Last Modified:                                                                                                



Homepage / Publications & Opinion / Silicon.com

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Trusting People And Self-Organisation
Do you prefer control or do you put your faith in autonomy, emergent behaviour and self-determination?

I'm standing on the gantry level at Liverpool Street Station in London looking down on a sea of humanity heading home after a long hot day in the city. All these individuals share a common goal: to get on the earliest train heading home. The timing is tight between the underground trains, taxis and hurried journeys on foot, and in this hall of trains I observe as thousands of people successfully criss-cross between entry and exit gate.

The vast majority negotiate their individual routings without collision, without slowing down, and without any centralised control mechanism. They are just autonomous entities making decisions a metre or so ahead with no need of a grand plan or sight of the whole floor. For 30 minutes I stand and watch thousands complete this transition without a hitch - just the occasional slow down or stutter in their movement - and as far as I can see, just two collisions. Must be out-of-towners, I presume.

I decide to try three real time experiments. In each I attempt to traverse the station floor diagonally as this is the most difficult transition to make. The movement of people is generally pseudo-rectilinear between the 'in' and the 'out' with only a few diagonal transitions in a zigzag fashion.

In the first experiment I fix my gaze on a far point on the opposite side of the hall and set off at a moderate pace without flinching at any potential collision. Everyone in my path falters and gives way and I make it from one side to the other in record, but rather rude, time.

In the second experiment I operate in my normal mode of being willing to give way, to avoid collisions, and again I make it from one side to the other, only more politely!

In the third experiment my operating mode is one of being over-polite, to give way at every potential collision. The journey is a disaster. I have never experienced so many collisions and curses. I'm a menace on the floor creating complete confusion and disarray, and the journey is long. I don't think I'll do it again.

These empirical results seem to support, or are supported by, computer based artificial life (AL) experiments where the emergent behaviours of the game soon create a median protocol of reasonable politeness in the decision process. Observation of ant colony behaviour also reveals similarly co-operative actions with thousands of individuals supporting and leveraging the collective behaviour to the common good.

What motivated all this? Well, my day in the city has seen a systems meeting where the control freaks and lovers of centralised systems, hierarchy and prescriptive rules and behaviours won control and initiated the wasting of more time money and resources. I had been on the side of autonomy, emergent behaviour and self-determination. But the 'Not Invented Here' (NIH) brigade joined forces with the vested interests of the 'We Always Do It This Way' army to present an irresistible force against change.

Despite numerous protestations and examples of ant colonies, bees, wasps and systems built by humans, a complete lack of imagination and understanding won the day. If only I could have transported the protagonists here, to this moment and place of self-organisation.

You only have to fly over a major city or stand at a busy road traffic intersection to see self-organisation as not only reasonable but the only solution to many problems. It is a major reason for the universal failure of public transport and the domination of the car in the West and the bicycle in the East. You can engineer mass transit between major/super nodes (cities), and between some minor nodes (districts and metro stations), but then you need total freedom of action to complete the journey.

But if you have a transport system where the majority of journeys are not between, or routed via, major/super nodes, then universal autonomy quickly dominates and no amount of public transport will satisfy the need.

The same is true of internet traffic, telephone calls and the logistics of goods. When it comes to the movement of atoms and bits a 100 per cent structured, controlled and centralised distribution network is no longer possible. The world is now far too dynamic a place to sustain the old hierarchical modes of operation we inherited from a past Victorian age.

Is this all universally true? No. It does not apply to the manufacturing of jelly beans or processes where everything is known and can be proscriptive. By and large well-defined and repetitive processes lend themselves to hierarchy, control and optimisation - and they also tend to be linear by nature. It is the adaptive and chaotic, the less-well-defined we have to look out for and recognise.

And it seems that this demarcation is one that is not recognised by our business schools and systems engineering classes. Students are taught either/or, one or the other, in isolation and mostly in separate classes and/or courses. They become irrationally wed to one doctrine and unable to flip across the threshold between two or more.

More damaging still, in the literature and educational materials, there seems to be little written on the subject of the cusp - the threshold of changeover between two regimes. The balance between control and autonomy, the depth of hierarchy, the distance between decision and action are all very critical to modern business and society.

For the most part governments, organisations and individuals are discovering the cusp of change by bitter experience, by trial and error, and at huge and increasing expense. If only they could bring themselves to trust the computer models and adapt to change. And if only our schools could subsume this change and prepare tomorrow's decision makers for even more chaos.

This column was typed on my iBook at Liverpool Street Station, London after I missed my train and the next was delayed. It was despatched to silicon.com within an hour of being typed from the London-Ipswich train via my GSM phone.