one may notice, attend to, and realise the significance of a few simple salient aspects influencing complex natural SoS and their outcomes (Berlow, 2010)
SoS Occurring Naturally in People Systems
SoS occur naturally in people systems and may be fostered and enabled (supported to be more able as SoS).
Social SoS have many of the aspects of SoS that occur in nature. It follows that one may use biomimicry (mimicking nature) in understanding social SoS.
Some aspects of social SoS:
o SoS in social interaction are organised - though organised very differently from top-down imposed organisation - where the privileged few organise and control the many
o With SoS, organising aspects distributed through the total SoS are contributing in sometimes difficult to predict ways in organising form, structure, process, and emerging outcomes
o Often these organising aspects have authentic authority rather than zero-sum authority
o Proponents of imposed top-down organisation typically are dismissive of SoS - describing SoS as ‘not organised’, or ‘not organised properly’ - and as a natural consequence, such proponents typically have little interest in, or knowledge of SoS
o A typical aspect of top-down imposed organisation is that it is pre-ordinate - being organisationally determined in advance - and participants use a manipulative type knowing so as to endeavour to increase prediction and control. SoS organising tends to be more emergent, with those involved using relational type knowing for better fitting to increase emergence and for tapping into and freely utilising the wisdom and knowing within system members; the formal system may restrict who can pass information and who can receive information. Recall Camerzine’s observations mentioned above:
‘Self-organising systems.....pattern and structure at the global level arise solely from interactions among lower-level components of the system. The rules specifying interactions among the system’s components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern (2011).’
SoS emerging in hierarchical imposed organisation do not reference the ‘global pattern’ imposed from above. Actions are guided by the local context. Like in SoS in nature, things that work tend to be repeated and become organic policy. SoS may have its own ‘rules’; refer the ASIC example below. Most action is spontaneously appropriate to the moment following principles as guides to action.
o Members of SoS operating within the constraints of top-down organisation:
o tend to make use of any redundancy in the total organisation
o make use of any informal organisation, including ‘grapevines’
o engage covertly in plain view; typically SoS is not noticed by ‘power over’ controllers
o bypass organisational constraints on communication flow
o makes use of informal though restricted membership social networking
o have informal shared understandings as to who receives communications
o Emergence is one way complex self organising systems, system processes, and patterns arise out of a multiple relatively simple interactions
o Emergent acts by folk engaging in SoS may constitute integrated ‘levels’ and ‘matrices’ (weblike networks) in complex SoS systems - what happens by a few self-starters may be ‘picked up’ and used by the many in a SoS
o Things that work may be passed on in networks as rumours and adapted to new contexts
o Some folk naturally engage with SoS without any particular consciousness of process
Some Examples of SoS in Social Contexts in Everyday Life
SoS may emerge within traditional top-down imposed organisational systems. For example, within the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) there spontaneously emerged three sets of informal professional information sharing networks within ASIC staff, namely among those with police investigation backgrounds, those with legal backgrounds, and those with Public Service Administrative backgrounds. There was cooperation outside of formal channels in information transfer within these three different networks. People were comfortable with and trusted the people within their respective networks. However, there was no inter-group informal information transfer. People within these three respective networks would never share information with people in the other two networks. These informal professional information sharing networks within ASIC were totally a self-organising phenomenon and taking place informally outside of the formal organisation procedures and rules.
To explore another example, even within all of the road rules, the flow of traffic may shift between a SoS, a rule-based, or a context-driven organising process depending on traffic volume.
Politicians talk incessantly about ‘running’ the economy. What actually happens in the economy is the combined result of millions of individual buying, selling, saving, investing decisions and actions - actions by millions of people often acting irrationally based upon a whim; the concerted actions of advertisers, the nebulous ‘consumer confidence’, and myriads of other factors. The economy is essentially a SoS that politicians, reserve bank officials and other powerbrokers endeavour to have top-down organisational influence and control over, and they tend to have little understanding of SoS.
Engaging with and Supporting the Emergence of Wellbeing in SoS
SoS are typically already present in social systems – the challenge is to notice the SoS process – connexity perceiving.
Another challenge is how to support the process in ways that doesn’t collapse the SoS process; important aspects are looking for:
o Self organising that is already happening
o Informal structure and order operating outside of any formal structure and/or formal process
o The significance of a few simple salient aspects influencing complex natural SoS and their outcomes (Berlow, 2010)
o System parts fitting together – the survival of the fitting
o People networking outside of formal arrangements and channels for making things happen
o Dynamic changes occurring while still maintaining a coherent over-all order in the self-organising
o ‘Organising’ emerging from happenings to myriads of system aspects
o People energy cohering in ‘determining’ happenings in naturally occurring contexts
o Emergent properties, patterns, and repeated patterns
o Naturally combining aspects.
o A few simple salient aspects influencing complex systems and their outcomes
o Social phenomena that have metaphorical similarities to natural phenomena – e.g. free energy in the social system – akin to gravity (an example is a number of folk with a passion for something being self starters in engaging in informal action; for example, the three different networks in ASIC
o People’s passions and interests tending to coalesce around themes that are conducive to coherence
o What happens by a few self-starters being ‘picked up’ and used by the many in a SoS
o Things that work being passed on in networks as rumours and adapted to new contexts
o Folk naturally engaging with SoS without any particular consciousness of process
o Opportunity to stack possibilities for the emergence of SoS
o Aspects, structures and process that are typically simultaneously interrelated, interconnected, and interdependent using ‘connexity’ perceiving
o Contexts for cultivating connexity perception so as to be able to sense connexity in systems – looking for inter-connecting and inter-relating and inter-depending - and all of these aspects being linked to informal social processes
o System aspects that are informally organised via grapevines and rumours networks passing on rumours of what works
o Organising aspects distributed through the total system of systems or within sub-sections
o SoS contributing in sometimes difficult to notice and unpredictable ways in organising form, structure, process, and emerging outcomes
o Top-down organisation types dismissing Self-Organising Systems aspects as being ‘not organised’ or ‘not organised properly’
o System aspects that are self-organising such that imposers want to shut down SoS or bring SoS under top-down direction and control, and want to impose people to be ‘in charge’ of SoS action; people who will tell other people involved in SoS what to do, and plan and decide what they do
o SoS action where those involved are using relational type knowing for better fitting to increase emergence and tapping into and utilising the wisdom and knowing within system members and are not using the manipulating type knowing of the controllers
o Ways whereby complex SoS arise out of a multiple relatively simple interactions
o SoS action that is constituting integrated ‘levels’ and ‘matrices’ (weblike networks)
One of the major potential limiting factors in supporting SoS is typically, one’s pervasive socialisation within the reality of the dominant top-down system imposed organisation.
Supporting the Emergence of SoS - Without Collapsing SoS
There is a mass of aspects of SoS that may be noticed, and gently and subtly engaged in to support the emergence of SoS - without collapsing SoS.
Some of these aspects:
o Increasing awareness of awareness of being in the world with others
o Increasing finesse in connexity perceiving
o Setting up contexts rich with possibilities
o Setting up masses of wellbeing possibilities
o Connecting and relating and passing on what’s happening
o Going to places with increased chance of connecting and relating with others, especially significant others in SoS terms – networkers, nodal people and self starters
o Increasing the use of the passive voice in internal dialogue, and in conversing with others, as in ‘things may happen’, rather than ‘you can/will do this for me’
o Use of softeners as in ‘may’, ‘perhaps’
o Surrendering to SoS and going with the flow
o There is a pervasive positive feel good vibe that pervades SoS in full flight
ConFest is a campout conference-festival now ran by Down to Earth Victoria Inc. that was first held out of Canberra, Australia in 1976. The central and abiding theme of ConFest is ‘exploring ways of evolving and sustaining community and alternative lifestyles’. The people who energised the first few ConFests well knew that the processes for setting up ConFest were as important, or even more important than ConFest itself, as working out how to work together in community was an essential by-product of the site set-up process. The following segment briefly outlines an example of a SoS at ConFest, which demonstrates that it’s possible to mimic nature (biomimicry) in processes supporting the emergence of SoS.
A few Examples:
o CB Radios mounted on poles in villages and around 80 CB radios carried by the core group mean that they is a continual stream of happenings that everyone in the core group is hearing so if anyone asks where a star picket driver is a few locations are given by those in the know. Things keep changing and we are all linked into the changing flux and flow of SoS; each night the core group eat and talk together so that everyone hears the days happenings and shares in tomorrow’s doings
o Recall the 17 themes relating to visiting DTE Sites. Every one of them relates to enriching SoS with community
During Easter 2011 there were 671 workshops (one, two, or three hour in length) held over the five days of the gathering. During the Easter 2013 and 2014 there were 770 and 872 workshops respectively. These were announced on the Workshop notice boards as happening at 33–33-42 prepared outdoor workshop sites. Other more informal workshops happened throughout the Site and were only advised on local area noticeboards. There were well over 7,000- 10,000 attendances at workshops during these Easter ConFests. After paying the Aus$80-100 entrance fee, all workshops are free and all workshop presenters volunteer their time. Each of these workshops were run by one, or two, or more people on a very wide range of wellbeing related themes. Some workshops were talks, some were experiential, and some were discussions - many forms. All of this massive workshop process is self-organising!
Aspects of this complex workshop SoS:
o Though it is commonly understood that workshops ‘happen’ at ConFest, the workshop process is not pre-ordinate – the whole of it is not organisationally determined in advance
o It does not involve top-down imposed organisation – though there are some that see the ‘need’ for someone to be ‘in charge’ of workshops or ‘running’ the workshop scene. Others more attuned and resonating with SoS sense that other very different and more subtler roles are fitting
o At ConFest workshops and everything to do with them emerge as a SoS
o The workshop boards and workshop spaces are two simple salient aspects of the workshop process, and these ‘emerge’ as is the way in complex natural systems
o New boards are acquired when needed and reused. Rope to erect workshop shade tarps is acquired. Chalk is acquired and put out near the workshop boards as needed - a few boxes of chalk are stashed nearby and a few know where they are
o Temporary carports have typically being used to provide shade over the workshop noticeboards and to ensure workshop information is not lost to rain. People know where the boards and carport parts are located; more recently, a large stretch tent has been used
o Some folk know how to light the workshop boards at night with batteries and inverters and some know how to recharge the batteries
o Over the years a process has been fostered whereby many folk know how the workshop boards go up just before ConFest; some know where the workshop boards and carports have been stored last ConFest; some know what capacity is available from time to time to have the boards and covering brought over; communal discussion determines where the boards will be located for ConFest; energy assembles for assembling the boards; over time a number of folk have learnt the patterns of the layout of the lines on the board; various steps are taken to ensure sufficient chalk is available
o This workshop system elements, process, and patterns arise out of a multiple relatively simple interactions between people with an interest in the theme of workshops
o Just before ConFest starts a number of people now find each other and the word goes out that at a certain time and place workshop boards and workshop tarps are being erected. A team of around six or seven are all that’s needed for either job. Only two or three need prior experience and many have formed that team over the years
o Some areas now erect their own workshop spaces such as Bliss Kitchen, Tipi Village and a few Yoga energies, and either bring their own resources or use some of DTE resources by linking in with those who know where they are
o There is a growing consciousness of selecting ideal places for workshops and what to look for, and how to have these selected before they are lost to ConFest campers
o The tarps set-up people now know where to get the tarps, ladders, and rope
o They bring along a few sharp knives. They know how to keep their knife, as knives are easily lost if placed randomly on the ground
o Originally, folk involved thought they were ‘putting up tarps’, and the shade of the tarp they were erecting would be over in a pile of dead trees. Now they know that we are ‘creating ambience, shade and useable space’ with standing room for say 180 people, and tarps are set at appropriate heights and angles to create useable shade throughout the day – it may get VERY hot during ConFest
o There is a growing knowledge of how to tie the tarps to trees and star pickets
o Typically, nine to twelve tarps are erected and the sites named
o Soon many more workshop places have been created by other ConFesters as a self-organising phenomenon – 42 places at Easter 2014
o Workshop locations and their names are put on a site map on a separate board placed near the workshop boards showing the workshop sites locations
o Within this workshop energising process, many people have got to know one another as a micro-community; and ‘common interest in the workshop process’ is the theme conducive to coherence among these people
o Once the boards are ruled and the names of workshop places are put on top of the columns, that is the signal for the SoS to go into very high gear
o Within an hour or two perhaps a hundred and fifty or more workshops are written up and, as there is space for two days of workshops, the writing up of subsequent days workshops is all self-organising during the seven days of the festival; by the end of the second day over 350 workshops had been written on the boards
o This workshop SoS is constituted by hundreds of simple salient self-organising acts by hundreds of people - emergent acts that integrate into the complex workshop Self Organising System
o ‘Love of the ConFest workshop scene’ is the permeating theme that is ‘conducive to coherence’ in all of this SoS; this Love of the ConFest workshop scene is the framing value of all of this SoS and engenders a palpable gentle energy that is very apparent to anyone that is sensitised to feel love-in-action
The ConFest Workshop process is a model SoS that sustains the original theme at the founding of ConFest, ‘exploring ways of evolving and sustaining community and alternative lifestyles’.
The workshop SoS may be adopted and adapted widely in ConFest site set up and pack away, during ConFest, and more widely in actions for social change.
Berlow, E., (2010). How Complexity Leads to Simplicity. Internet Source, sighted Dec 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_berlow_how_complexity_leads_to_simplicity.html
Camerzine, S., (2011). Self-organising Systems. Internet Source, sighted Feb 2012.